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Editor's Q & A: What's the Deal with Mali?

Think Africa Press' editor answers your questions on the situation in northern Mali.
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A camp for refugees who fled from northern Mali in Burkina Faso. Photograph by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam.

What are France's objectives in intervening in northern Mali? Who exactly are they fighting?

It is worth beginning by dismissing some theories about France’s motivations for intervening which are erroneous.

Firstly, it is not neo-colonialism. While France has a sorry record of neo-colonialism in its former colonies, this intervention is not an example of it. Mali is an outlier in French post-colonialism and French economic interests in Mali are relatively limited.

Secondly, conspiracy theories about riches under the Sahara are misguided. Northern Mali has no proven oil or uranium deposits, and it is not clear that if any were discovered, France would recoup the costs of the intervention in preferential agreements. It is possible that worries of a spill-over into Niger – from which France imports 7% of its domestic energy supplies in the form of uranium – was a factor in French decision-making. But the intervention has put those assets more not less at risk.

Thirdly, references to the “strategic importance” of Mali should be quickly dismissed. Mali has little strategic importance to any outside power in terms of economic or other resources. Indeed, prior to the events of the last year, Mali was truly one of the world’s strategic backwaters.

In that case, what reasons did inform France’s decision? The strategic interest that France sees, whether justified or not, is in removing, or halting the spread of, Islamist militants in the country and region. I am minded to take French strategic thinking pretty much at face value here, although I personally think the threat of Islamic militancy to both the region and outside the region is overblown.

Nevertheless, to this end, the French are fighting against three Islamist militant groups: 1) al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which was an Algerian group that emerged out of splits within the Islamist fighting forces during Algeria’s civil war; 2) the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is a splinter group from AQIM, though to what degree and how they differ is hotly debated in specialist circles; and 3) Ansar Dine, a Tuareg-led Islamist group which emerged in 2012 and has recently split along radical and less radical lines with the less radical grouping, the Movement for an Islamic Azawad (MIA), attempting to ally with the Tuareg-led secular nationalist grouping the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

One less self-interested reason why France intervened is that it was asked to by the government of Mali. It was already part of an extremely broad coalition of countries, regional and international bodies that was planning an intervention in September of this year. The timing was sped up by the militant extension of their assault into the central region of Mali, threatening the air base at Sévaré.

One more self-interested reason could be French President Francois Hollande’s sagging approval ratings at home and the need to do something decisive. This was speculated to be part of the reason for his predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy’s desire to play a leading role in the Libyan intervention. Sadly for him, but happily for Hollande, it didn’t do Sarkozy much good at last year’s presidential poll.

Fundamentally, Mali is a victim of structural dominances related to colonialism and its subordinate position in systems of global power. France’s intervention is an expression of that rather than an extension of it.

Will the Malian army and AU force have the capacity to maintain control once French troops withdraw? What main risks do they face?

Post-intervention northern Mali poses two great problems: 1) how will the Islamist militants be tackled now they are outside of the major population centres and in the vast desert; and 2) how will reprisal attacks and human rights abuses against the Tuareg and Arab populations be controlled?

The Malian army is clearly not trusted to deal with either and there are already numerous reports of human rights abuses and indiscipline. This is why the French would prefer that a UN force replace them rather than leave the north under the control of a Malian and broader African force. It is also why France has called for international observers in the region and has effectively not returned sovereignty of the northernmost and most Tuareg-concentrated region of Kidal to the Malian government and army, fearing serious reprisals against the local Tuareg and Arab populations.

What relevance do the MNLA and aspirations of Tuareg independence have now? Will the MNLA be incorporated into the peacekeeping process or be seen as a force against it?

The Tuaregs are likely to be the biggest losers of their own rebellion. The MNLA is loathed throughout Mali by non-Tuaregs. The MNLA may have Paris’ ear, and to a lesser extent Ouagadougou’s, but it certainly does not have Bamako’s.

While MNLA aspirations for independence are well and truly dead, the struggle continues within the community to define what they want. The newly-formed MIA, which would like to achieve an autonomous regional government akin to the Kurds in northern Iraq, has a different conception of Tuareg demands than the MNLA. This dispute will have to be fought within the community and resolved quickly; otherwise Tuareg negotiators could leave any future table with nothing.

Who is in charge in Bamako? Does Mali have an effective and unified enough government to maintain order and resolve political grievances in the north in the longer-term?

Mali has an interim government following a coup in March of last year. The government is run by a troika of President Dioncounda Traoré, coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo, and Prime Minister Django Cissoko.

The legitimacy and stability of this ruling triumvirate have come under severe questioning, especially after the military forced the resignation of the former interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diara, in what has been labelled a coup 2.0. This is why most of the international community, especially the US, wanted a political transition, including elections, in the south before any military intervention, though this stance has since softened.

The balance of power in Bamako is essentially on ice until more is known about the outcome of the intervention. The current government is incapable of solving long-term political grievances anywhere in Mali. Yesterday’s events summed up this uncertainty well: in an interview, Traoré first said he would refuse dialogue with militant groups; but then, in another interview later that day, and apparently under pressure from France, performed a U-turn and said he would accept dialogue with the MNLA.

Unfortunately for long-term stability, it seems the north will have more effect on what eventually happens to the government in Bamako than the government is currently able to address the issues driving the situation in the north.

What dimension of the conflict would you say is most commonly misrepresented or given undue weight in explanations and analyses of the situation?

Whilst wild and mutually contradictory conspiracy theories are frustrating, and ignorant headlines talking of ‘Africanistan’ are dangerous and unhelpful, neither have been completely accepted across the board. One false narrative which has been accepted, however, is that the events in northern Mali are blowback from NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya. This narrative, whilst not without elements of truth, is overstated, overpowering so much other analysis.

I have two main problems with it. Firstly, it completely ignores local dynamics alongside messy and unclear facts. Instead, it substitutes a kind of theory of cosmic payback for Western foreign policy. This places the effects of Western policy far above the moods and motivations of Malians. Whilst this easy assumption may have worked with respect to the War on Terror in other Muslim majority countries, it fails to properly face facts in Mali.

Secondly, the theory, at least in its common, most exaggerated form, fails at the basic level of common sense. Niger, which actually borders Libya, unlike Mali, would be a far more likely candidate to suffer blowback from Libya. Fighters in the Libyan war crossed the border between the two. Niger has a large Tuareg population. There is a history of trans-border criminal and Islamic militant networks just like in Mali. And there are actually natural resources there (uranium and oil). However, Niger remains stable whilst Mali is in crisis. A significantly weaker version of blowback theory could explain this, but the usual blithe assumptions around the necessary link between Mali and Libya cannot.

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France's objectives in intervening in northern Mali could possibly be to rescue the French nationals beiing hold as hostages by MUJAO and AQIM. Also Algerian diplomats are being held and some folk of other nationalities.

Small detail maybe but worth mentioning for your readers.  

Dear Van Kaas,

I think French internetion makes kidnapping and other attacks on French interests more not less likely. The French appear to think so too with their increased security for French nationals in the region and uranium mine in Niger. So I think that motivation is unlikely.



I think it is certainly part of their motivational set, and part of the reason Kidal was slower to fall. Intervening to rescue hostages is consistent with historical French action over piracy. Not a great stretch of the imagination. The fact that they are increasing security around possible kidnap targets does not mean that the rescue of previously kidnapped nationals cannot contribute to their motivation for itnervention. 

Thanks Fred. I think you make a good point. Intervening to rescue hostages is something France does but most anti-kidnap actions are small and special ops type affairs (like the attempt to rescue Alex Dennis in Somalia). This goes way beyond that. I'll concede that it shouldn't be ruled out as some part of the calculus, but either it should be seen as a very small part, or foolish.

Any scholar who tries to defend the invasion of Mali by Paris has to attempt to explain away at least three points, as James Schneider does: that the whole saga is not neo-colonialist, that there is no connection between Mali and Libya, and that Hollande is not your usual greedy former colonial power leader out to steal African resources.

James Schneider’s arguments are rather weak, in my opinion. First any scholar who denies neo-colonialism has to explain why it is that it was France, Mali’s former colonial power, and no other country that invaded Mali. As I have stressed in my article on this topic in the ModernGhana website, obviously the French felt that Mali is their empire and area of influence that they must defend at all cost from other invading powers. Paris is, for instance, the one Western power that is most afraid of China’s inroads into Africa, especially the so-called Francophone Africa. Paris is always jittery about any other power making inroads in “Francophone Africa”. This is a clear case for the neo-colonialist argument.

James Schneider’s argument about geography and the non-adjacency of Mali to Libya shows that foreigners will never ever understand my Africa. It is so reminiscent of Jeffrey Sachs’ infamous argument (against Dambiso Moyo) that Africa is poor because of its geography! What Schneider fails to understand is that Mali is adjacent to Algeria which is adjacent to Libya and that, more importantly, that route, circuitous as it may seem to a foreigner trying hard to be a specialist Africanist (especially coming with coloured Eurocentric views), is more accessible to the jihadists trying to smuggle left-over weapons from the irresponsible 2011 invasion of Libya by France and its NATO allies in crime.

Third, the weakest argument by James Schneider and his ilk is that Hollande is some kind of altruistic – Tarzan-like – guy out to help a Mali in need and does not expect anything in return. If so let us note therefore that Hollande told lies to his own electorate in justifying the invasion. He never mentioned openly saving Malian lives to the best of my knowledge. On the contrary he mentioned saving the lives of 6000 French citizens in Bamako (I look forward to the day some powerful African or Asian country will invade France to save the lives of its citizens there!). More poignantly, one of the first places the French army rushed to protect was a huge uranium mine reserve. James Schneider appears to suggest that Mali doesn’t have substantial mineral resources but he conveniently forgets that Mali is one of the largest producers of gold in Africa and has just discovered substantial uranium deposits.

James Schneider’s attempt to bring in the theory of world power relations for an alternative explanation about why the French invaded Mali is nothing to write home about.

We must understand that Hollande is not a saviour, he is your usual old-timer greedy leader from the West out to steal not just African wealth, but also African voices. Notice how the whole Mali debate has now turned out to be all about France in the media and not much about Mali and the Africans. How dare Paris talk for Mali and Africa in making arrangements with the United Nations (UN) to start a ‘peace-keeping force’ in Mali! Has the UN Security Council now become a platform, even a weapon, for legitimizing the spread of Euro-American imperialism in Africa and Asia?

Adams Bodomo, Director, African Studies Programme, The University of Hong Kong

Dear Adams,

Thank you for your comment and vigorous critique. I’ll try and take your points one by one.

In order to demonstrate that France’s intervention was neo-colonialism you ask, why was it France, Mali’s former colonial power, and no other country that invaded Mali?

It was France that intervened at the particular juncture that it did because France was the country most able to do so. Why was it the country most able to do so? Of course, it is because of the legacy of colonialism. France has the capability due to its recent diplomatic efforts with Algeria, another former colony, and its troops based in Chad, another former colony. Without colonialism, France would not be intervening in Mali for at least two reasons. Firstly, the current situation in Mali would be unlikely to have arisen. Secondly, France would be no more capable of performing this intervention than other powers, be they African or non-African. This brute fact, however, does not make the intervention neo-colonial. There is a difference between colonial legacies and current neo-colonial strategies. As I said, France has a terrible history of neo-colonialism and its interactions with Mali, along with the gross inequity of global economic structural, such as US cotton or EU cattle subsidies, have helped to create these events. But the Frenchness of this intervention is an expression of these sad facts, not an extension of neo-colonialism.

It is also not true that France is the only force that has entered Mali. Not only are there non-Malian African troops aiding the intervention alongside French, Malian and Tuareg nationalist forces, but the intervention is at least in part against invaders: AQIM and other militants. Whilst many of the militants fighting in the north are Malian, many are not. AQIM has its roots as an Algerian group and there are a number of other foreign fighters who were occupying northern Mali. It is for this reason that much of the Malian press categorise the Islamist militants as foreign invaders.

You say that France is “jittery about any other power making inroads in Francophone Africa”. Whilst, that probably is the case, what other power was going to intervene on the side of the Malian state against the Islamist militants in the north? France was not hurriedly intervening to prevent a Chinese intervention or anything of the sort.

You criticise my argument against blowback theory by discussing the ease of arms routes from Libya to Mali. I am well aware of the geography and have never denied that arms have come from Libya to Mali. I also do not say that the civil war and subsequent NATO intervention in Libya had no effect. In the past I have referred to it as the catalyst for the success of the MNLA’s uprising. What I take issue with is the primacy which blowback theory is given. My point about Niger is that if blowback theory, in its exaggerated form, were correct, then Niger would suffer some. It has not. So many other factors are at play. Blowback theory obscures them.

My main argument with blowback theory is that what one should think about Mali shouldn’t be over coloured by ones interpretation of events in Libya. I feel my arguments hold equally if you think the Libyan intervention was “irresponsible” and “criminal” or one was a cheerleader for it or any position in between.

You say that my weakest argument is that “Hollande is some kind of altruistic – Tarzan-like – guy”. And yes that is a terribly weak argument, which is why I never make nor support it. At no point in my responses to the questions do I praise Hollande, France or indeed the intervention. I was seeking to answer questions about it and dispel some myths. Please do not take a critical look at the arguments against the intervention as cheerleading French military interventionism in Africa, neo-colonialism, or Eurocentrism.

You say that “Mali is one of the largest gold producers in Africa and has just discovered uranium deposits”. My understanding is that Mali is the second largest gold producer in Africa after South Africa. Does France have large interests in the sector? No. It is dominated by Anglo-Gold Ashanti and Randgold, two South African companies. The gold mines are almost entirely in the country’s south and gold extraction has not been hindered by either the rebel takeover of the north, nor the intervention. Indeed, Randgold posted higher profits from its Malian mines in 2012 than in 2011 despite Mali’s dual crises.

There is only one uranium mine in Mali and it is in the far south west of the country a very long way from the conflict. It is run by a Canadian outfit called Rockland. Again, not French.

It is speculated that there may be oil, gas and uranium in northern Mali but at this stage no one knows for sure. Nothing is proven and it is not clear that were anything to be found that French companies would gain preferential access.

You express exasperation that much of the debate has been about France and not Mali itself. I completely share your frustration. That frustration drives much of my criticism of the Libya blowback theory. Our coverage has consistently focused on drawing out the complexities and local dynamics of the issues in Mali. For example please see:

Best wishes,

James Schneider


I continue to be bemused by the blowback theory. To accept it, one has to accept as somehow normal and stable that a large number of Tuaregs from Mali, Niger, and Algeria were living in Libya as guests/employees of the Qaddafi regime, and that they would have stayed there indefinitely were it not for western intervention. The Tuaregs living in Libya were always a potential threat to the countries that had active Tuareg rebellions or opposition groups inclined to insurrection. There was an at least intermittent stream of reports/rumors over the years that this or that Tuareg group in Niger or Mali was being bolstered at one time or another by fighters and/or weapons from Libya. In other words, the stability of both countries was always at risk because of the Tuaregs living in exile in Libya; to blame western intervention that came months into a locally-rooted uprising for a situation in Mali is an exercise fitted only to those who think that all world events must be traced back to the actions of the "great powers." Without the intervention, the collapse of the regime would have taken longer and perhaps been messier, but it would still have happened, and the Tuaregs would have felt at least as unwelcome in the aftermath. Focusing on the intervention as a "cause" of the situation in Mali totally brushes aside the actual context in Mali, as Schneider says, and also the inherent instability of the situation in Libya (despite Qaddafi's 40-year grip -- or because of it) and the resistance of the Libyans who choose to oppose the regime there. 

Dear Adams, -You've used Tarzan as the paragon of altruism. - "James Schneider’s argument about geography and the non-adjacency of Mali to Libya shows that foreigners will never ever understand my Africa" - please do not claim Africa as yours, most of its inhabitants don't share your (extreme) views. - "Notice how the whole Mali debate has now turned out to be all about France in the media and not much about Mali and the Africans." It is precisely due to people writing things like this: "We must understand that Hollande is not a saviour, he is your usual old-timer greedy leader from the West out to steal not just African wealth, but also African voices".Thanks, Ibrahim

Dear Ibrahim,
I dont know what to make of this your comment. Yes, I refer to Africa as "my" Africa, and you have an issue with that? Are you poetically challenged? My use of "my" Africa doesnt deny you ownership of the continent, does it? Africa is a large continent and there is room for many people, Africans and non-Africans. I dont think any serious minded person will take issue with an African referring to his homeland as "my Africa". Now, to your other rather irresponsible comment of my views as "extreme", let me tell you if we start calling each other's writings names we will not go anyway. If I come back and tell you that you are writing like a reactionary uncle Tom, and you also come back with another name, we will not be engaged in intellectual debate of issues, but unintellectual, emotional name calling. I will not be responding to you any further if you come back like this. I want to ask you a simple question: Why do you think that I shouldnt write that France's Francois Hollande is not a saviour but someone out to steal African resources and voices? You say most people in Africa dont agree with me. Come again, show me the evidence! Most?

France's intervention is neo-colonialism. It can happen because of colonialism. It can happen because of French regional colonialism after formal independence. It strengthens France. It undermines Mali's sovereignty. It may save more lives than it takes but it is still neo-colonialism. I don't think the debate has confronted two brutal realities. Neo-colonialism exists in a big way. It must be confronted, but it isn't the only lens through which we should see our world. France is a neo-colonialist power. One of Africa's major problems is neo-colonialism. It's not the only one. Africans must struggle together.

Thanks, Pamela, for this perceptive comment about neo-colonialism! The fact that most western commentators and their African sidekicks tend to downplay or even deny outright the existence of this phenomenon already speaks a lot of volumes. We will not just only concentrate on this aspect; while we oppose other problems besetting our continent we have to always be conscious about neo-colonialism and oppose it at all times, whether or not some people deny its existence.