Behind Mali’s conflict: myths, realities & unknowns
Since the French military intervention in Mali, known as Operation Serval, began last week, the internet has been buzzing with talk about its motives. Is France really only trying to contain a terrorist threat, as it claims? Or do major world powers have other, more sinister interests at stake? At its root, what is the conflict in Mali about?
This discourse, generated largely by journalists, analysts and activists unfamiliar with Mali, has been far too speculative for my tastes. Let’s consider what we do and don’t know about the causes and effects of international interest in Mali.
1. Mineral rights
Many sources say that the main reason France, and Western countries more broadly, are getting involved in Mali is that these major world powers covet the country’s mineral resources. The website globalresearch.ca expresses this view bluntly: “the goal of this new war is no other than stripping yet another country of its natural resources by securing the access of international corporations to do it.” Mali’s subsoil has been reported to contain abundant precious metals, oil and gas. But the truth of Mali’s “mineral riches” is rather murky.
Where oil and gas are concerned, talk of Mali’s “oil wealth” is premature: while Mali has potential reserves, it has zero proven reserves, and despite its government allocating 700,000 square kilometers for drilling since 2005, no wells have been drilled yet (see Jeune Afrique). No major multinational energy companies have even bought drilling rights in Mali: the only companies who have are Italy’s ENI, Algeria’s SONATRACH, Canada’s Selier Energy, and a few other minor players with high risk tolerance. Even before the present conflict began a year ago, the Malian Sahara’s remoteness and chronic insecurity made it a no-go zone for most investors. Military intervention will not change that for the better.
As for uranium in Mali, the only current mining operation of which I’m aware is in Falea, close to the country’s southwestern border with Guinea, carried out by the Canadian company Rockland. This operation has had its own social and environmental problems, but it’s nowhere near the conflict zone. Despite rumors of uranium in northern Mali, no evidence has been made public, so we cannot take it as a given that the area is “uranium rich.”
Aerial view of the Syama gold mine in southern Mali
Mali is among Africa’s top gold producers, exporting between 36 and 60 metric tons annually over the last decade; gold is a key source of revenue for the Malian government. Mining operations are carried out in southern and western Mali by a handful of multinational companies (Randgold, AngloGold Ashanti, and Iamgold among others).
Given what we don’t know about what lies beneath Malian soil, we can’t rule out the possibility that natural resources are a factor behind foreign intervention. But starting a war is hardly necessary to get cheap access to Mali’s gold or other minerals. Successive Malian governments, aware that they lack the capital and human resources to develop these deposits themselves, have cut very generous deals with mining companies and imposed minimal regulations on their activities. What’s the point of carrying out a risky jewelry store heist when the owners are practically giving away their merchandise?
2. Blowback from US military training
A primary reason for the defeat of Malian government forces at the hands of northern rebels last year, writes Barry Lando in the Huffington Post, was “the defection to the rebels of several key Malian officers, who had been trained by the Americans.” This unintended consequence of the US military’s ill-advised training program in the Sahel region helped turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, this argument goes.
This would make sense if most of the US-trained officers in Mali’s armed forces had defected to the rebels. But that’s not the case: Pentagon-sponsored training was provided to a broad cross-section of officers and NCOs in the Malian military, of which the defectors (most of them Tuareg) made up a minority. US-trained personnel fought on both sides of the conflict: at best the effects of their training were canceled out, at worst they were negligible. The problem with the US military’s training program wasn’t that it benefited the wrong people, it’s that it didn’t work. Following exercises in 2009, detailed in Wikileaks, even one of the Malian army’s most elite units got poor evaluations despite lengthy collaboration with US trainers. Whatever “advantage” such collaboration may have provided, it was the last thing the Tuareg — experienced desert fighters — needed to defeat Malian government forces.
(The “Democracy Now” television news program yesterday managed to combine the blowback and uranium fallacies in a single headline: “Admin Aids French Bombing of Mali After U.S.-Trained Forces Join Rebels in Uranium-Rich Region.“)
By sending troops and jets to Mali, is France merely reasserting its bygone role as the country’s colonial master? Yes, says the World Federation of Trade Unions, which claims that “France continues to use the military bases it maintains in Africa in order to strengthen its role in the inter-imperialist competition and to serve the interests of its monopoly groups who are plundering the wealth-producing resources (gold, uranium etc.).” One Russian analyst argues that Operation Serval represents an attempt to “recolonize Africa.” Despite Malians’ warm reception for the French, similar interpretations continue to appear in the Malian press.
It would be difficult to prove or disprove allegations of neocolonial or imperialist motivations in French foreign policy. Surely a great many French citizens and leaders harbor paternalistic sentiments toward their former African colonies, and surely there are economic interests at stake. But we do know that for over a year, President Hollande was extremely reluctant to intervene in Mali’s conflict, preferring instead to lend logistic and financial support to a West African regional operation. The imminent collapse of the Malian military last week at the hands of Islamist forces in the Mopti region rendered that option moot. “La Françafrique” isn’t dead, but times have changed: by all indications, Operation Serval was a last resort, whereas a few years ago it would have been the default option.
4. Mali’s “strategic importance”
All of a sudden the word “strategic” keeps cropping up with reference to Mali. When you see the word associated with dusty hamlets like Konna or Diabaly, you know something’s amiss.
How about this claim by a U.S.-based activist group: “Mali is strategically located between the Arab African north and the Black African south. This largely Muslim country borders seven other countries…. This makes Mali of interest to the U.S., which seeks to counter the growing Chinese economic presence in Africa.”
A process of reverse reasoning appears to be at work here: If a conflict involving Western military forces is occurring somewhere, that somewhere must, by definition, be “strategic.” But let’s be honest: in and of itself, Mali has no strategic value. Discussing the fallout of intervention in Libya, Ross Douthat got it right last July when he wrote, “Mali is neither oil-rich nor strategically important. It is the kind of place whose politics is covered briefly in the back pages of foreign policy magazines, in between capsule book reviews and want ads for Kissinger Associates.” It is the recent successes of armed Islamist groups on its soil that have made Mali matter to the rest of the world.
5. Islam and Mali
Protestors in London, 12 Jan. (AFP)
Proponents of the “clash of civilizations” thesis (a group that includes both neo-conservatives and radical jihadists, believe it or not) see Mali as the new front line in the war between Islam and the West. But at least 9 out of 10 Malians are Muslim, they are grateful for the French intervention, and they want no part of the intolerant, totalitarian project reserved for them by the coalition of Islamist groups now controlling Mali’s north. At its core, the conflict in Mali is not between Muslims and non-Muslims; it’s between Muslims with different visions of Islam, and religion is by no means the most important issue at stake. One of the reasons the French government was so hesitant to get involved, and now insists that it’s fighting “terrorists, not Islamists”, is that it doesn’t want to play into the hands of those who portray what’s happening in Mali as “Islam vs. the West.”
Moreover, I’m not sure how accurate it is to call the forces fighting against the French “Malian rebels” or to describe the conflict as a “civil war“–the command structures of AQIM and MUJWA in particular are dominated by Algerians and Mauritanians. Malians widely perceive these groups as foreign invaders, motivated by racism and greed as well as a perverted, even ignorant view of their faith.
We cannot say that the war in Mali is primarily about natural resources, Western meddling, or religion. We can say, however, that it is a direct consequence of state failure, which as I have argued elsewhere came about largely due to factors internal to Mali. My experience as an anthropologist has made me suspicious of reductionist theories and grand narratives of history, from Marxism to dependency theory to modernization theory. The notion that what’s today playing out in Mali is the product of a “great game” between major powers ignores the realities on the ground there. Those are precisely the realities that anthropology has trained me to appreciate.