Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Tensions Revive in Kidal, Northern Mali

A mere nine months after a French-led military intervention supposedly stabilized the country, Mali is once again in turmoil. Despite Paris’ claims that all of its military would leave, more than likely the 1,000 remaining French military personnel in Mali are there for “an enduring mission.”

At the same time, at present,  momentum for another major French-led military intervention in the Central African Republic will result in more permanent French troops on the ground elsewhere in Africa, joining those already there in Chad and the Ivory Coast, just to name a few. A French re-militarization of Africa, under the well-worn pretext of humanitarian intervention, is in the making.

While humanitarian considerations provide the pretext, this new French military sub-Saharan African surge is more accurately about protecting France’s access to raw materials and strategic resources on the continent at a time of increased resource wars than about saving African lives or promoting development and democracy. A cynical assessment perhaps, but one which will probably prove to be accurate.

It was one thing for French troops to push Islamist rebels out of much of northern Mali and another entirely to begin to address the deeper problems of abject poverty, ethnic tension, repression, corruption, weak government institutions and infrastructure deficiencies which have long plagued this Sahelian African country. Failure to address the latter – despite the rhetoric in Paris to the contrary – resulted in what amounts to little more than a temporary truce, until the social crisis reared its head once again.

On December 14, bomb blast in the Northern Mali town of Kidal exploded at the entrance to a bank guarded by UN peacekeeping troops. “The explosion was so great it blew open the doors of houses in the area, according to reports.” A number of peacekeepers were killed or wounded, among them Senegalese troops. The incident suggests that less than a year after a French-led military intervention in Mali to turn back a radical Islamist effort to take over the country, that all is not well in Mali and that the peace established by the French-led military intervention was both fragile and shallow.

The incident comes just a few weeks after the Azawad (Tuareg rebels) announced that they have terminated a five-month cease fire with the Malian government based in Bamako. The announcement came on November 30 after a group of local protestors tried to block a visit by Mali’s Prime Minister, Omar Tatum Li, to Kidal. Malian troops fired on the demonstrators killing one woman and wounding several children. In a statement issued shortly thereafter, Attaye Ag Mohammad, one of the founders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, whose French acronym is the MNLA, announced that “The political and military wings of the Azawad declare the lifting of the ceasefire with the central government in Bamako.” Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, MNLA’s vice-president added that, “What happened [on Thursday] is a declaration of war. We will deliver this war.”

Another Liberation Movement (Like Syria) Hijacked by Qatari and Saudi Islamic Militants 

The MNLA, made up largely of Azawad (Tuareg) elements with a long history of grievances against the Malian central government in Bamako, is the coalition that launched the military offensive in Mali at the end of March 2012 after the central government was rocked by a military coup. In short order, the MNLA, in coalition with a number of armed radical Islamicist groups, Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), launched a major offensive in short order conquering the northern two-thirds of the country, seizing important and ancient urban centers along the Niger River of Timbuktu and Gao, threatening Mali’s capitol, Bamako. While these groups have similar goals (implementation of Shari’a law), they tend to be financed, trained and armed by different regional powers with vested interests in Mali. Saudi and Qatari money is involved, as is support, funding and control from the Algerian secret services and until his fall from grace two years ago, Gaddafi in Libya.

Many of the foot soldiers of the radical Islamic groups involved in the Malian offensive were recent refugees from the fighting in Libya that overthrew Gaddafi. A fair number were mercenaries from Mali, Niger and Chad who had been a part of the Libyan dictator’s military. As they fled Libya to safer refuge in Niger, S. Algeria and northern Mali, Gaddafi “ronin” brought with them battle-hardened officers and troops and, not insignificantly, a large cache of weapons, military vehicles.

In short order these heavily armed experienced and now radically Islamic-lead troops overwhelmed the indigenous elements of the MNLA and hijacked the rebellion, giving it a much different, harsher, “Salafist” flavor. Tuareg rebellions have plagued Mali from its 1960 independence. There have been three major ones (1960, 1990 and 2006) and several small armed uprisings prior to the 2012 revolt. The Tuareg have their own valid grievances. Although sometimes manipulated or encouraged by outside forces – French, Algerian, Libyan – they have been primarily domestic affairs for cultural autonomy (or separatism), end to repressive policies, calls to address the crushing poverty and infrastructural neglect of Mali’s north.

The MNLA’s goals in the 2012 rebellion built upon this catalogue of un-addressed grievances and repression. No doubt, making alliances with the radical Islamicist groups – Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) – strengthened the MNLA’s hand militarily. Within ten days of concluding their pact with the various Islamist groups, the new alliance exploded south, quickly occupying more than two thirds of Mali’s northern regions.

Mali is an overwhelmingly Islamic country with an extraordinarily rich and well documented history that has included a series of successive empires – that of Ghana, of Mali, of Songhai . Most of its population follows Islam, which is more than 1,000 years old there. By the ninth century, the region that now encompasses Mali had embraced Islam. The majority of the population follows the Malekite tradition of Islam, a generally tolerant variety that the more fundamentalist Salafist/Wahhabist elements treat as un-Islamic.

The pact the MNLA made with the radical Islamic groups quickly turned out to be a devil’s deal. Within short order, the Islamic groups hijacked the movement’s political leadership, easily pushing them aside. The rebellion’s goal, a la Al Qaeda, shifted from political, cultural autonomy and freedom, essentially secular objectives, to nothing less than a strict interpretation of Shari’a law.

What followed was a wave of vast population dislocation and cultural repression. As the Islamist elements tightened their control, a major refugee crisis was triggered as hundreds of thousands of people fled Mali’s northern regions to escape the imposition of harsh Shari’a law that included punishments of amputation and stoning.

Once in control of Timbuktu, the Salafists launched a major cultural purge of the city. They destroyed centuries’ old Sufi-mystic shrines, the marabouts. Where they could find them, Islamic fundamentalist troops torched ancient manuscripts. The usual punitive rules concerning women were immediately put into force and Mali’s great musical tradition – one of Africa’s cultural treasures – was banned. Had groups like Ansar Dine, MUJAO and AQIM been able to retain control of Timbuktu, the damage they would have almost certainly inflicted would have been incalculable.

The Islamist Surge – Pretext for Intervention

As the Islamist military surge broadened threatening Bamako, Mali’s more southerly located capitol, the pressure for French-led military intervention grew. When “Operation Serval” was formally unleashed in January of 2013 – under the auspices of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2085 – given the Salafist excesses, those  people of Mali under the Islamic fundamentalist yoke welcomed the French-led military intervention with open arms. This is accurate enough, a French public relations coup of sorts and an open door for further French military intervention – in the name of humanitarian concerns of course – in France’s resource rich African colonies.

Units of the French military poured into the country – 4,000 in all by most estimates. While some did come from France itself, many came from French military bases elsewhere in Africa. French military units from French bases in Ivory Coast, Chad and Senegal poured into the country as did French-trained Chadian troops. Over the following weeks and months the French military pushed the rebels, north, out of the key urban centers of Gao and Timbuktu back into the Sahara heartland of the Algerian, Niger and Malian borderlands. There were few full-scale battles as the rebels, in classic guerilla fashion, mostly abandoned the cities and high-tailed it as quickly as possible back into hidden corners of the vast Sahara.

Over the following weeks and months the French military, with ample air support, pushed the rebels north, out of the key urban centers of Gao and Timbuktu back into the Sahara heartland of the Algerian, Niger and Malian borderlands. There were few full-scale battles as the rebels, in classic guerrilla fashion, mostly abandoned the cities and high-tailed it as quickly as possible back into hidden corners of the vast Sahara.

Short-term Pretexts, More Far-Reaching Strategic Goals of the French Operation

France’s Mali military incursion thus enjoyed substantial political support in Mali itself and almost universal support in France itself. French parties from the right to the left of the political spectrum supported the intervention (as they have other French military interventions in the past in Africa). The official French rationale for the intervention was the more and more unoriginal pretext of fighting terrorism. To define an enemy as “terrorist” in the post-millennial global political context is, to France, the moral right to physically annihilate its opposition much in the same way that countering Communism was used to gain popular support in core countries to justify military intervention in the Third World, again and again, during the Cold War.

Framing the Mali intervention as a part of the global war on terrorism neutralized anti-interventionist sentiment in France. So defined, terrorism in Mali is viewed – even if it is something of a stretch – as not only a Malian problem but also a threat to both to France and to Europe! At the same time that “the terrorist threat” is given primacy in the Malian case, the risks of military intervention are downplayed and the socio-economic factors – the deepening crisis there – are almost entirely ignored…as is France’s historic role in Mali, both as a colonial power and post-independence neo-colonial reality.

In justifying French-led military intervention in Mali, certainly French President Francois Hollande emphasized Paris’ more noble goals. And so he was quoted five days after the French military intervention began on January 16, 2013:

“la France, elle libère…la France, elle porte des valeurs. Elle n’a aucun intérêt au Mali. Elle ne defend aucun calcul économique our politique. Elle est au service, simplement, de la paix”

Translation: France is a liberating force, living up to its ethics, its values. It has no material interests in Mali. There are no economic or political calculations involved (in explaining its military intervention). It is acting uniquely in the service of peace.

Brings a tear to my eyes to know that its military intervention in Mali is purely humanitarian, in solidarity with the Malian people with no ulterior motive! Perhaps in the next world, but not in this one! French cuisine might be among the world’s finest, but it is also the source of great suffering in Africa. Indeed quite the contrary to Hollande’s assertion can be argued: that in Africa, France has been an oppressive force, one that in this case and always puts its self-interests (in the case of Africa for raw materials, strategic minerals, uranium, oil, natural gas) before any humanitarian consideration and will stop at nothing – and has stopped at nothing  to achieve its goals.

Northern Mali and the “Race for What’s Left”

If opposing Islamic fundamentalist terrorism amounts to a convenient pretext then what are the hidden strategic considerations which pushed France into what was a long and detailed plan of military intervention in Mali?

For France, the Sahara as a whole is nothing short of a strategic gold mine, both in terms of the known wealth the region possesses (uranium, oil, gold for starters) and what might yet to be discovered. Mali’s strategic potential today lays more in future resources wealth, although gold is mined in the country’s northern regions. If the mineral/strategic resource wealth of its neighbors is any indication, northern Mali is rich in similar potential. Neighboring Niger (to Mali’s east) is one of France’s main sources of uranium for its powerful nuclear industries. The main uranium mines, run mostly by the French uranium giant Areva, are found in the Niger’s northern and western regions near the Mali border. To Mali’s north are the Algerian (and some Libyan) major oil fields. At the very least, this ads an important strategic dimension to French interest here.

Add to this the fact that today it is not only France that hopes to exploit the possible resource riches of northern Mali but China and the United States as well in what Michael T. Klare aptly refers to as “the race for what’s left.” This has intensified French insecurity over maintaining political control (or major influence) over northern Mali. There are regional players also in on the game – Algeria and Libya (at least until the fall of Gaddafi).

Neighboring Niger (to Mali’s east) is one of France’s main sources of uranium for its powerful nuclear industries. The main uranium mines, run mostly by the French uranium giant Areva, are found in the Niger’s northern and western regions near the Mali border. Securing this source of uranium is fundamental to both of France’s civilian and military nuclear programs. Last year, 2012, was a particularly lucrative year for French-controlled Niger uranium mining. In spite of the mounting security risks Niger’s Areva uranium mines broke all production records.

Although these mines are protected by 600 members of the Niger military, France remains anxious that the mines’ proximity to Mali border make them vulnerable to attack, thus the need to increase France’s on-the-ground military presence. Although Paris is publicly committed to withdrawing all of its troops from Mali, more than 1,000 remain there. A complete withdrawal is unlikely. Insuring the continued security and production of these mines has as much to do with the continued French military presence in Mali as it does with stabilizing the country’s political situation.

To Mali’s north are the Algerian (and some Libyan) major oil fields. At the very least, this adds an important strategic dimension to French interest here. Much of the focus for new oil and gas finds centers on what is called the Taoudeni Basin which extends across the border area connecting Mauritania, Algeria and Mali. The French oil giant Total is particularly active in the area along with Sipex (a subsidiary of the Algerian national oil company, Sonatrach) and Qatar Petroleum International

Even prior to the great African resource rush, France has done everything in its power to retain control over the Sahara’s wealth as its own. As the colonial era came to an end in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Paris attempted to set up a Sahara confederation which it would control. This failed. In all likelihood the viciousness of the French effort to stop the Algerian independence movement dead in its tracks was a result of major oil discoveries in the Algerian Sahara near Hassi Messaoud in the mid 1950s. That failed as well. However, having been forced to accede to independence of its former French colonies, Paris was much more adept at achieving through neo-colonial machinations control of most of the region’s natural resources. In 1961 it signed a defense pact with neighboring Niger, the secret clauses of which give preferential treatment to France to develop strategic raw materials there. Similar secret clauses in similar agreements with African countries give France the right to intervene militarily when it sees fit when it deems its interests threatened.


An invaluable source of this article: La France en guerre au Mali: Enjeux et zones d’ombre by Survie. Editions Tribord. Mons (Belgium) 2013.

Rob Prince, whose teaching title has changed five times in the past 20 years, although the job is the same, is Teaching Professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. In recent years, he has written extensively on North Africa. He is also the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.