Monday, January 14, 2013

The Mess that is Mali

Mali is a mess; that has been the headline for months. The mess, however, is more than just that extremist militants have expanded their power and conquered cities in the north of the country while a military coup has collapsed over twenty years of democratic rule and brought the government in Bamako to a standstill. The mess is one of both ideological quagmire and ineffectual practical proposals. 

Ideologically, there are the dueling forces of humanitarian intervention in the name of human rights and the ever-present specter of Françafrique and neocolonialism. Practically, there are a whole bunch of bad options, with no viable possibility truly providing a solution that leads to peace, unity, and democracy in Mali.

Now, after nearly a year of inaction on anyone’s part but extremist militants, the French government has begun airstrikes to weaken strongholds in the north, while ECOWAS troops from Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Senegal, and Burkina Faso prepare for a ground invasion. For those who have been following the situation in Mali and understand the history of French military excursions in Africa, the feelings surrounding these developments are far from simple.

For those of you not familiar with what is going on, some background. (If you are, skip down several paragraphs.)

Mali is a one of the poorest countries in the world, and is a former French colony in West Africa. While prior to colonialism, several great empires encompassed southern and central Mali (and neighboring countries) the north-east of Mali is very much in the Sahara desert, and has never hosted a centralized or even unified political entity. There are many ethnic groups and peoples in northern Mali, among which are the Tuaregs, traditionally nomadic herders, traders, and craftsmen, who have been Islamic since the 9th century. 

There are tensions between the Tuareg peoples and other ethnic groups in the north with the Malian government in Bamako, the capital in the south, and there have been numerous Tuareg and other rebellions in the north since Malian independence from France in 1960. (Before you ask, no, this is not a Muslim v. Christian thing like people simplify the conflicts in Nigeria or Sudan to be, because, in the first place, the southern part of Mali is Muslim too.) In 2006, the most recent agreement was made between the Tuaregs and Bamako, in theory offering north eastern Mali some autonomy. In practice, the southern government has never truly controlled the north.

The catalyst for the current iteration of the conflict was the fall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, which sent an influx of advanced weaponry and fighters into the hands of two particular groups, Al Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM), which has long operated in northern Mali, and in the last decade has become infamous for kidnapping westerners, and Ansar Dine, a radical Islamist group. AQIM co-opted other groups, including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) into their rapid take-over of many northern and central Malian towns (such as the famed Timbuktu) over the past year, which gave them a façade of legitimacy which has since dissolved.

I must note here that I have a major problem labeling AQIM and Ansar Dine “Islamist” groups, as the media has so oft done, because as a resident in a Muslim country, the teacher of mostly Muslim students, and someone who has studied Islam, there is nothing Islamic about what these people advocate or do. They are extremist militants, and just like every other group in history that has claimed to act in the name of a religion while grotesquely perverting everything that religion stands for, they should not be given the pleasure or respect of being labeled what they misrepresent.

In April of last year (2012), there was a military coup in Bamako during which the democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT) was ousted. The stated reason for the coup was the military’s dissatisfaction with the lack of resources the government had provided for the military campaign in the north.

So why is Mali all of a sudden in the news? On January 11th, a French military campaign began bombing targets in the north in order to weaken the extremist militants in preparation for an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) led ground invasion. The French government claims the mission is one of national security and humanitarian interests, and is not a continuation of Françafrique, which is a policy of French political, economic, military, and ideological influence in Africa that has manifested in everything from Francophone African leaders receiving their educations in France, former French colonies maintaining colonial-style trade patterns with the “mother country”, France propping up dictators across Africa as long as those dictators adhere to French interests, and France further extending its social, cultural, and political hegemony over Francophone Africa in recent decades through media control and the (more than) occasional military campaign (See, most recently, Cote d’Ivoire (2011) and Chad(2010)).

Alright, so back to why this is not such a simple story of the West swooping in to stop those radical terrorists and save the poor, weak citizens of a less-developed country…

On the one hand, these extremists have been terrorizing the populations they have conquered, imposing medieval laws, cutting off limbs, blatantly abusing human rights, and are ultimately causing a massive humanitarian crisis. There is no reasonable narrative in which AQIM and Ansar Dine (the two groups primarily responsible for the military take-over of towns and land from Timbuktu to as far south as Konna, dangerously close to the capital, Bamako) are "good guys" or "freedom fighters" for the state of Azawad, whose actual advocates were co-opted by these extremists for their ideologically vacant cause. The government in Bamako, of little legitimacy as it may be, did ask the French for assistance, as the Malian army has proved to be completely incapable of driving out these extremist militants. It is not wrong that so many in Africa and abroad are cheering the French and ECOWAS intervention in the name of humanitarianism. A post from a Malian on Twitter on January 12 read:

Translation: “My neighbor, an old Malian soldier of WWII, says that he is proud to have fought the Germans to defend France. He is very affected/emotional today.”

It all seems very sweet. Another tweet read:

And while I, as a former and perhaps continuing student of political science am all too aware, two tweets does not constitute a sample upon which any conclusions can be made, I would like to simply enter these as evidence to a phenomenon that, should one choose to find ample evidence from social and news media, would become readily apparent.

However, to see this simply as "France, in this operation, does not pursue any interest other than saving a friendly country," as French President Holland said in a statement announcing the action, is to be blind to France's role in the region and naive with regard to international relations.

One may rightly accuse any ideological inquiry as being privileged and ignorant of the conditions on the ground, in which real people are actually suffering and dying as a result of the cruel policies of the extremist militants in northern Mali, and yet ideology is what fuels so many players' actions, and a critique of the ideological could potentially lead to a more long-term solution to the very real violence that any practical solution would only ameliorate momentarily.

Mali is barely viable as a state. The southern government has never had real control of the territory north of Timbuktu- not in the pre-colonial imperial era, not during French colonialism, not during the post-colonial dictatorship, and not during the recent democratic era. In terms of state penetration of society and capacity to dictate law and policy, the government has had, at best, a loose agreement with the north. ATT's government, prior to the 2012 coup, had granted some autonomy to the region for this very reason.

Therefore, should the combination of French airstrikes and ECOWAS ground troops succeed in driving out the militants who currently occupy northern Mali, the liberation of Gao and Timbuktu will likely be sustainable, but there will be nothing in this military campaign that actually solves the weak or non-existent state situation in the northern region, especially considering it will not be Malian troops themselves that conquer the territory. That land and those people will continue to lack a sense of loyalty to Bamako, economic prospects, or political voice, and the conditions that enabled an influx of arms from the fallen Libyan regime to fuel a full-scale rebellion in the region and the empowerment of extremist militants will continue to exist.

So the French airstrikes and ECOWAS troops save some lives (while causing a hell of a lot of casualties and refugees in the process) and maybe, just maybe, even train Malian troops and provide some funding so that any gains will not immediately be lost. What then? The very fact that the French were called on to intervene, as they have many times across Africa, is a testament to the continued dependency of Mali on France.

And so we come to the debate on Françafrique, which is where I might actually have something different to contribute than can be found on every single news outlet’s website.

Françafrique is not dead, but neither has it been static. If Françafrique is defined as, simply, French economic, political, and cultural intervention in Africa for the preservation of its hegemony in the region, it continues in full force, though not in the flagrant way it did in the past. What changed? The values and norms of the French people and the international community are no longer such that obvious public support of villainous dictators (as was the case with Zaire’s Mobutu, Cote d’Ivoire’s Houphouet Boigny, and Chad’s Habré, to name a few) is considered “socially acceptable”. While support of undemocratic or violent regimes or actors may continue, it does so much more discretely, and often with a well constructed veil of pretext. 

One of the reasons why Françafrique has been prematurely buried is that it has often been simplified into military or economic terms (even though French economic interests still overwhelm Francophone Africa, despite all the talk of China’s takeover of the continent; look at any data of trade balances for the region for confirmation). Françafrique is the manifestation of dependency theory in Francophone Africa. Dependency theory, an international relations explanatory construct of the Marxist variety, contends that elites in the developed world co-opt elites in the developing world to form a system in which the majority of the people of the developing countries are working in industries tailored for the economic needs of said developed countries, thus continuing the colonial system, while the developing countries’ elites are able to stay in power through the support of elites in the developed world, all the while helping to exploit their own people.

Here, let me draw you a diagram:

 Maybe that helps.

This is still the case, though less so with the entrance of other players, except that there was ALWAYS another element to the Françafrique model- one that the less-established international relations school of neo-Gramscian theory accounts for quite accurately. Antonio Gramsci was an Italian Marxist who, during the early 20th century, wrote a great deal about the power of ideas and hegemony. Neo-Gramscians have taken his work and applied it to how ideas and ideology develop hegemonic status and can be movers in the international system. One of the many relevant aspects of neo-Gramscian theory to Françafrique is the element of ideological cooptation that must occur. The people who are being exploited and oppressed must somehow buy into the idea of French superiority, in this case, for the hegemonic regime of French culture, political, and economic power to continue.

Do the people in Francophone Africa, generally, buy it? You bet they do, or, at least, more than you’d imagine. Having lived and traveled across West Africa in particular for years, it has always astonished me how many people, especially those less educated, still suffer from the “colonized-complex” that African leaders and intellectuals from Sekou Touré (the first president of Guinea, and a really atrocious leader if not a gifted orator) to Frantz Fanon spoke about sixty years ago. The number of people that actually seem to believe they are inferior to the French (or British, or Americans) in some way makes me ill. (In less circumstantial evidence, the Afrobarometer survey in 2011 showed overwhelmingly positive attitudes towards France in Francophone Africa and immigration to France from its former colonies has been steadily increasing.) But what are they supposed to think, when, in Francophone countries, most of the high quality products, the military rescues, the media, the election planning, and the revered cultural and social phenomena come from France?!?

Also, France desires the continuation of its hegemony in Africa, not because it is absolutely dependent upon economic ties, not because instability or violence in African states is a major threat to its national security, and not simply out of the goodness of its huge heart, but because it must maintain a position of power on the world stage to feed the ego of nationalism. Again, for some Gramsci, the French state is not completely separate but is thoroughly entwined with its people and their desires, and the interests of French civil society and the state are not ones of mere economic or political arithmetic, but ones completely infused with ideology.

When NATO intervened in the Libyan conflict, there were some that hailed the prevention of slaughter in Benghazi and the swifter end of a bloody conflict, and others who decried the violation of sovereignty and neoimperial actions that, were the country in question not in the developing world, would be unheard of. I felt both. Now, with the French intervention in Mali, just as with the French intervention in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011, I feel equally torn. This is the continuation of a constantly evolving Françafrique system, and will not only fail to fix the underlying problems in Mali and the Saharan states (that’s a whole other issue of state viability), but will perpetuate Françafrique through continued dependency on France and views of France as savior rather than partner. However, a real humanitarian crisis is ongoing in Mali, and, if one believes in some idea of the moral good (as I do), it is good for these extremist militants to be defeated, and would be bad for them to expand or even continue their terrorist acts on the Malian people.

This is not an easy position, just as neither is the congruent conundrum of Syria, or of any international intervention by the developed world into the developing. I guess I just wish there were a bit more acknowledgement of the complexity in the nightly news…such as this article from the BBC endeavors to do, but in an American society where most people don’t know where Mali is and are perhaps likely to believe that the “Islamists” the French are fighting are typical Muslims, complexity is probably just too much to ask for.

A few of the articles on the current situation that I've read:

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