Areas of significant Tuareg population Image by Mark Dingemanse
By Tom Castle
The French military intervention in Mali has been trumpeted as a relaunch of the French Presidency, an example of Anglo-French co-operation and a necessary strike against militant Al Qaida-linked terrorists.
The grubby reality is that it is an extension of the joint imperialist project for northern Africa which is based on promoting the entirely selfish and strategic interests of imperialism. It follows the murderous interventions in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire as well as the desperate attempts to shore up other pro-Western dictatorships in the course of the Arab Spring.
The Mali government has been fighting a losing battle against a series of different forces leading the struggle for independence for the Northern, mainly Muslim, Tuareg peoples.
The new French government, in a continuation of the widely discredited Francafrique policy of repeated military and diplomatic interventions, had sought to induce the government of Algeria into a sustained assault on the Tuareg forces operating in their homelands in northern Mali and southern Algeria.
The Algerian government, which is in effect dominated by the military intelligence service, baulked at such a large and potentially fraught campaign across enormous and difficult terrain.
That Algerian refusal exposed the weakness of the Mali government in the capital Bamako, which promptly led to its overthrow by a section of the Mali army. The coup had been condemned by the UN, the African Union and Western powers, including France and Britain. It is this government which the French and British are now propping up.
The military campaign is being discussed in terms of air strikes and hundreds of Western troops backed by a few thousand troops from Mali’s neighbours – Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Senegal.
They, and the members of the UN Security Council, seem to be more agitated by the advance of Islamist forces than by the intentions of France and Britain, and seem to accept assurances that the campaign will be over in a matter of weeks. This is not at all certain.
The Tuareg rebellion began in 1916 against French colonial rule. It has been led by a number of different groupings across the Saharan interior that straddles not only Algeria and Mali but also Burkina Faso, Niger and Libya.
The French military have already expressed surprise at how well armed the rebels are, having obtained sophisticated weaponry in the chaos that has followed the Western assault on Libya. The pro-Western Algerian government, no stranger to brutal suppression of opposition forces in its own cities, has long adopted a policy of containment against a nomadic enemy much more adapted to desert subsistence.
French troop numbers are already increasing and there is a change towards a ground offensive, with talk that the mission will take longer than expected. It may be much easier for the Western powers to get in than to get out.
The French and British justifications for supporting the military government in Mali are entirely hypocritical.
The principal excuse is that they are combating Al Qaida-linked forces. But such forces are only a player in the Mali situation because of their control over large parts of Libya, which in turn results from the West’s alliance with them to overthrow Gaddafi. And while France claims to be fighting Al Qaida in Mali, they play a key role in the Western-sponsored alliances seeking to overthrow Assad in Syria.
Currently, the insurrectionary Tuareg Muslim organisation, Ansar Dine, is in the ascendancy within the rebel groupings. Its original advance in 2012 was in alliance with the more secularist Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). This alliance took the three main cities of Northern Mali, with the MNLA in control in Timbuktu – the capital of the region.
Amid rising tensions between the various factions, Ansar Dine allied with Al Qaida in the Maghreb and drove the MNLA out of Timbuktu and are leading the current rebel offensive.
But these are shifting alliances and the dominance of any one group remains unlikely precisely because the Tuareg are a mainly nomadic people.
The real motivations for the military campaign are commercial and strategic. France has a series of important allies in the region which provide very favourable terms for oil, mining and other interests.
Disposing of inconvenient governments in Africa and maintaining subservient ones is crucial to that dominance. Rebellions that cannot be co-opted need to be crushed.
That entire system has become more complicated with the increased role of China in Africa’s trade. As one analyst told the Financial Times ‘[Hollande] wants to reshape the regional balance, challenge the rising influence of other actors in the region, such as China as well as resolve the situation on the ground’.
The role of both France and Britain is to police Africa on behalf of imperialism in general, with the US more directly interested in preventing the rise of China with its ‘pivot’ towards Asia. There may also be a specific British interest, with the defence correspondent of The Times reporting ‘France is focusing its attention on Mali, while Britain is expected to take the lead in Somalia’.
The propaganda belies the reality. The Western imperialists are not rampaging in Africa to free it from despotism, any more than they were 150 years ago. The leopard cannot change its spots. They are the despots and plunderers.
Following the overthrow of the colonial empires in the post-War period, Europe retained a powerful role as it was a key market and source of investment. As its economy declines, it has little to offer Africa to retain its influence, so is forced to turn more and more to brute force.
France’s intervention in Mali – and the threat to Somalia from Britain – is part of a drive to ‘recolonise’ Saharan Africa by its former imperial masters. Not through the re-establishment of formal colonies but through the pervasive presence of imperialist arms and armies.
The French intervention in Mali should be entirely opposed with the call for the withdrawal of imperialist forces and the end of French interference in the internal affairs of its former colonies.