Africa, Neocolonialism, Mali/Africa
Mali - Freedom is a Screen - Africa

Mali - Freedom is a Screen

Posted by Aneela Shahzad on

Sahel is the wide belt of land that separates the dry North of Africa from the wetter Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahel, since olden times, has been a trade route through which all major trade route between the North and the South crossed. Central Mali lies on the Sahel belt while the north is in the Saharan desert and the south of Mali is wet with the Niger River.

But what is Mali today contrasts with what Mali historically was between 1230 to 1600AD, a 4 century long Mali Empire. Senegal being part of the Mali Empire, it had access to the Atlantic Ocean and it controlled the trade through the Sahel.

Islam had been introduced to the region by North African Arab and Berber traders since 1000AD. But it was the great Mansa Musa (1280 – 1337) of the Mali Empire, who truly advocated Islam in his kingdom. Mansa Musa called scholars and architects from Arab and Spain and built many urban centers with buildings, mosques and learning centers. The Mansa were of Keita dynasty which traces its lineage back to Bilal, the faithful muezzin of Islam's prophet Muhammad.

The Mali Empire was rich in gold and it was the Wangara traders of Mali, specialized in gold-trade and Islamic scholarship that spread Islam to the lands below the Niger River.

After the Mali Empire broke, several small kingdoms arouse in the region and when the French came in 1892, despite the brave resistance by the likes of Samori Ture and Ahmadu Tall, none of these small kingdoms could successfully resist them. The French had occupied Senegal in 1848 and controlled it as a separate state, thus the new Mali carved by the French was land locked and the Djouf Desert had been added to it.

The French occupied Mali for about 70 years. The French kept playing with the borders of Mali until 1947, adding or subtracting adjacent lands that were also under their control – and the Malians were moved further away from their freedom.

Like with its other colonies, France forced Mali to make trade with Paris, not with its neighbors – so that it had to import expensive products from France and sell its products to it for cheap. To exploit Africans wholesomely and to increase its international prestige, France adopted an assimilation policy towards its colonial countries in Africa. This policy did not respect African culture and traditions. It banned African languages, culture, and identity. In Mali the French authority replaced all traditional chiefs with agents that were loyal to it. This devastated the economy, agriculture and the social structure of Mali. Moreover, because the Malians were over 90% Muslims and despised occupation therefore instead of assimilating into French values they introverted into local and ethnic loyalties and embers of resistance started smoldering below the surface.  

When Mali got independence in 1960, the literacy rate of the country was in single digits and many who found positions in the government had received their education in France. The first president elect Modibo Keïta, was not only educated in France but had also served in the French National Assembly.  This was because in their assimilation policy, France considered all its colonies as part of their country, and likewise the Assembly of Mali was considered part of the French Assembly and members could get the opportunity to move around in both states.

In spite of this Modibo, who had much exposure to the outside world, sought to dismiss relations with France and open new relations with powers such as the US, the Soviets and the British. Modiba was a socialist by ideology and despised the capitalist model, but it was not easy to set Mali on the path to an economic revival – as decades of food dependence and technological backwardness had rendered it difficult for Mali to compete in the global markets. As a result the population as a whole failed to see any fruit in independence - the peasants, the army and the merchants all remained unsatisfied. Modibo was also great pan-Africanist and formed the Union of the States of Western Africa with Ghana and Guinea. He also worked relentlessly for the Organization of African Union.

In 1968 Modibo was ousted by a coup led by Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, who had had his military training in France. Traore greatly increased liberalization of the economy, curtailed civil liberties and his one-party system was rife with endemic corruption among state officials and administrators. Different sectors of the society began to organize against the government but they were repressed by use of force.  In 1991 a military coup under Colonel Amadou Touré ousted Troare.

The first multiparty elections were held in 1992 and Alpha Oumar Konaré of the Adema Party was elected president. After 2 terms by Konare, Amadou Touré was re-elected Mali’s president in 2002. Toure had been a colleague of Troare and had taken part in the Modibo coup too. Toure was going to complete his second term shortly when he was ousted in a coup by Captain Amadou Sanogo in the pretext of the Tuareg Crisis.

The Tuareg Crisis

90% of Mali’s population lives south of the Niger River. Half of the population is Mande, the tribe from which the Mali Empire had arisen. Other ethnic groups such as Dogon, Peulh and Songhai have had some share in the Mali polity but the Tuareg being a minority dispersed in the wide desert area in the north have always been outsiders to the share of power.

Tuaregs are nomadic people who have traded through the Sahara for centuries, they have their own culture and political organization – one that is separate from that of the south. The Tuaregs never recognized the frontiers marked by the colonials, and were almost permanently at war with the French. For this reason, when Mali was going to get independence in 1960 – the Tuaregs raised their voice for an independent state too, the Azawad – the whole of Northern Mali – a demand that never got due response.

But the Tuareg do not live only in north Mali, the region they occupy lies equally in Algeria, Niger and Mali. Here is a clear example of how colonial map-drawing truly divided nations in ways that the seed of conflict would be sown permanently.

The government in Mali brutally suppressed the major Tuareg rebellions against them in 1963 and 1990, when they demanded autonomy in both Mali and Niger.

Eventually when, in Feb 2011, Libya was toppled by NATO’s Operation Odyssey Dawn – of which France was a major participant – thousands of Tuareg fighters that had previously been part of military squads of Gaddafi’s army, ran back to their homeland in trucks and army vehicles, laced with arms.

On their return the Tuaregs started making trouble with the Mali authority and a massive takeover of all the north began. In Bamako, President Toure was losing fronts fast, he called France and the West for help – but they bluntly refused. In Jan 2012, the Tuaregs killed between 50 and 100 Malian soldiers including several captains in Aguelhok. This caused agitation and riots in Bamako against President Toure. Captain Sanogo who had just returned from the US from his fourth training, deposed Pres. Toure in a coup.

But instead of being able to control the Tuareg Crisis, the new regime lost the whole north up to Timbuktu. The new interim govt. called France for help again – this time they came flying – from Chad – where they had a military base. The West African regional grouping Ecowas, the UN and African Union backed France. With Chad as their launching pad, the French and her allies were able to launch a number of operations against the Tuaregs – 29 to be precise – most of which involved lesser boats-on-the-ground and more air-power. So… make a guess about the collateral damages – of course Mali is an information-locked country like most of Africa – and the only news agency releasing reports on Mali at those times was AFP (Agence France-Presse). Anyways France took back most of the north from the Tuaregs in Mali in more than 20 massive bombing operations.

(Image showing US planes delivering French troops to Mali for Operation Serval in 2012)

But the question is – has peace returned to Mali after the French intervention or like in the case of Libya, Mali has also been given to permanent chaos? Since August 2013 when Ibrahim Keita won elections Mali has changed 3 prime ministers. Adding to chaos, MNLA (Tuareg group), the Ansar ud Din led by Iyad Ag Ghaly and the MOJWA led by Abu Qumqum have regained a lot of territory and have made ties with AQIM, that originated in Algeria in 2007. So thanks to the French and NATO interventions Terrorism and al Qaeda have now gained membership in another state, where it did not have any following before.

One should also give a thought to what interest France and its allies harbor in West Africa – and whether if an Al Qaeda infested Magreb is bad for those interests OR stable governments that show inclination towards doing business with anyone else a real threat?

The two major export of Mali are Gold (59%) and Cotton (22.5%), collectively they generating about 2.3billion in revenue. Yet the cotton farmers go hungry – 70% of Mali’s population lives below the national poverty line, one out of five persons can read and write, more than one out of ten babies die before the age of one and life expectancy is 48 years. The World Bank may be one of the reason, Mali has made treaties with the World Bank since the 1980s – agreeing to structural adjustments which essentially mean economic liberalization – i.e. allowing foreign investors extract resources at minimal prices, encourage cash-crops needed in foreign industry and letting the free-market determine the prices of Mali’s goods. Many times it so happens that the cotton harvested is priced lower than it actual cost by the international market, and the farmers go into debt. This has forced thousands of farmers to give up cotton-farming in the last decades.

Even being the third gold producer in the continent does not bring any good to the common Malians. The sector is completely export oriented and a number of foreign companies including Randgold, Anglogold and OliverGold control the business. Thus Mali has a “gold monoculture” same as its cotton monoculture, in which another primary resource is processed and marketed abroad. Malian authorities keep lease documents out of the public domain. No environmental and social impact studies are released – large-scale corruption is evident.

It has been reported recently that the Mali authorities have engaged in massive land-grab deals since 2010 with foreign investors, namely Malibya, Moulin Moderne, Huicoma/Tomota and Petrotech-ffn – and over 800,000 hectare of land will be leased. These land-grabs will again ship the raw produce to industries in France and the US with paying petty bribes to the Mali government officials. French firms already have hold on Mali’s construction sector (Bouygues), transportation (Bolloré Africa Logistics) communication (Orange) and the financial sector (BNP-Paribas).

So one wonders if the western powers have really left their barbaric policies of hegemony and exploitation and given way to true democracy and human right in Mali – or is Mali ‘yet to enter history’?