Read Part 1.
“There are two kinds of history – the official kind, full of lies, which is taught in schools – history ad usum delphini; and there is secret history – in which we learn the real causes of events – a shameful chronicle.”
— Les Illusions Perdues, Balzac
Mali: New Front of the War on Terrorism
No doubt the attack on the In-Amenas oil and gas facility in the Algerian Sahara is related to the events in Mali, where France has just landed troops in an effort to dislarge the Islamic militants who have taken over Mali’s northern regions. What are the pretexts, the deeper logic of the French Malian intervention? One would think that people wouldn’t fall for it yet again: ‘We’re just sending the troops to protect innocent lives and support democracy’ – humanitarian interventionalism. Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.
Now add Mali to the list.
But once again, it works like a charm, long enough at least to get French troops on the ground in Mali from whence it will difficult to extract them for some time. It helps to have a weak UN Security Council resolution a la Libya which doesn’t condone sending troops but is vague enough to give a thin veil of legitimacy – the suggestion of international law at work – to cover war crimes. Combine that with some wacko Salafist radicals, a vital element in the mix, who destroy Sufi shrines and rough up women, forcing them, veiled, back in the kitchen without music on the radio and the combustible mix is complete.
Enter French President Francois Hollande, his popularity sagging at home as the French socio-economic crisis deepens. Lying with a straight face, Hollande told his nation and the world that by sending French troops to Mali with jet fighter cover that “France has no other purpose than to fight terrorism.” France only wants to help Mali ‘recover its territorial integrity’ and make sure there are “legitimate authorities and an electoral process.”
It plays well in Paris where the Mali diversion works to make a weak and confused French president look strong and determined. The call for a French-led, secular jihad to counter an exaggerated Islamic jihad gets the French public singing La Marseillaise! in unison. If the United States led the charge in opening the first front on the War on Terrorism, France, where Islamophobia has a long and esteemed history, can provide the shock troops for the second front, the Sahara. French military intervention plays well in Washington too.
The Obama Administration has been unable, until now, to pressure its choice strategic ally, Algeria, to enter the Malian fray. With its eye on an Asian-Pacific military buildup, Washington itself is unwilling to send U.S. troops (other than some Special Forces types we have to assume are involved) to Mali. Hollande’s willingness to act as the Sahara’s Netanyahu suits the Obama Administration and its likely new Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel.
Missing from Hollande’s ‘We-only-want-to- help-out-the-poor-Malian-people’ scenario is France’s sorry history in post-colonial history of shamelessly supporting some of the worst African dictators in exchange for economic access, its complicity in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its specific historic interest going back to the 1890s to control the Sahara and its extraordinary wealth in oil, natural gas, uranium, gold and other natural resources.
The French even have a term for it: ‘Francafrique‘. Some French commentators speak of the French military incursion into Mali as the ‘return of Francafrique’, a bit misleading, as, since the independence wave of the 1960s, France never left Africa. Its neo-colonial relationship with its former colonies is an unbroken chain of cynical economic deals lubricated by massive corruption of its African client elites.
To understand the French intervention in Mali, it helps to take Hollande’s words and rework them a bit to ‘France is intervening in Mali to protect the extensive French economic interests in the region – oil, natural gas, uranium and gold’. These interests, both those in full operation and those yet to come extend across the Sahara in Chad, Niger, Mali, Algeria and Mauritania. For example. although uranium is not yet mined in Mali, it is mined in nearby northern Niger by Areva, one of the world’s largest uranium mining companies, French owned. The French get most of the profits and benefits thereof. The Sahara locals wind up with little more than polluted water tables and piles of radioactive tailings.
Pre-empting the Spectre of Chinese Influence
Under the surface, beneath the French song about promoting liberté, égalité, and fraternité in Mali with French Special Forces troops and Mirage jet fighters, one notices ‘un certain nervosite’. Yep, the French power circles are getting the shakes over the instability in Mali. The fear, like most paranoia, is vague, and while not totally imaginary, it is grossly exaggerated.
No, it is not the Algerian-trained (by the DRS) Saharan Islamicists that strike fear into the heart of the French elite…small potatoes. It’s China! Of course. Uncertainty over how the situation might play out throughout the Sahara region is at the source of French concern. Political changes in the region could jeopardize France’s sizeable uranium, petro-chemical and other strategic raw material access. For a country in which 70% of electrical power comes from nuclear power, and most of the uranium to run it comes from the Sahara, this is serious.
If this part of the scenario is accurate then there is another way to consider French military actions in Mali: little more than a pre-emptive, defensive military maneuver meant to keep China out of Mali (and Niger and Chad among other places) and for France to retain its access to the Saharan wealth on which it depends.
While uranium has not been mined yet in Mali (or in Chad), surveys done by the French in the 1950s located significant potential sources of the stuff there. Geologists also claim there could be yet more Saharan oil and natural gas throughout the Sahara region from Mauritania to the Sudan, much of which – including Mauretania, Mali, Niger and Chad – has yet to be unearthed.
But for the people of the Sahara, the French-created Saharan national boundaries mean little. Where Mali ends and Niger begins is not found on the Tuareg mental map of the region they have lived in for several thousand years. The French fear that the instability in Mali could spill over into Niger, where France has several major uranium mine, with another one about to open for business. Perhaps this gives some insights as to why France has concentrated virtually all of its African military bases in Africa, either in, or within striking distance of the Sahara. One should expect that one outcome of the current French military campaign in Mali is another permanent base somewhere, perhaps between Timbuctou and Gao, north of the Niger River.
Some Historical Considerations
Hollande’s ‘solidarity’ with Mali, his eagerness to send French troops there, is merely the latest episode in France’s 125-year effort to gain control the Sahara belt countries from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, an effort in which they were only partially successful.
French conquest of the Sahara began badly. The first mission, the so-called Flatters Mission, taken in 1881 from Algeria, was entirely wiped out by Tuareg bands. Others would proceed only with difficulty. It would take the French nearly twenty years to recover and reconvene its Sahara thrust eastward. The French march to the Red Sea was again stopped at Fashoda in 1898 when the French offensive ran into British troops which it wisely decided not to confront militarily.
The decisive military confrontation that gave France control of the rest of the Sahara took place shortly after, in 1902. A French military contingent under Lieutenant Cottenest wiped out a band of 300 Tuareg fighters in the Ahaggar region (in the Sahara by the current Algerian-Libyan border) .
There were other setbacks. Early 20th-century attempts to dominate the Fezzan (Western Libya) were checked first by the Italians and later after World War II by combined U.S. and British pressure which expelled their military missions from Libya. France had hoped to annex this region to Algeria. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1950s, oil was discovered there.
French military activity in Mali, as part of a larger plan to dominate the region and its resources, is nothing new. Twice in the 20th century, France considered creating something of an independent Saharan political unit, under French control of course first during World War One, and later, a more serious attempt in the 1950s.
The first campaign to create a ‘French Sahara’ was led by a French priest, one Father Charles de Foucauld, assassinated in Tamanrasset (in the Algerian Sahara) in December, 1916. Foucauld’s vision, which had some support in French circles of power, was to create an ethnic state, what he referred to as a ‘pan-Tuareg’ political entity in the Sahara that would cut the Algerian Sahara off from the northern part of the country, isolating the Arab North from sub-Saharan Black Africa.
Following the racist logic of French colonialism, Foucauld believed that the Tuaregs, an offshot of the Berbers, were racially close to Europeans, superior to the Arabs who represented a kind of second rung of humanity. Black Africans, whom Foucauld considered virtually ineducable, were at the bottom of his racial pyramid. According to his thinking Foucauld hoped to create an ethnically pure Tuareg Sahara that would be closely linked to France culturally and economically.
These ideas were clearly expressed in one of Foucauld’s many letters to members of the French parliament:
“How can we civilize our African empire?” he asks, the ‘burning question’ of the pre-WW I years. “Doubtless it consists of variable elements: Berbers (the Tuareg) capable of rapid progress, Arabs slow to progress. The diverse Black populations, by themselves, cannot achieve civilized status, but all should advance to the degree capable.”1
How generous and liberal a spirit!
Although Foucauld’s ideas never materialized into an all-Saharan entity that would rip off the Algerian Sahara and combine it with French colonized Saharan areas of Chad, Niger and Mali, his program resonated among certain pro-colonial and mining circles in the French Parliament, and like a phoenix these ideas would rise from oblivion in the early 1950s.
At that time the French government proposed what is referred to as “l’Organisation commune des regions sahariennes” (the Common – or Combined – Organization of Sahara Regions), its acronym – OCSR. The OCSR created a series of bureaucracies to research the region’s mineral wealth, to administer the region, to set up a communications network. It was a serious endeavor that went much further than Foucauld’s less practical colonial vision.
The Sahara and the Algerian War for Independence: 1954-1962
Not much has been written about the fact that the French had started secretly negotiating with the Algerian rebels – the FLN (Front de la liberations nationale) – as early as 1956 and that even at this early date, the French offered the Algerians a modicum of independence; but it was a truncated independence that Paris was willing to concede, one which granted independence to Algeria essentially north of the Atlas Mountains with France retaining control of the Algerian Sahara.
What figured large into the French plan was the fact that oil, oil in very large quantities, was discovered in 1956 in the Sahara. France thought of that oil as its own and was unwilling to part with it. The Algerians, for their part, were unwilling to accept a truncated independence. One probable reason for the utter ferocity of the independence war both by the French and Algerians was that oil-related economic stakes were so high.
France hoped to sever the Algerian Sahara from the north and connect it in a vast industrial, communication network zone that it would control that would be spread out over much of the region, which during the colonial period was known as French Sudan. At independence in 1960, that region would become four independent countries – from west to east: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad. The economic integration of the Sahara itself was a part of a larger plan to link the former French colonies by roads, railway from the Congo Brazzaville further south with metropolitan France.2
In the postwar decade from 1945-1955, the region had been heavily surveyed by French geologists and geographers whose reports – still valid today – gave indications and hints of vast as yet untapped mineral and petro-chemical wealth that France was anxious to dominate. While the OCSR would formally recognize the independence of these countries, the program, a classic neo-colonial venture, was based on effective French economic, political and military control of this vast region.
Financial backing for such a large undertaking, considered essential for France’s future energy and economic security, were undertaken. There was considerable support for the idea in the French parliament and in the ruling circles in general. Much organizational infrastructure for the project, the political reorganization of the region, some infrastructural development was already underway even before 1960.However, Algerian resistance combined with French inability to get all the newly independent political players on board stymied the formal implementation of the plan. The loss of the Algerian Sahara, a key element, made the plan unworkable in the form France had envisioned. But France has never given up on the idea of a French-controlled Sahara zone. Unable to formally undertake the program, Paris has for the past half century, largely successfully one might add, attempted to implement the OCSR informally and that has worked better. France’s Mali military mission is little more than the latest attempt to follow through, slightly revised, of these earlier efforts to control the Sahara and its resources.
1. My translation from Andre Bourgeot. “Sahara: espace geostrategique et enjeux politiques (Niger)” Autrepart (16) 2000L 21-48. I am indebted to this author for many of the insights cited in this last section of this entry
Immanuel Wallerstein. The Very Risky Bet of Hollande in Mali: The Probable Long Term Disaster.
Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.