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Crisis in West Africa: Where Neocolonialism Meets Fundamentalism--With Dire Consequences for Mali's People

The French intervention in Mali further complicates a descent into hell which that country has been experiencing for the last two years.

Soldiers from the Malian Army.
Photo Credit: Staff Sergeant Samuel Bendet/Wikimedia Commons


The entrance of the French military into the Malian civil war further complicates a descent into hell which that country has been experiencing for the last two years. Mainstream media attention has largely focused on the emergence of right-wing Islamists associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the threat that this poses to the culture and people of Mali. Yet little background is presented regarding the whole conflict, particularly the circumstances that resulted in the unfolding disaster.

Up to the precipice

The country known as Mali was carved out of what was once known as “French West Africa.” Named after the famous empire of Mali (roughly 1200-1600 AD), Mali included various ethnicities, much like other former European colonies in Africa. In many cases these ethnicities had little in common, a fact that became particularly important with regard to the Tuareg people in the northern part of the country.

The Tuareg, part of the larger so-called Berber population of northern Africa, engaged in non-violent and violent confrontations with the Malian state almost from the time of independence in search of greater autonomy. This has been a source of constant instability.

Like most of the former French colonies, Mali remained of interest to France. During the years of Malian President Modibo Keita, efforts at genuine national sovereignty were pursued, but with the overthrow of Keita, French neo-colonial involvement regained the initiative. Mali, a country rich in natural resources, including gold and uranium, has remained important to global capitalism.

Algeria, Libya and “unintended consequences”

The Algerian civil war of the 1990s, along with the Libyan uprising (hijacked by the NATO intervention), had a direct impact on Mali. The Algerian civil war, which counterposed the military government against right-wing Islamists, was filled with atrocities committed by both sides, including atrocities attributed to the fundamentalists actually carried out by forces linked with the government. In the wake of the military defeat of the fundamentalists, a politico-military realignment took place in the camp of the right-wing Islamists and with it, the creation of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). AQIM has become one of the more successful and well-resourced of fundamentalist/terrorist organizations in Africa. But more importantly, its rise has been used as a pretext by the USA, starting some years ago, for greater US military involvement in the Sahel region of Africa under the guise of fighting terrorism.

The trajectory of the Libyan uprising, which began as a non-violent protest and then escalated into a full-blown civil war in the aftermath of repression by the Qaddafi regime, provided a basis for further instability in the region. In the aftermath of the NATO intervention, which derailed efforts at justice and national sovereignty, the situation in northwest Africa became increasingly unsettled. The source of that instability was the combination of armaments possessed by the now fallen Qaddafi regime that ended up flooding northwest Africa, along with the exit from Libya of many of the late Qaddafi’s former African allies. AQIM along with dissidents in northern Mali were major beneficiaries of this flood of arms.

The revolt

Taking advantage of a weak Malian government and the arms they obtained in Libya, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA—the French acronym; Azawad is the name given by the Tuareg to the region), launched an uprising. Better organized than the Malian army, they quickly moved to victory, largely seizing northern Mali. Joining in this uprising, however, were various right-wing Islamist groups, including those with ties with Al Qaeda.

The Malian army, finding itself repeatedly defeated by the MNLA, turned against the recognized Malian government and launched a coup d’état. This illegal act was broadly condemned in the international community and did nothing to garner real support for a termination of the conflict with the Tuareg.

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