Malian Crisis and the new Geo-political order in the Sahel

Contributed by Heldden Byumvuhore and Ameth Lo
Bamako, Mali

The recent crisis in Mali has caught the world’s attention. Issues at play in the West African region, the Sahel and beyond are not only many, but complex. In addition, they involve diverse actors at the national, regional and international level. If we are not to be trapped behind a fragmented vision, one that only focuses on specific areas of the West African region as if they exist in isolation, our analysis must be rigorous and consistent. In fact, it must of necessity connect the multiple dimensions of the present crisis, which within the global context, comes under the umbrella of a project aimed at controlling all that vast region, an area that, undoubtedly, will be of supreme importance in satisfying expanding imperialist appetites for decades to come. 

In our day, the world capitalist system appears to be entering yet another phase of global redeployment. Fifty years after the proclamation of flag independence, by deepening the process of decolonization, the renewed African masses are making attempts to recapture the success of their earlier leap forward. Of course, today’s Malian crisis reminds us of the challenges ahead, but it also offers fresh opportunities for re-energizing the historical project that called for the political unification of the African continent. That ideal must remain our goal, if we are to play any meaningful role in a globalized world controlled by Western imperialism, a world that is increasingly threatened by the advances of newly emerging powers such as China and Russia – to name but a few. 

If we really want to understand the current crisis in Mali and the larger Sahel region, we have to examine it within its larger regional or global historical context, taking into consideration the social, economic and political background that frames and produces it. 

From ancient Mali to today 

The lands that are known today as the country of Mali emerged from a federation of two states during the Independence period in 1960. That federation collapsed after two years, to be then resurrected as two separate states – Senegal and Mali. 

However, historically, Mali was the name of an empire, which lasted from the twelve to the sixteenth century and spanned a large area of West Africa. Its founding emperor Soundiata Keita reigned between 1236 and1255 CE. For four to five centuries, Mali was the center of the most vibrant civilization in the world, attracting people in search of advanced education to its institutions of higher learning located in places like Timbuktu and Gao. Its cities were well known to merchants, who travelled from as far away as the Middle East and Southern Europe to carry on commerce and trade. As a result, Mali became the center of an important rendezvous where many peoples met and mixed. 

One of its emperors, Kanka Moussa, a devout Muslim, went on pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia in 1324 followed by a retinue sixty thousand strong. The members of his grand mission travelled with so much gold for use on their journey that the local gold market crashed. 

Today, the country of Mali remains the third largest producer of gold in Africa, just behind South Africa and Ghana, producing as much as fifty seven plus tones in 2009, which placed it 16th, in the world. Recently, huge oil reserves have been discovered in Mauritania and natural gas in Algeria, its neighbors to the North, while deposits of uranium have been found next door in Niger. Those discoveries suggest that, potentially, the country is sitting on vast reserves of a variety of very precious natural resources. Of course they will be of great significance to whatever political powers get to control the region in the decades to come. 

The budding federation of Mali and Senegal, which lasted from 1960 to 1962, was quickly destabilized by the former French colonial power. France saw it as a huge threat to its hidden plans for proclaiming the independence of its former colonies while keeping the newly independent countries fragmented enough to prevent them potentially forming a West African federation. On the other hand, federation was one of the main strategic objectives of nationalist forces led by the PAI (Parti Africain de l’independance – African Party for Independence) and its network of chapters established across several former colonial territories, including but not limited to Senegal, Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea Bissau. 

In 1962, the Malian federation imploded. Mamadou Dia, its most prominent leader on the Senegalese side had held the office of President of the Council (equivalent to Prime Minister in a parliamentary regime). It didn’t take long for Leopold Senghor to throw him in jail for 12 years. The same Senghor later became president of Senegal, largely based on French support. In Mali, the late President Modibo Keita, a diehard nationalist, was also toppled from power by a military coup in 1968. The coup leader was General Moussa Traore, who was able to keep his tyrannical grip on the country until a popular uprising led by urban youth and students overthrew him in 1991- but only after twenty-three years of a military dictatorship. 

Ameth on the History of Mali’s Uprisings

During that particular turmoil, Amadou Toumani Touré seized power and organized a transition to democratic rule. He managed to maintain relative peace in the country until last year, when he was also removed by another military coup led by Amadou Sanogo. However, the changes that have occurred have yet to deal with the root causes of poverty and marginalization in a population that includes the Tuareg and various other ethnic groups in the North. Instead, the so-called transition was entirely managed within the scaffold erected by the Breton Woods institutions, the World Bank and IMF, through their Structural Adjustment Programs. 

The first Tuareg rebellion, which occurred in the nineteen nineties, was addressed by way of political negotiations searching for solutions to the legitimate grievances of a population hungry for better relations within the Malian state. Negotiators examined some of the chronic social and economic issues facing the Tuareg community. Although the first rebellion did come to an end, conditions of ongoing poverty led to the migration of numbers of the younger Tuareg population who went to live in Libya, attracted by the oil boom in that country and the relatively better job opportunities it could offer. As time moved on, many of them were integrated into Muammar Ghadffi’s army and were used as special brigades in the different armed conflicts involving Libya over the last two decades or so. 

However, we ought to be aware that the grievances, which the Tuareg and other minority ethnic groups brought to the table, did not apply to their situation alone. Indeed, their grievances remain typical of shared general legacy of poverty, created by centuries of colonial domination. Nor is the Tuareg question specific to Mali. It is a transnational issue faced by populations historically spread across the region with roots in both North and West Africa. These populations range across parts of the Sahel that take in parts of Niger, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Libya. As a people, the Tuareg used to be able to move freely across the whole vast region known today as the Sahel. With the overthrow of the Ghadaffi regime after NATO’s invasion, the brutal assassination of its leader and the subsequent social disintegration of Libya, most of the young Tuareg previously in the Libyan Army went back to Northern Mali. With them went their sophisticated weaponry as well, transported under the complicit gaze of NATO forces and imperialist Western powers who are mainly responsible for the chaos we currently see in Libya and the region. 

Mali and today’s challenges 

Today’s crisis in Mali is easier understood when we examine it within the larger context of the failure of post-independence development initiatives. Centuries of slavery, as well as over a century of colonial domination, have left weakened African nation states. Many states were already developed, as the record shows in the Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires, to mention some successes located in West Africa. When the Mali federation imploded within a few years of attaining independence, it was following in the footsteps of earlier failed attempts by former French West African colonies that tried to take back their sovereignty by housing it inside a unified federated body. Mali’s failure therefore provided yet more proof that the seeds of vulnerability and insecurity were deeply embedded and always there. A whole range of different actors intervened to exploit the current Mali situation. While the interests of these current actors, both national and international, are often complementary, they are sometimes in conflict. However, part of the real project remains a determination to gain control of the vast natural resources in the Sahel and that has become the main driving force behind the current conflict in Mali. Who, then, are these principal actors? 

The transnational Tuareg question 

As mentioned earlier, the Tuareg question is an old one and it affects a country such Niger as well as Burkina Faso. Algeria etc… Used to moving freely across an extensive landmass stretching from Northern Mali all the way up to Libya, this population has seen its freedom of movement largely undercut by the presence of rigid new national borders, introduced by countries when they attained independence. The Tuareg have to be counted among those groups that have been marginalized in Mali, although they are only one among others, with legitimate grievances. Their grievances have generally not been adequately addressed by the Malian state, whose insertion into the capitalist process of globalization as a dependent entity leaves it incapable of providing lasting solutions to the socio-economic needs of its most marginalized groups -the Tuareg, Songhai, Fulani and Malinke. Since they have been swept up by a transnational conflict, the Tuareg’s issues might be better addressed by making it possible for different countries such as Niger, Chad or Algeria, that have to deal with problems such as the Amazigh question, to play a more central role in resolving the impasse. 

The Jihadist Nebulous 

The invalidation of the 1991 election in Algeria, which was won by an “Islamist” political party called FIS (Front Islamique du Salut – Islamic Salvation Front) was actively supported by Western countries and opened up a period of instability for that country. Later on, instability evolved into open military conflict between the Algerian government and the most radical elements within the FIS, who later formed the GSPC (Groupe Salfisfiste pour la Predication et le Combat). When they were militarily defeated, those Islamist groups moved out of the country and set up base in Northern Mali in the early 90’s. For the past twenty years they have managed to live upon the proceeds of varied forms of drug trafficking as well as kidnapping of Western nationals working in the region. 

Subsequently, they renamed themselves AQIM (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb) or morphed into groups such as MUJAO, or Boko Haram (Mouvement pour l’Unicite et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest – Movement for the Unity of Jihad in West Africa) which are more like regionally grown West Africans groups. Had the FIS been allowed to run the government after their victory in 1991, they would have probably lost their attraction for the vast majority of the Algerian people by now. Objectively, the political parties passing as Islamists cannot offer Algerians any viable alternative or path to better living conditions. Nor do these parties in any way challenge the fundamental structures responsible for maintaining the countries under discussion within the orbit of dominant market forces. 

The imperialist triad: US and the European Union 

Arguably, France’s recent military intervention in Mali is probably linked to its desire to protect its own interests in a region it has controlled politically and economically for a very long time. It does so through the association currently known as Francafrique, a network of economic interests involving representatives from both the public and private sector, engaged in activities that transcend the classical left-right divide of the French political class. 

Obviously, no genuine PanAfricanist or progressive person can be in favor of foreign military interventions in Africa, since they are all driven by outside interests. However, in the current Malian situation, the failure of Africans (both in ECOWAS and the African Union) to take the initiative in rooting out the jihadists threatening to occupy the whole country provided a window of opportunity for France to intervene militarily in order to end what was clearly developing into a major threat to the whole region. Africans, who played a leading part in the liberation of France from Nazi occupation, have nothing to be ashamed of in the present French intervention, now a ‘fait accompli’ anyway. Rather, this situation can be taken as only one small act in “paying back” the huge blood debt that France owes to Africa. It’s a debt France will never be able to repay fully. In theatres of conflict around the world such as Indochina, Madagascar and Algeria, tens of thousands of African troops called the “Senegalese Tirailleurs” lost their lives liberating France or protecting French interests. So in this particular context, Africans have to reject both choices presented to them: A djihadist occupation of their country or French military Intervention to restore partial order. No outside military force can be responsible for the collective security needs of people. The primary responsibility of African security environment should lie first and foremost on Africans. 

Gulf monarchies: Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the rest 

The ongoing competition between the two main branches of Islam, the Sunni and Shia, have spread beyond it natural Middle East base. Is has been proven that during the height of security crisis in Mali, loads of sophisticated weaponry have been brought by plane loads from Qatar to supply the jihadist groups that occupied Northern Mali. This country has become in recent years the main financier of Jihadist groups trying to expand their version of Sunni Islam and consolidate their grip of the gulf monarchies such as in Saudi Arabia. The embryo of revolt in Bahrein led by large segment of its chiite population was seen as a potential threat to the centuries old grip of suni Muslim of the gulf monarchies. That revolt, in the continuation of the Arab Spring that was slowly spreading in the region was largely ignored by Western / imperialist countries, but it went further as far as closing a blind eye to repression of that revolt with a direct involvement of the Saudi regime… This was a clear illustration of Imperialism’s double standard policy which consisted of even helping radicalized Muslims jihadist in overthrowing the regime of Ghadafi in Libya and in playing a central role in the civil war taking place in Syria. Such support will come back to hunt their interest in the long run since even though these groups do not necessarily challenge the foundation of capitalist domination / expansion, their rigid interpretation of Islam tend to make them sometime adopt some position that runs contrary to the interest of imperialism, as demonstrated in the attack of the US embassy in Benghazi. 

There is also a dimension of blatant racism in this ideology dressed under the cover of Islam, which consist of describing the Islam practiced in Black Africa as “impure” even though this region has been Islamized for more than 10 centuries. This racism has been also fueling sentiments in the buffer zone separating North Africa / Middle East with the rest of Black Africa, as can be witnessed in countries such as Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan etc… Centuries old tensions between blacks and Arabs are exacerbated and manipulated by specific groups to advance their own political agendas. 

Malian elites 

Fifty years after independence, Africa’s elites are still mired in a no-holds-barred struggle over state power. In fact, because of the relative weakness of the private sector, the state, in its neo-colonial context, is generally the most powerful tool for self-enrichment. It is therefore often used as an instrument for monopolizing “constraints” and violence, both real and symbolic, against rivals. African elites, as described by late Martiniquan revolutionary Frantz Fanon in his book the Wretched of the Earth, are unproductive parasites. 

Although, the Malian Army’s military coup that ousted the sitting president Amadou Toumani Touré was carried out under the command of an officer, Amadou Sanogo, it was not an exception. There is a recurring problem of negative army involvement in running African states. This latest spectacle, like other situations before it, contains elements of manipulation by imperialist powers that played a critical role in ending, often violently, the most promising initiatives of social transformation undertaken by progressive PanAfricanists who managed to acquire power. It was the case with Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana to name just a few. It would also explain why Amilcar Cabral, one of the most deep-thinking theoreticians on African Revolution in the third world, during his eulogy at Nkrumah’s funeral in Accra, described neo-colonial armies as a “cancer of betrayal” that must be radically transformed if they were to play any meaningful role in post-independence Africa. 

Mali: Which way forward? 

If there is one single lesson to be learned from the current crisis in Mali it is that, fifty years after independence, no single country can on its own guarantee its security and create conditions for determining its own development process. The only viable alternative, then, is the one put forth by certain African visionaries such as Cheikh Anta Dip and Kwame Nkrumah: Africa must radically move towards the construction of its unity within the framework of a “United African States”. The creation of regional PanAfricanist states in five regions of Africa (North, West, East, Central and Southern) would help to facilitate the transition from larger continental groupings to a federal state. 

Ameth on African Youth in relation to Mali

Eventually, such a federation would be able to pool its resources and create a unified army able to guarantee the collective security of its population. The federation would also be able to develop and harmonize a common foreign policy, while moving towards the creation of a single currency tied to a federal reserve based on the continent’s plentiful supply of gold. 

The relatively minor successes of a variety of initiatives in economic integration such as ECOWAS, SADC and EAC suggest that the order of priority would be better turned upside down with political unification taking center stage. Only a coherent political vision shared and promoted from a broad base would be able to define a framework for eventual economic integration. Such collaboration would also be able to generate a cohesive vision for a potential federal army, which would be stationed in the five different regions described above. The federation’s armed forces would also be capable of mobilization within days in times of crisis such as those earlier described. During peacetime, their energies could be harnessed for social reconstruction. Members of the armed forces could either work side by side with civilian populations to build bridges, schools and health centers or join with the people in campaigns for reforestation in areas threatened by the advance of the Sahara desert. 

In any case, the current involvement of Western imperialist powers in Africa must never be allowed to play any part in the quest for future solutions. Their interventions would remain a part of the problem. Their interests would always be driven by the strategic goal of capitalist redeployment across the globe. In other words, the imperialists would seek monopoly control of a range of natural resources indispensable in maintaining the dominant lifestyle of countries at the center of the global system. At the same time, those interests would deepen poverty and suffering of countries within Africa, Latin America and Asia, which are located on the periphery of imperialist power. 

Amenophis (Ameth) Lo is a keen observer and analyst of the West African scene especially the Africa Francophone region and is also one of the key members of GRILA in Toronto.
Listen to his thoughts as he discusses the current situation in Mali wih our very own  Heldden Byumvuhore

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