As the French invade Mali under the guise of fighting "Islamic terrorism," the reawakening of long dormant French imperialism straddles the fine line between comedy and tragedy. A French air strike against a rebel-held town wound up killing over a hundred, including many civilians, but the triumphal mood in Paris soon dimmed when it was suddenly discovered that the mission – dubbed "Serval" by the French, after a North African wildcat – which was supposed to take a few weeks will instead require an extended campaign.
Wildcat? Tabby cat is more like it.
Before we can come to any appreciation of what is actually happening in Mali, the narrative we are being sold needs first to be debunked. News accounts refer to the rebels as "Islamists," an easy label to affix to groups very few know anything about. The reality, however, is quite different: the rebels are Tuaregs of Northwest Africa, a nomadic group whose historic homeland crosses the boundaries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso. They are herders and smugglers, whose caravans once provided the only source of commercial contact between the empires of central Africa and the Arab lands to the north. Their fight for independence precedes the existence of Al Qaeda by a hundred and fifty years.
In the Great Scramble for European colonies that began at the end of the 19th century, French colonialists invaded, seized the land, and subjected the locals to a program of forced "assimilation" into "French civilization." The Tuaregs have been fighting to regain their independence ever since. Today, however, that struggle has been reinterpreted as yet another example of "Islamic terrorism."
This is outright false. The Tuareg independence movement is led by the National. Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (MNLA), a secular organization that only wants autonomy for the Tuareg areas of Mali. There are active Islamists in Mali, affiliated with Ansar Dine, which has no known affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb other than the fact that Ansar Dine’s leader, Ag Ghaly, is a cousin of AQIM commander Hamada Ag Hamada. "It is true that Ansar Dine have the black flags, but they are not Al Qaeda," said MNLA spokesman Ag Assarid. "They want stability on the streets," which the "government" of Mali is unable to provide, and "they are against Al Qaeda too." North African specialist Salma Belaala concurs: “We can’t make a systematic link between the AQIM and Tuareg. It’s completely false."
In any case, the tactical alliance between the MNLA and Ansar Dine has been an on and off affair: days after the "merger" of their forces was announced, the MNLA began to back off – and, a week later, the lash up was back on again. This link to "terrorism," never mind Al Qaeda, is tenuous indeed – but how else will the revanchist dream of a revived French empire in Africa be realized except under the rubric of the "war on terrorism"?
If the French invasion – or, rather, re-invasion – of Mali is really aimed at expunging Al Qaeda, then perhaps they ought to be attacking the Algerians: Professor Jeremy Keenan, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says the Algerians have longtime links not only to Ag Ghaly, but also to important Al Qaeda figures, including Abdelhamid abou Zaid. The Algerians, he says, have an interest in supporting the "specter" of Al Qaeda looming in the Sahel because it increases their value to the US – and promises to reap a bonanza in military and economic aid.
As for the "government" of Mali – after a series of Tuareg victories in the north, the military overthrew the elected government and declared martial law. The army complained that not enough attention was being paid to crushing the Tuareg insurgency, and last month they seized the presidential palace, the state television station, and arrested key members of the legitimate government, although the President, Amadou Toure, escaped. This is the "government" the French, with aid from the US and Britain, are fighting to preserve.
What in the name of all that’s holy is going on here? Why this war?
Economically depressed, riven by deep social, ethnic, and political divisions, France is suffering from a crisis of national self-esteem. The attempt by the Socialist government to impose a program of confiscatory taxation – up to 75 percent of income – while ushering in a regime of austerity on the populace is proving immensely unpopular. With forces on the far left and the far right fast gaining traction, the "centrist" Socialists of Francois Hollande are desperate to refurbish their image as soft and indecisive. After the assault on Mali, Hollande will no longer be known as "Flanby," after a gelatinous dessert.
The reassertion of French imperialism has nothing to do with "terrorism," Al Qaeda, or anything remotely connected to either of these phenomena. Instead, it has everything to do with French politics, and the long history of the French expansionist movement. Since the days of the Great Scramble, there has been a small but influential colonialist lobby which constantly agitated for the expansion and development of France’s overseas empire, especially in North Africa. Initially these ideologues rationalized their program of colonial conquest by pointing to the virtues of French civilization as a benign influence on the downtrodden races of the Dark Continent. Indeed, the first champions of extending the benefits of rich sauces and an inexplicable conceit to the benighted Africans were explicit racialists. As fervent anti-clericalist and Republican politician Jules Ferry (twice Prime Minister of France) put it to the National Assembly:
"Gentlemen, I must speak from a higher and more truthful plane. It must be stated openly that, in effect, superior races have rights over inferior races."
This superiority, Ferry averred, gave them not only the "right" but the "duty" to raise the French tricolor over darkest Africa. Societies for the propagation of colonialism, the Comité de l’Afrique Française and the Union coloniale française, grew up, and lobbied for government subsidies in order to "develop" the colonies and – coincidentally – enrich the merchants of Lyons, Marseilles, and other port cities. Chambers of commerce were a key link in this powerful lobby.
The "assimilationist" rhetoric of the colonialists – the idea that the Africans were going to be properly "civilized" and made into model French citizens – soon gave way to the "developmental" phase of French imperialism, during which the civilizing mission was subordinated to the alleged commercial advantages of empire. Except it turned out that these colonies were financially impractical, and turned a loss – although some well-placed merchants, with the right connections, turned enormous profits.
Mali is Africa’s third largest producer of gold, and the recent discovery of vast unexploited sources of oil on traditional Tuareg stomping grounds should give us some idea of the commercial motives behind the French incursion. Yet it isn’t just greed that motivates the new Napoleons: you’ll note the French have been increasingly self-assertive of late, always the first to call for intervention in this or that "crisis," from Libya to Syria and now taking the lead in Mali. This burst of nationalistic fervor is very convenient for the French political class, which presides over a near bankrupt museum of past glories and little else. What better way to divert attention away from such a sorry fate than to gin up a convenient war in which, once again, the mystic virtues of "French civilization" emerge victorious to universal applause?
The US was reportedly reluctant to get involved, but got dragged in when the French overrode Washington’s caution and went ahead anyway. Now we are stuck, once again, "leading from behind," i.e. cleaning up the mess our allies leave behind.
Here is a perfect lesson in how a local authority with no popular mandate – the Malian "government," in this instance – can gin up a "terrorist" scare in order to maintain its tenuous hold over its own people. Just as, during the cold war, local tyrants from Argentina to Vietnam ginned up Western intervention in the name of the "war on communism," so their 21st century equivalents are following the same pattern. When will we ever learn?
Mali is no more a real country than Libya ever was – both are creations of European imperialism, which drew arbirary borders in the Great Scramble and then left, leaving local tribes and clans to fight it out among themselves. In order to justify their return, the new imperialists are claiming to be fighting "terrorism," and yet what they really seem to be battling is their own undeniable decline. The only "crisis" here is the crisis of French self-esteem – and the "multilateralism" that drags us into every conflict, no matter how obscure.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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