Archive for the ‘Conflicts’ Category
Nearly 100 national delegations met in Brussels Wednesday at the international donor conference for development called “Together for a New Mali”. Opening up the conference, EU Committee of the Regions President Ramón Luis Valcárcel Siso called upon delegations to pledge their support for The Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Mali. Broken down into a 12 point approach, the plan focuses on everything from ensuring “peace, security and public services everywhere” to organizing elections. But the 48 page plan that formed the basis of the conference fails to addresses the ethnic fault line that was again ripped open between sub-saharan blacks and lighter-skinned Tuaregs, Berbers and Arabs of the Saharan north by the crisis that began last January.
At the beginning of 2012 Mali descended into turmoil when the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) chased the Malian military out of the northern stretches of the country, a territory it claims is the historical homeland of the peoples of northern Mali. The MNLA is comprised predominantly of ethnic Tuaregs but it’s ranks also include Songhai, Fulani, and Arabs. Exploiting the instability battle hardened islamists from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) soon took control from the MNLA terrorizing Mali’s northernmost cities and clearing the way for the foreign mujahideen fighters of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine of Timbuktu to seize control of Mali’s northern expanse. Interim President Diancounda Traore requested military assistance from France after the northern territories were taken.
The French led military intervention that was launched on January 11, 2013 was swift and received widespread support from Malians. France with military assistance provided by the US (Germany, Belgium, Canada and Denmark also provided logistical and financial support for the incursion) overwhelmed the islamist forces. After reconquering territory from the islamists the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) was charged with maintaining security in the “liberated” zones of the north. As France begins reducing troops to make way for a UN peace keeping force scheduled for deployment in northern Mali on July 1st sporadic attacks continue to shake the region.
Despite The Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Mali’s stated objective – to ensure peace and security across the country and foster economic development – Malian leaders unwillingness to engage a dialogue with any factions that don’t renounce their claim to territories in the north seriously undermines the Malian governments affirmation that “the “essence of the Roadmap reflected in this plan incorporates the lessons learned from this crisis”.
A brief recap of the Tuareg’s 50 plus year struggle for independence, something unmentioned in The Plan for the Sustainable Recovery of Mali highlights the irony of calling this conference Together for a New Mali.
Tuaregs and other minority ethnic groups of the north have launched successive revolts against the state of Mali since it’s independence in 1960. Although the exact boundaries of this idealized state are vague, it is clear that Azawad refers to the towns and territory that Tuaregs, Songhai, Fulani and Berabiche Arabs have historically roamed through and occupied in the Saharan north. Dreams of reclaiming this vast desert territory have led to decades of tensions between the desert dwellers of the north and sub-Saharan groups in the South that have fomented rebellion.
The first major Tuareg rebellion in the early 1960’s was ultimately quashed by the Malian army relegating Tuaregs to a virtually unrepresented ethnic group in the poverty stricken north. The second Taureg rebellion in 1990′s descended the country into an effective civil war fought in Mali’s northern territory. Though that conflict ceased with the 1995 Peace Accord and the ceremonial Burning of the Guns in Timbuktu, the Tuaregs remained restive, resentful of their lack of participation in the military, and politics and frustrated by the lack of resources invested in their region. By 2006 a short outburst had gripped the north as Tuaregs attacked government buildings in Gao, citing lack of opportunity as an aggravation. According to the IMF the more fertile south of the Sahel state constitutes 95 percent of GDP, 91 percent of the population and 99.5 percent of tax revenue.
The roots of Mali’s current conflict broke through parched earth last year when Tuareg mercenaries returned to Mali heavily armed after the fallout of Qadaffi to reclaim their historical homeland from the weak government, mired with corruption in the South.
Tensions between the north and south have only been heightened by allegations of human rights abuses carried out by Malian soldiers against Tuaregs in the North. Many Malians blame the MNLA for initiating the rebellion and problematically conflate innocent civilians in the north with separatists and Al-Qaeda. Pascal Fletcher reported in Reuters this past March:
“MNLA, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, AQIM, they are the same, they need to be punished,” said Alou Gniminou, a 39-year-old cobbler who is secretary general of the artisan market.
Having raised over $4 billion to ensure peace and security without addressing the historical grievances of a marginalized and impoverished population is bound to perpetuate future conflicts. On the issue of the restive peoples of the Saharan north the summit meeting may have been more appropriately named Together for the Same Mali.
France’s approach to military intervention differs from America’s heavy handed global militarism in one sense while mirroring aspects of it in another. Whereas American led interventions over the past 12 years have often been waged unilaterally, have been open-ended (no exit strategy), continued in spite of abysmal public support, or waged as shadowy covert operations (Obama’s so called light-foot print strategy) without oversight or congressional approval, France has tended to intervene in multilateral scenarios at the request of foreign governments (Ivory Coast in 2011, Mali 2012) and where protecting already established economic interests is concerned. America contrarily has a recent history of “preemptive warfare” to acquire access to new economic resources abroad and “forward engagement”, a project to prepare global rapid response teams to confront “unplanned consequences” around the world; in other words, position itself for future acquisitions of coveted resources.
Where France’s use of military force resembles the United States is in the way the state operates to ensure foreign investors that their investments abroad are safe. Look at how France immediately garnered logistical and financial support for the Mali incursion from Germany, Belgium, Canada and Denmark, all countries tied to gold mining, oil and gas prospecting and uranium extracting operations in the region. France, a nuclear power with the world’s fourth largest military budget operates as a corporate security force to assure major foreign investors that profits will continue to be generated in regions of the world where French based multinationals and quasi private public companies like Areva conduct business. The major difference between the French exercise of military might and America’s is the difference between the desire to maintain clout in existing regions of strategic interest and global domination. France’s more limited military capacity typically confines the global reach of the former colonial power to areas still defined by colonial borders like North and West Africa where France once dominated. America’s delusions of empire outlined in the recently published US National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 stand in stark contrast to France’s military pursuits. Global Trends 2030 makes clear America’s continued aspirations to be a benevolent “global security provider” or “global policeman”. The document is essentially a confessional by failed sci-fi writers who landed jobs in America’s intelligence-security-complex. As American military operations become increasingly secretive, as the CIA mutates more and more into a special operations outfit (as opposed to its traditional role as foreign intelligence provider), as the world wide construction of CIA bases comes to resemble an edifice complex, America reveals itself for what it is – a declinist fortress with a penchant for planetary destabilization. France’s military plays a more modest role – corporate security force of limited territory defined by history. The legacy of French intervention in its former colonies follows a disturbing trend: “it undertook 45 military operations in its former colonies between 1960 and 2005.” Including the 2011 ousting of Qadaffi, the 2011 intervention in Gabon, and the most recent intervention in Mali that amounts to 48. France’s policy of responding to its handpicked regional leaders seems to be trading off quite well as France and the business interests they back shore up greater access to the resources once sought in French colonies. The legacy of colonialism endures. When spun the right way it is made to seem heroic.
France’s “welcomed” intervention in Mali, which began last Friday may have had Bamako talking about nothing else but their appreciation for France’s military support against “Islamists” in the north, but France’s presence in its former colonial territory is a reminder that western imperial interests prevail in the region; restoring national security in Mali is the guise to ensure regional interests are protected.
Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries is also one of the richest in gold, metals and ore. Mali’s Taudeni Basin which straddles Algeria and Mauritania is one of the most coveted untapped oil fields in West Africa. Sonatrach, the Algerian state owned oil company where employees were dramatically taken hostage this week by militants from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, secured oil exploration rights in 2007 along with other companies seeking riches in the sand. But Mali is also suspected to be uranium rich like its neighbor Niger. The Kidal Project in the northeastern part of the country, the very part of Mali now under siege, has been marked by uranium prospectors for exploration. Areva, the French uranium mining company has been extracting in Niger for 50 years exporting uranium to power France’s nuclear plants. Protecting this area to secure future operations is primary for France and its energy clients, namely Germany. France sells electricity generated at its nuclear plants to Germany and Areva employs 5,200 employees in Germany. Germany’s number one soccer club FC Nurnberg sports Areva jerseys courtesy of their corporate sponsor. This past week Germany vowed public support for France’s incursion into the region. So did Canada, Belgium and Denmark countries that domicile major gold and metal mining companies conducting operations in Mali. The joint undertaking to oust Mali’s trouble makers in the name of quelling regional instability tells a tale different than that found in state official’s rhetoric.
We have one goal. To ensure that when we leave, when we end our intervention, Mali is safe, has legitimate authorities, an electoral process and there are no more terrorists threatening its territory.
This is the official narrative France and its backers profess. The hollow protect-democracy-and-freedom spiel might not continue to be so captivating when resource exploration transitions into resource extraction. Let’s see how welcoming Malians will be to Areva Mali when radioactive substances begin to turn up in wells, when the harmattan winds blow radioactive clouds across the Sahara and into the Sahel. Today hundreds of thousands of Malians have fled their homes as violence engulfs their towns and cities. The displaced may return only to be uprooted from their communities again by the humanitarian saviors who secured their land for “development”. In a region recognized as a literal corporate gold mine providing investors assurance that their ventures will be protected and profits will be turned is the central aim of the current intervention. To be misled again by the trumpeting of “enlightened states” carrying out humanitarian interventions with all the altruism and moral fervor needed to cloak the underlying motives of war, is to willfully ignore the economic factors pulling western imperialists into this conflict.
Before the Harmattan Winds
After a two night slow boating trip up the Niger River from Mopti I arrived at the ferry landing . At the northernmost bend of the Niger the ferry docked. I disembarked with hundreds of people, the things they carried, goats and sheep. Children were splashing in the brown water. Women were washing pots, pans and clothes. Men hauled solid blocks of salt onto the flatbeds of run-down pickups. I was guided towards an old blue pickup. Issa Coulibaly signaled me to hop in the back with him, Jake and Kunal. A man in a blue Tagelmust, the traditional indigo blue turban worn by Taureg men in the Sahara drove us through the desert to Le Boctou Hotel. Stepping out of the pickup the driver raised his hands to towards the orange sky, “Welcome to the middle of fucking no-where”, he said gruffly. Harsad – good-bye.
I spent several days wandering the dusty streets of Timbuktu in 2006. Le Boctou stands at the center of town caught in a distant past, frozen in the silence of Sahara vastness. I stayed here for a night listening to the susurrous wind and the bleating of fornicating goats until sunrise. On my second night I enjoyed millet beer in a calabash and a sweat drenching dance party hosted in a mud brick home equipped with a sony stereo blaring DMX, Magic System, Notorious BIG and Tata Pound. Antiquity and modernity collided. Dionysius surged through our veins as we broke into dance circles hollering into the otherwise reticent night.
Virtually everyone with the means to escape fled this dusty town when the militant islamist group Ansar Dine, “Defenders of the Faith” took advantage of the gains the Taureg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad made in the January 2012 uprising, deposing the secular Tuareg rebel forces. Ansar Dine conquered Timbuktu spreading chaos and imposing a brutal brand of Sharia law last June. Dancing is now prohibited. Listening to music is an offense punishable by amputation.
Like Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Douentza, Diabaly and Konna, these northern Malian cities have fallen to a dynamic alliance of Islamist forces. The Islamists’ advancement south, only 50 miles from Mali’s second largest city, Mopti, provoked French intervention. Airstrikes have bombarded targets in Konna and surrounding villages since President Francois Hollande ordered them last Friday. But hours after the French foreign minister declared France had blocked “the advance of the terrorists”, militants pushed into the town of Diabaly installing themselves among the people. The whack-a-mole challenge of ousting mobile militants familiar with the terrain and hardened by decades of war has begun. So too has the media’s oversimplification of the conflict in Mali and the strategic posturing by external, invested political leaders.
Over the next few blog posts I will try to clarify what is happening in Mali. I hope to clarify which armed groups are involved, how they differ and what they stand to gain or lose in the current conflict. Later I will try to illustrate the political and economic incentives driving state and corporate actors to support war in Mali’s northern extremes, shedding light on the complicity of western governments in the creation of this terrifying crisis.
The Maghreb region is a cauldron of instability that has reached its boiling point in Mali. Conflicts in North African countries spanning the Sahara are particularly vulnerable to spilling over into other countries due in large part to the way national boundaries were constructed without consideration to ethnicity. Some ethnic groups like the Taureg who constitute a majority in the territories under siege but who also represent significant populations across the Sahara in Niger, Mauritania and Chad for instance, were forced to live within a nation ruled by culturally and linguistically distinct sub-Saharan groups in Bamako. Essentially Tauregs constitute a majority in the Saharan north of countries where they otherwise represent a small minority. While Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb gets the most attention, for reasons that I will soon discuss, other armed groups, a diverse mixture of islamist, secular and ethnic confound the situation. Al Jazeera correspondent May Ying Welsh has a concise piece, Making sense of Mali’s armed groups breaking down the armed factions engaged in the struggle for power and survival. Differentiating the groups involved and understanding their particular ambitions is imperative if we are to make any sense of the conflict in Mali.
Let’s identify who is currently involved in the war in Mali and identify some of the drives that compel them to wage it.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)
The secular Taureg rebel group, The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) desire an independent state in northern Mali, particularly a state in a region they claim as the homeland of the peoples of northern Mali (this includes Songhai, Fulani, Arab peoples), Azawad. Tauregs, traditional desert nomadic traders have been vying for this part of the country since 1963. Although the exact boundaries of this idealized state are vague, it is clear that Azawad refers to the towns and territory that Tauregs, Songhai, Fulani and Berabiche Arabs have historically roamed through and occupied in the Saharan north. Dreams of reclaiming this vast desert territory have led to decades of tensions between the desert dwellers of the north and sub-Saharan groups in the South that have fomented rebellion.
The first Taureg rebellion was quashed by the Malian army relegating Taureg’s to a virtually unrepresented ethnic group in the poverty stricken north. The second Taureg rebellion in 1990’s descended the country into an effective civil war fought in Mali’s northern territory. Though that conflict ceased with the 1995 Peace Accord and the ceremonial Burning of the Guns in Timbuktu, the Tauregs remained restive, resentful of their lack of participation in the military, and politics and frustrated by the lack of resources invested in their region. By 2006 a short outburst had gripped the north as Tauregs attacked government buildings in Gao, citing lack of opportunity as an aggravation. Last March Captain Amadou Sanago, a disgruntled soldier led the junior ranks of the Malian Army to defect and stage a coup in Bamako. Corruption and the Malian government’s negligence in equipping the armies to beat back the Taureg rebellion unfolding in the North was Sanago’s reason d être . Sanago briefly came to power as transitional President. His promise to equip the Malian military to take back territory lost to Tauregs in the North went unfulfilled. Emboldened by the fallout of Qadaffi heavily armed and war hardened Taureg mercenaries returned to Mali to reclaim their historical homeland from the weak government in the South. A new power dynamic emerged that transiently put the MNLA in control of the Azawad region. The Tauregs triumph over towns and cities located in the Azawad proved short lived as more powerful forces sought power in the Saharan wild.
Ansar Dine, Tamashek for Defenders of the Faith is a group comprised predominantly of local Ifoghas Tauregs. Berabiche Arabs and other smaller ethnic groups seeking opportunity have also joined the ranks. Ansar Dine is bent on establishing Sharia Law throughout Mali and across the Islamic world. In an Al Jazeera column William G. Mosley noted that Ansar Dine has been “less concerned with territorial autonomy than the ability to impose Sharia law in the northern regions of the country”. The militant groups leader, Lyad Ag Ghali became a power player during the Taureg rebellion of the 1990’s, gaining further esteem when he helped the government in Bamako, then presided over by Amadou Toumani Toure (the President disposed last March) negotiate a ceasefire with Tauregs who raised arms in the 2006 conflagration. Ghali also played a role negotiating ransoms of behalf of Bamako with another Islamist group in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum recently said that AQIM’s presence in northern Mali was part of a deal between the group and the deposed President of Mali Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), a deal brokered by ATT’s close political associate Lyad Ag Ghali. Hostage ransom money from European governments was allegedly spread around to Malian officials while AQIM was given free rein in Taureg areas, with a wink and a nod from the Malian Army
Further allegations hold that President Toure brokered a deal with AQIM allowing them to operate in Mali’s extreme north as long as they kept the ambitions of self-determined Tauregs in check. Toure has also been accused of diverting funds given to Mali by the US to fight terrorism in the Sahara, the so-called “second front” of the war on terror, to support AQIM with the military supplies needed to achieve their end of the deal, keeping the Tauregs in check and lining the pockets of Bamako officials including Toure himself with the booty of ransom.
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)
MUJAO is a splinter group of AQIM. May Ying Welsh described the armed group as “the most opaque of the al-Qaeda-linked groups in northern Mali.” Their aims, like Ansar Din are to establish Sharia law. They differ from Ansar Din more on composition than in constitution as their ranks swell with foreign mujahedeen rebels.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
AQIM developed in Algeria during the civil war between the military government and Islamic guerrillas that raged throughout the country in the 1990’s. Members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the dominant force fighting to overthrow the government formed the Salafist Group for Preaching Combat in 1998 following the decline of GIA’s popularity after a wave of civilian massacres provoked outrage. When Nabil Sahraoui became the national emir of this faction in 2003 he was reported to have pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda. The relationship was reaffirmed in 2006 by Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri. Abu Musab Abdul Wadud now commands AQIM.
AQIM has been present in Mali since 2003. Mali’s uncontrolled northern territory provides an opportune haven for AQIM to conduct operations. Kidnapping western tourists and journalists helped AQIM raise an estimated $250 million in ransoms over the last decade. Drug smuggling across the Sahara has also been a vital source of revenue. Funds raised from these activities have helped the Islamist group purchase weapons needed to ultimately overthrow the Algerian government. Establishing a “pure” Islamic society in Algeria and continuing to wage war against western imperialist forces are other declared objectives. Mali’s vast uncontrolled region is a strategic location for AQIM to carry out its goals.
Many Malians blame the MNLA for initiating the rebellion and problematically conflate them with innocent Tuareg civilians and Islamist groups. Relying on such oversimplifications one turns a blind eye, justifying the killing of anyone civilian, Islamist, or rebel in the name of fighting Al-Qaeda. But that is and has been the intention of all state and corporate actors with a stake in the region.