French military units, including aviation and infantry, have attacked Islamist rebels in Mali since last week. The United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany pledged support, while military contingents from nearby African countries also prepared to intervene. Although many Malians appear to be welcoming the intervention so far, it is the culmination of a series of actions by France and the United States that have created a situation of no-good options for this impoverished West African country.
The French justify their intervention by warning that not only Mali but also the whole region could become the base for terrorist actions, which would affect not only Africa but Europe as well. Mali is located in the Sahel region of West Africa. However, in the wake of French intervention, Islamist fighters seized a gas production facility in Eastern Algeria, taking as hostages several score Norwegian, American, British and other employees, but freeing all Algerian employees.
First some background
A year ago, Tuaregs in Northeastern Mali had begun an armed uprising (not their first) aimed at creating a new Tuareg state, to be called Azawad, out of parts of Mali and neighboring countries, which also have large Tuareg minorities. Claiming that the Malian government was not providing the army with sufficient resources to defeat the Tuareg rebellion, junior officers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the government in March.
The coup disorganized and divided the Malian forces, allowing the rebels to make rapid advances, whereby they captured the whole of Northeastern Mali, including the famous city of Timbuktu. The Tuaregs separatist organization, the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA), had taken on as allies several militant Islamist forces, including Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa). Malian and foreign fighters from these groups rapidly moved to the front of the rebellion, taking over the cities in the Northeast, pushing the Tuareg separatist fighters aside and imposing an extremely harsh form of Sharia law on the local inhabitants.
Most people in Mali are Muslims, but practice a more liberal, Sufi-influenced form of Islam, which also incorporates local African traditions. The rebels have now imposed prohibitions on music, restrictions on women's dress and movements and other bans, while also introducing execution of adulterers, maiming of thieves and the destruction of historic tombs of Sufi saints.
NATO intervention in Libya: a catalyst
Tuareg disaffection is not new, but the rebellion got a big boost from the French and NATO attack on Libya, which resulted in the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gadaffi last year. Among other things, this allowed a vast amount of armaments and supplies from the Libyan Army to fall into the hands of the Tuareg-Islamist alliance. Many trained and experienced Tuareg officers and soldiers from Libya were now launched into Mali along with all the hardware.
U.S. involvement worsens situation
A very troubling article in Sunday's New York Times suggests a deep U.S. involvement in creating the current bloody developments. Evidently, the U.S. has provided extensive training for Malian military officers. However, many of the officers who have received this training have gone over to the rebels, taking their skills with them. Captain Sanogo, leader of the March 2011 coup, which even further destabilized the situation and opened the door for the Islamist takeover of all of Northeastern Mali, was also trained by the United States. This is a situation which could repeat itself elsewhere in Africa. Most Americans probably do not know that the United States has now got a military presence in numerous African countries, with some "boots on the ground," but many more involved in training and support missions like the one that has gone so spectacularly wrong in Mali.
When Mali got its independence from France in 1960, it was the recipient of much aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries. Especially after socialism collapsed in Europe, Mali was pressured into accepting many policies that tie it to the French economy. One of these policies is that its currency, the West African CFA Franc (also shared by other West African states most of which are former French colonies) is partly controlled by France.
Mali, like most of its neighbors, is dependent on credit from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which require, in exchange for extending credit, programs of "structural adjustment" which emphasize "free" trade, privatization and austerity.
Like other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Mali is rich in natural resources, which it provides at low cost to French and other outside corporations. In Mali's case, the major products are gold (Mali is third in Africa after South Africa and Ghana), agricultural and fisheries products. There may be major oil deposits under the Saharan sands of the North, currently controlled by the Islamist insurgents.
Mali's neighbor, Niger, has major uranium deposits on which France relies for a large proportion of its energy needs. This was the famous "yellowcake" uranium ore, which manipulated by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, played a major role in providing a pretext for the Iraq war.
Yet Mali (population 15 million) is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its per capita Gross Domestic Product is about $1,200 per year and its infant mortality rate is over 100 infant deaths annually per thousand live births. The literacy level is a little more than 30 percent, with all these things being worse in the barren northeast.
On top of all this comes a major problem of climate change: The Sahara Desert is relentlessly pushing southward, forcing cattle, sheep and camel herding people to leave their traditional zones of settlement. Actually, this desertification process has been affecting the whole Sahel belt since before the days of the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs; but global warming and other factors are intensifying it and increasing social conflicts, while creating a huge multinational refugee problem. The war in Mali comes on top of these preexisting disasters, with the displacement of several hundred thousand people.
Bombs drop, more danger ahead
The original idea was not to call on the French to prop up the Malian government. The African Union and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) were supposed to do that job in coordination with the Malian army, and with the sanction of the United Nations Security Council. However, most observers say that such an all-African force could not be ready until September and the Islamists stole a march on them by last week's thrust toward Bamako.
The French have been bombing rebel positions in the Northeast, but the rebels have gone to ground, in some cases moving their fighters into the homes of the civilian population. Meanwhile, the rebels have moved past the narrow waist of the country which separates the rebel held Northeast from the populous Southwest, capturing and holding the important centers of Konna and Diabali and threatening Mopti, a key regional capital.
The French say that their stay in Mali may be extended. The people of Mali now find themselves trapped between two unappetizing alternatives: Submit to harsh Sharia law imposed by the rebels, or hand over effective sovereignty to a foreign occupying force in which their former colonial masters play the most prominent role, and have their own economic and political agenda.
According to reports on the scene, many people in Bamako and other regions of Mali are currently glad that the French troops have arrived; they see the Islamists as a bigger threat. But time will tell how that will hold up over the long haul.
The main organization of the Marxist left in Mali, the SADI (African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence) issued a statement in support of the Malian army troops going to combat the Islamic insurgency, but warned about things developing into a war, which would end up justifying foreign occupation of the country.
The seizing of the gas facility in Algeria adds a new dimension to the crisis. Among the Islamist fighters' demands are an end to Algerian collaboration with French intervention and the freeing of Islamist prisoners in Algeria. In the 1990s, a war took place between the government and Islamists, which cost 200,000 lives by some estimates.
Photo: This Tuareg woman is the head of her household, and lives outside Menaka, Mali. (Emilia Tjernström/CC)