Thursday, 1 November 2012

What about Mali?


In early 2012 the US was seen as turning a blind eye to the Tuareg rebellion, at least by many Malians who find it unlikely that the US would not notice the return of many of Gaddafi's fighters-for-hire to Northern Mali. The Malian military overthrew Amadou Toumani Touré because he was seen as too ineffectual in fighting the Tuaregs. A popular view in the country was that Touré had allowed soldiers to be killed defenselessly. Captain Amadou Sanogo seized the healm once Touré was expelled from the country. Sanogo was smart enough to make the usual pronouncements of working to rescusitate democracy and the state's sovereignty. Interestingly, Amadou Sanogo was trained in the US and more than likely had the approval of the US State Department to overthrow Touré. It looks as though the era of coups is not over after all. Nevertheless the military coup failed to prevent the Tuaregs from seizing the North about ten days later. It was then that the Tuaregs declared the North to be the independent state of Azawad, it would seem with Iyad Ag Ghaly at the healm.

The international community has not recognised the declaration of independence. In the new state of Azawad we know that the MNLA has not solidified its hold over the whole territory. There is Ansar Dine, a Jihadist group with alleged ties to 'al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb', which has the aim of unifying Mali under Shariah. The French seem to be leaning towards a 'humanitarian intervention' to restore the South's dominion over the North. Alternatively, there has been some discussion about the prospect of an African-led intervention, probably due to the strained resources of the imperial triumvirate. The Germans have expressed a willingness to train Malian troops. Meanwhile, the Islamist leadership of the forces in Azawad have threatened to launch an assault on Mali's capital if the intervention goes ahead. The drumbeat of war was playing at The Guardian where the case for intervention was laid out on October 17th. The case against intervention was laid out as well, in standard liberal practice - the illusion of neutrality.

In case you haven't heard of Mali, it's the seventh largest country in Africa with a population of around 15 million people. Like many African countries Mali was a French colony until it became independent in 1960, incidentally the demands for Tuareg autonomy predate independence. As for the economic conditions, Mali is built on agriculture specifically cotton in the South and cattle in the North of Mali which has been damaged by American and European economic policies. Around half of the population live on less than $1.25 a day. This remains so even as prospectors are keen to find gold and oil in Mali, while narcotraffickers use the country as a midway point to Europe. The life expectancy in Mali is about 48 years for Men and 52 years for women. In cultural terms Mali is very diverse, 90% of the population are Muslim, 1% are Christian and 9% adhere to an "indigenous religion", though it's not uncommon for Muslims to blend their beliefs with traditional animism. Notably the majority of the population live in the South, while the Northern chunk of the country is actually far larger and extends into the Sahara.

The economic situation in Mali has long been exacerbated by Western policy. The US government subsidises American cotton farmers with more money than the Malian government spends in it's entire budget. Nor can the Malians compete with the Europeans, since the EU subsidises each farmer with 500 euros per each cow and that is even more than the per capita GDP in Mali. The Minister for the Malian economy once said: "We don't need your help or advice or lectures on the beneficial effects of abolishing excessive state regulation; please, just stick to your own rules about the free-market and our troubles will basically be over." His words fell on deaf ears in America and Europe. The politicians placing tarrifs on imported goods and restrict imports by establishing administrative barriers often claim to be "putting country first". Clearly capitalism is not synonymous with economic liberty, whether it be a free-market or free trade. All of this I noted a couple of years ago, and it should kept in mind that Islamism is typically divorced from economic doctrine.

This is where the Tuaregs reside and have long demanded autonomy from the central government in the South. And it's not an illegitimate claim as the nation-state is not an African phenomenon, rather it was an imposition of European colonialism. But that's not to say that these countries can just be torn apart. The Tuaregs could be seen as similar to the Kurds, a desert people who are on the move and reside in countries such as Algeria and Niger. It wasn't until 2012 that the Tuaregs demanded total independence. This may have been avoided had autonomy been granted to the Tuaregs sooner. Incidentally the Obama administration has reached out to the Algerians, with talk of an African-led intervention. It's important to understand this crisis with regard to the NATO intervention that helped to finish off the Gaddafi regime in Libya. Mali's most important neighbours are Algeria, Niger and Burkina Faso, though it was Libya which intervened in Malian affairs under Colonel Gaddafi. Now it looks as though Gaddafi's fall has affected Mali.

Ironic as Gaddafi was the mediator of negotiations between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels. Near the desperate end the Colonel had even enlisted Malian mercenaries, including Tuaregs, to fight the rebellion. It seems as though the mercenaries passed into Mali with new arms and confident in their experience of a lost battle. It would seem that this is the sort of situation that has already gone too far in its very happening. The Tuaregs have a legitimate grievance, the claim to autonomy was a legitimate one. The hybridity of Malian society, including among its Muslims, shouldn't be forgotten. This is as much a threat to animist Muslims and the remnants of Sufism as it is to Malian Christians and the descendents of slaves. Of course, it follows that the Islamists tearing down Timbuktu's cultural heritage and looking to silence all music is not a legitimate expression of this grievance or any other for that matter. There's the very real possibility that this will become another front in the imaginary culture war between Islam and the West. This remains so if the conflict is left to stew as it was in Sudan.

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