In recent months, the west African country of Mali has been plunged into chaos, with a military coup, a unilateral declaration of an independent state by members of the Tuareg minority in the north (an act further complicated by the activities of several groups of muslim fundamentalists in the region), and the increasing threat of imperialist intervention from either France or the United States. And all this despite the fact that Mali had been an essentially stable and democratic country for the last two decades before the overthrow of the Green revolution in neighbouring Libya.
On 22 March, Amadou Sanogo, an army captain who had received training from the US military between 2004-10, seized power in a coup, on the pretext that the elected government of Amadou Toumani Touré had been ineffective in dealing with the Tuareg rebellion that had broken out in January. Touré’s government had already been facing weeks of growing public protests on this issue before the coup.
On 1 February, wives and mothers of soldiers killed in the fighting between the Malian army and the rebels had protested, accusing the government of “sending their men to the slaughter without preparation or adequate equipment”. (‘France threatens to back intervention in Mali’, wsws.org, 10 April 2012)
Nevertheless, within 10 days of Sanogo’s seizure of power, the central authorities had lost control of the entire north of the country.
Tuaregs declare independence
On 6 April, a recently formed Tuareg movement, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) ‘irrevocably’ declared the independence of the north of the country under the Azawad name.
Whilst the MNLA claims that it seeks to establish a secular democracy, at least two fundamentalist groups, Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are also very active within the self-declared new state, and are already imposing their version of sharia law in the areas they control, with harsh punishments and the oppression and brutalisation of women. The exact relationship between these obscurantists and the MNLA is presently unclear, but appears to be characterised by both collusion and contention.
Although the MNLA was only formed in 2011, it inherits a longer tradition of Tuareg revolts over the last decades. The boundaries of most African states were drawn by European colonial powers, for their convenience and according to the balance of power between them, and as a result the Tuaregs are one of many African peoples who have felt marginalised and without a strong sense of identification to any state. Although no accurate census figures exist, the Tuaregs are believed to number some 1.5-2 million people, spread across five countries: Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.
In Mali, the area claimed by the MNLA is some one-and-a-half times the size of France, representing 65 percent of Mali’s territory but containing just 10 percent of its population.
The MNLA claims that this region has been effectively ignored by the central government in Bamako, something that was implicitly admitted by President Touré himself before his overthrow, when he stated: “[In northern Mali] there are no roads, health centres, schools, wells or basic infrastructure. There is nothing. A young man from this region has no chance to get married and succeed in life, unless they steal a car and join the smugglers.”
Although the country is little known in Britain, Mali’s civilisation extends back at least 1,000 years. Timbuktu, now a centre of the Tuareg rebellion, was a centre of islamic civilisation and learning during the European middle ages. The area was colonised by France during the 19th century and in 1960 gained national independence.
During the first eight years of independence, Mali was a socialist-oriented country. The first post-independence leader, President Modibo Keita, was a close ally of Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah and Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Touré. He actively supported the Algerian revolution and other liberation movements and built close ties with socialist countries, including the Soviet Union, Cuba and China. Keita was overthrown in a military coup in 1968.
Imperialists covet Mali
In recent years, Mali has attracted greater international attention, both for military-strategic reasons and on account of its mineral wealth. The country is already the third-largest producer of gold in Africa, but most of its natural wealth remains to be exploited.
According to a statement by a progressive US organisation, Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality:
“What raises concerns about a possible US role are the important geopolitical position that Mali occupies, the fact that the US military is already in the country, and the presence of known oil reserves under the desert sands of northern Mali … This makes Mali of interest to the US, which seeks to counter the growing Chinese economic presence in Africa. China is now Mali’s largest export trading partner.
“Under the umbrella of its Africa Command, or Africom, the US has been systematically developing ties with the militaries of African countries, including Mali. Washington annually contributes about $140m to Mali, half of it supposedly for humanitarian purposes, the other half to support ‘development’ and the Malian military, an organisation of just 7,000 soldiers. The US state department hand picks Malian officers for special training in the US.
“Over the past few months, almost every incoming flight to [Malian capital] Bamako has brought a dozen US soldiers, obvious by their haircuts and by the greeting party that usually includes a couple of men in US army uniform. No one will say how many US military personnel are based in Mali, but there is no doubt that Africom sees Mali as highly strategic to its goals in Africa.”
The statement continued: “When they were finally forced out of Africa … the French left behind desperately poor countries. Today Mali remains the 23rd poorest country on earth, with the 49th lowest life expectancy – barely 53 years. It is one of eight countries currently facing drought and severe food shortages in the Sahel, the vast region that forms the southern edge of the Sahara Desert …
“Mali is a study in contradictions. Twice the size of Texas, it is one of Africa’s largest but least populated countries. Rich in deposits of gold, phosphates, kaolin, and salt, its people have an annual per capita purchasing power of just $1,300. Less than four percent of its land is capable of growing irrigated crops.
“It has the world’s third-highest birth rate and the third-highest infant mortality. Just 56 percent of its people have access to decent drinking water and all of them face a high risk of contracting malaria and waterborne diseases. Less than half the population can read and write, with few receiving more than an elementary-school education. With no oil or gas production of its own, the country is dependent on others for its energy needs.”
However, “It has been known for decades that vast oil deposits likely lie beneath the sands of [Mali’s] northern desert regions … In February of this year, two foreign companies signed oil and gas exploration deals with the Malian government that oblige them to invest millions of US dollars in the search for petroleum in the country’s vast desert. Both Algeria’s national oil company Sonatrach and the Canadian-owned Selier Energy say that the vast Taoudeni basin, at Mali’s borders with Mauritania and Algeria, shows great potential for major oil and gas discoveries.
“In a world hungry for energy resources, who will get control of these reserves? US strategists are fearful of China’s growing influence, adding competition to greed as motives to control the area.” (‘US hands off Mali! An analysis of the recent events in the Republic of Mali’, 5 April 2012)
Even a writer sympathetic to the cause of Tuareg independence, in a recent interview, acknowledged a possible link between the present rebellion and French interest in likely hydrocarbon resources. Andy Morgan was asked: “What about oil and gas? Is the area strategic in terms of its mineral resources?”
He replied: “Yes, one thing that has been happening in the last five years is that northern Mali has been explored, and parcelled off as lots for oil drilling. Those lots have already been sold off – and I should say this is where things get very murky and where some serious investigative journalism needs to be done.
“Total, the French oil company, was involved in the exploration, as was the Qatar Petroleum Company. As we know, both Qatar and France were heavily involved in the overthrow of Gaddafi, and many Malian commentators see a conspiracy in which France (remembering that France and the Tuaregs did try and set up a Tuareg state back in the ’50s prior to Malian independence, which was quashed by the FLN in Algeria and by the leaders of independent Mali) has always rued the fact that it lost all its colonies and access to the rich minerals in northern Mali. So many Malians see the Tuareg rebellion as being engineered by the French.” (‘Mali’s Tuareg rebellion’, theglobaldispatches.com, 27 March 2010)
Besides the expectations of oil wealth, new gas fields have been discovered near the border with Algeria, and the Tuareg-dominated areas are also known to be rich in uranium. France depends on uranium from this region (at present largely imported from Niger) for both nuclear power generation, which accounts for 78 percent of the country’s electricity generating capacity and yields billions of euros in annual profits, and its nuclear weapons programme.
Against this background, it is hard to see how the splintering of Mali into two or more states, whatever the grievances of particular national groups, would serve any progressive purpose.
This applies not least to the poorest and most downtrodden in Tuareg society itself. In his above-quoted interview, Andy Morgan noted:
“There is one group that is seemingly opposed to the MNLA and they are called the Inghad. They are the former subordinate or ‘vassal’ class in the old hierarchical structure – subordinate to the more noble Idnan and Iforas Tuaregs. Many of the Inghad were in favour of the Tuareg lands becoming part of the Republic of Mali, as the socialist principles upon which the Malian Republic was built meant that they were freed from their subservient status in Tuareg society.”
The legacy of Gaddafi
Writing at the turn of the 20th century, the great Irish socialist James Connolly warned prophetically that the partition of Ireland would unleash a “carnival of reaction” in both the north and south of the country.
Today, such a carnival of reaction is being unleashed across the vast Sahara-Sahel region, in which both Mali and Libya are located, as a result of the barbarous war against Libya and the equally barbarous murder of the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi used his country’s oil wealth not only to develop Libya, but the whole of Africa. He forged close links with the Tuaregs, many of whom came from neighbouring states, including Mali, to live in Libya and also with the government in Bamako. With Libyan mediation, the Tuaregs largely confined their struggle to justifiable demands for autonomy and peace prevailed to a great extent.
Just a month before his overthrow, President Touré gave an interview to a French newspaper, declaring:
“Concerning the local Arab-Tuareg rebellions, Gaddafi engaged in mediation, disarmament and reintegration. His overthrow has left a vacuum … very early, we alerted Nato and others about the collateral effects of the Libyan crisis. To no avail.”
Touré said he had “no regrets” about his close ties to Gaddafi. “Libya made substantial investments with us in tourism, hotels, agriculture and banking, contributing to our development.”
Writing about Malian support for Libya in its resistance to the Nato aggression, the New York Times reported in March last year:
“Just look at Mr Maiga’s [a pro-Libyan activist] life: he prays at a mosque in Bamako, Mali’s capital, that Colonel Muammar Gaddafi built; he watches television on the Malian national network that Colonel Gaddafi set up in the 1980s; and he admires with a feeling nothing short of awe La Cité Administrative … the gleaming new $100m government complex that Colonel Gaddafi is helping pay for … He has tapped Libya’s vast oil reserves to liberally sprinkle billions of dollars around sub-Saharan Africa … From the streets to the president’s office, there seems to be near unanimous respect.
“‘Some people see the colonel as the devil, but he’s not,’ said Seydou Sissouma, spokesman for Mali’s president. ‘He’s a great African.’
“Mr Sissouma bristled at the idea that Libya was buying friends. ‘That’s not the case,’ he said. ‘Libya has accepted to share its resources with others. Other African oil producers, like Nigeria, don’t do this.’” (‘Libyan oil buys allies for Gaddafi’, 15 March 2011)
The present situation in Mali, especially if it continues to deteriorate, may well be used to create a pretext for further military intervention in that country or the wider region. Anti-imperialists and the working-class movement must demand that there be no such intervention of any kind and that the people of Mali and all states in the region be left to sort out their own affairs.