France’s occupation in Mali: Past and present

mali france

Joel Cosgrove

Most mainstream reporting on events in Mali included various tropes, such as that Europe is under threat from Islamic fundamentalism, that the invasion of French troops was about freeing the local people, and the involvement of French troops was defended as being an undesirable but necessary outcome resulting from a bad situation. The defence for the invasion has been remarkably similar to that made for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq at the time.

As with Iraq and Afghanistan the reality is that the occupation of Mali has come about as part of an imperialist contest for political power and resources. Although the French government may be assuaged by the ease of its military’s entry into Mali, in operations such as these the invasionary period is one of the less difficult phases of an occupation.

During the first phase airpower was used effectively against fixed and clear rebel positions. Now the situation has developed. Already recent kidnap victims have reported of hideouts hacked into the side of caves, as well as petrol and ammunition dumps hidden in various parts of the north. There is now a transition to the type of irregular guerilla warfare that has proven so hard for the occupiers to deal with in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a recent article on the French adventure, long-term Middle East/North African correspondent Patrick Cockburn made a similar point:

This was one of the many lessons of the US takeover of Iraq and Afghanistan. Most Iraqis and Afghans were glad to see the departure of the previous regimes. Iraqis wanted an end to Saddam Hussein’s rule, but this did not mean that they welcomed foreign occupation. Similarly, in Afghanistan, foreign forces were initially popular and the Taliban discredited. But in both cases foreign forces soon behaved like colonial occupiers, and were resented as such.

French soldiers on an armoured vehicle pass Malian people on their way to the north of Mali

Shortly after the arrival of thousands of French troops, French President Francois Hollande went on a whirlwind tour of the occupied North of Mali. Hollande told a Paris press conference that “It is time for the Africans to take over”. Despite that, a Malian man told the Wall Street Journal, “I want the French to stay here for even 20-50 years.” Many Afghans could be found in 2001 saying similar things about the US-led occupation before the reality of the occupiers’ interests became clear.

The catalyst for the French invasion was a successful independence campaign in the North. This was led by an unstable alliance between the separatist Taureg group National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), and Islamist fighters belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) and Ansar Dine. Asnar Dine is an Islamic split from the MNLA.

A coup by the Malian military resulted. Also the MNLA were pushed out of Northern Mali by the Islamist rebels. The situation was quickly transformed and a strict enforcement of sharia law was put in place.

Previously, being freed from a state where both smoking and listening to music on the radio were punishable with a public whipping, was seen by many in Northern Mali as a positive thing.

Already though there are clear signs of resistance, with the appearance of roadside IEDs as well as recent statements from the French themselves and the historical view of Mali as fitting within a wider sphere either colonized or influenced by them.

So there are already clear signs of resistance. Roadside IEDs have appeared. Statements about the resistance have been made by the French themselves. The French state holds a particular historical view of Mali; that Mali fits within a sphere colonised or influenced by France.

Mali is the fourth country to be attacked by France within the past two years. The attack comes after attacks on Libya, the Ivory Coast and Syria. Of these four Libya alone is not a former colony. This points to the French ruling class’s imperialist sentiments. In fact French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has stated that the French aims are the “total re-conquest of Mali” and added that Mali was never “totally conquered” in the first place.

At the beginning of the year Hollande was quoted saying that there was no chance of French soldiers being sent into Mali (the situation had existed since at least March 2012). Then when troops were first sent in, it was stated that no more than 2,500 soldiers would be sent in. Currently there are more than 4,000.

If part of the justification for intervening in Mali is that the country is in such a mess, it is problematic for the French to be “cleaning” up the mess that they are responsible for. French colonisation of Mali (or French Sudan as it was called) seriously began in the 19th century.

France followed a process of assimilation in what was thought would be the creation of a Greater France. Within this Greater France the colonial territories were in effect considered a part of France itself. The colonial territory in West Africa included what is now present day Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Niger.

The experiences of the oppressed peoples of West Africa were not dissimilar to that of the rest of Africa under colonisation. In the post-World War II environment, France attempted to maintain their control over the region by playing divide and rule. Often, France supported and maintained violent and brutal dictatorships. In Mali that consisted of supporting a military dictatorship led by Moussa Traore from 1968 to 1991. It wasn’t till 2002 that Mali underwent a (relatively) peaceful transition from an elected administration to another. However another coup was staged in December 2012, and the French state provided military and economic support as part of maintaining control over Mali’s extensive gold and uranium resources.

It is not just direct/indirect French intervention that has caused problems for the people of Mali, in exchange for loans and “investment”, the International Monetary Fund pushed through neoliberal policies framed as a structural adjustment plan. Mali’s agricultural industry was reorganised along monocultural lines that focused on cotton for export over all other crops. Public sector services and utilities were privatised. The franc was devalued by 50 percent. This further depressed purchasing power and left the country overly reliant on its export products. The value of on major export product – cotton – collapsed in 2005 and has not picked up since. This collapse was compounded by the earlier IMF policies focusing production on a few select export crops.

The Islamic militants might appear to be dangerous. They have an estimated 2,000 fighters, facing off against 4,000 French troops, 3,500 Community of the States of West Africa (ECOWAS) troops, and the Malian army. The actual occupation of the capital city of Bamako or of Southern Mali in general is not a serious proposition.

The ongoing support of the Malian army – an institution which has been criticised for killings, rapes, torture and other acts of cruelty – and the continued presence of French troops will only serve to inflame the region and justify those who rebel against the French presence. Senior French defence figures already talking of a stalemate.

The question facing the nation states of Western Africa is the legacy of colonialisation. Part of the problem is the way in which France arbitrarily carved up the area into artificial nations, carving through actual existing tribal lands. This is the situation the Taureg people have suffered through.

Much like the Kurdish people, the Tauregs (a traditionally semi-nomadic people) find themselves living in what are now modern day Mali, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. In Mali, there have been five major uprisings of the Taureg people in the last fifty years.

As with the Ogoni in Nigeria, the problem facing the Taureg is that they are a minority within an artificially constructed nation state who live in areas high in natural resources. The problems in Northern Mali stem in a large part from the original French colonisation. France’s new occupation of Northern Mali will not bring solutions and should be opposed.

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