Mali: What does the future hold?

Troops from Mali, France and other African nations have captured the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in Mali’s arid Northeast. Islamist fighters have faded back, while the original rebels, Tuareg separatists, whose uprising a year ago began the national slide, say that they are ready for talks with the Malian government. The Malian legislature today unanimously supported a plan of action to get the country on its feet again, and elections will be scheduled.

Does that mean things are getting back to normal? If so, it is a “normal” intolerable to anyone with a moral sense. Mali still finds itself caught between two forces, which in no way offer solutions which serve the interests of the Malian people.

After they pushed the Tuareg separatists aside, the Islamists of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Oneness in Jihad, imposed harsh sharia law on towns which they had captured.  Declaring just about every distinctive characteristic of Mali’s Afro-Sufi culture to be “haram” (“forbidden”), these Salafist jihadis destroyed the tombs of Sufi saints, forbade music and forced women to don the veil.  They also cut off hands of accused thieves and stoned alleged adulterers.

On leaving, they ordered the burning of the tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts, going back more than a thousand years, in Timbuktu. In this they appear to have failed: The citizens of Timbuktu hid these treasures in their homes, so the burning of the main museum only destroyed a small part.

Unfortunately, there are reports of vengeance being exacted by Malian troops and civilians against Arabs and Tuaregs.

Given the French invasion, some might see the Islamists as an anti-imperialist freedom force. They are nothing of the kind, and they have nothing positive to offer the Malian people. Their opposition to education and to the rights of women represents a huge setback to this West African country, which sorely needs the talents of all of its citizens, male and female.

Many in Mali and neighboring countries seem to have welcomed the French intervention, because worry about the Islamist threat was paramount. But what does France have to offer Mali in the long run? For more than a century, Mali has been dominated, politically, economically, and militarily, by France. But on almost any indicator of social well being, Mali is at the bottom, together with its neighbors Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, likewise been under French domination.

Mali’s infant mortality rate is 109.08, the third worst in the world. Niger’s is worse, at 109.98, second behind Afghanistan (which is 121.63). Chad is seventh from the bottom at 93.61, and Burkina Faso ninth, at 79.89.

The literacy rate shows the Sahel countries clustered at the bottom also. Only 31.1 percent of Malian adults can read.  Burkina Faso has a literacy of rate of 28.1 percent, the world’s worst. Niger’s is 28.7 percent and Chad’s is 34.5 percent, fifth from the bottom.

Per Capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP-PPP) is a rough measure of the economic well-being of a people.  The lowest figure is for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at about 400 U.S. dollars per year. For Mali it is $1,100 per year, Niger $800, Burkina Faso $1,500, Chad $1,900.

The only country worse off is Afghanistan, another land caught between medieval-minded Islamic extremists and “Western” military intervention. Some refer to the Sahel region of Africa, where Mali is, as “the next Afghanistan”:  The great battleground where the NATO powers fight it out with the Islamists, leaving the whole place a corpse-strewn wreck. Now the United States has agreed with the government of Niger to station surveillance drones in that country. Can drone strikes be far off?

There are already 700,000 Malian refugees.

European capitalist countries “underdeveloped” Mali, to use Walter Rodney’s powerful expression, during colonialism, and have continued to do so under the current neoliberal phase of neocolonialism. Under colonialism, Mali and neighboring Senegal provided cannon fodder for France’s wars – much praised “Senegalese tirailleurs” ready to die for a country not their own. Now Mali is a source of valuable raw materials that enrich foreign corporations, but its own industry is minimally developed.

So do France, the United States and the other developed capitalist countries offer anything worthwhile to Mali in the long run? No, just as Mali has to get away from the Islamist threat, it urgently needs to get out from under neocolonial domination and exploitation.

What are the possibilities? Grim and difficult, but not hopeless.

The nations of West Africa have recently been looking across the Atlantic Ocean to Latin America. There, for more than a century, economic and social development was stifled by U.S. and European hegemony. However, since Hugo Chavez became president of oil-rich Venezuela in 1999, this has changed dramatically. Through a series of trade blocs and coordinated resistance, the Latin American countries have made big advances in defending their national sovereignty, raising their economic levels of their peoples and promoting social justice. Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela have been talking to African governments about how this dynamic can be expanded across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the rapid growth of the economies of China and India have offered Africa new possibilities of reducing reliance on trade and aid from the old colonial powers and the United States.

The countries of the Sahel are not yet taking advantage of these possibilities.  A prerequisite for the advances in Latin America was the growth of working class and mass popular consciousness, organization and mobilization against the imposed neoliberal policies. The same will happen in Africa, sooner or later.

Photo: A French soldier walks near armored vehicles at the Timbuktu airport, North Mali.   Arnaud Roine/AP



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.