By Jeremy Corbyn in Britain:
Meddling in Mali can only lead to no good
Tuesday 05 February 2013
Readers will remember George Bush standing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq.
Readers will also recall Tony Blair’s triumphal visit to Washington after the successful US invasion of Afghanistan, carried out with British support.
They both milked their moments of glory “in the face of terrible adversity” and they are now both bitterly remembered as the people who started the misbegotten “war on terror” in 2001 and misled us into a war in Iraq in 2003.
Troops have occupied much of the northern part of the country and are now fanning out across the desert.
Hollande couldn’t resist the temptation of a day trip to Timbuktu to be photographed with cheering soldiers and adoring citizens.
He may well come to regret this moment of triumphalism, and should perhaps reflect a little more on the history of the region and where such posturing leads to.
Mali is a colonial creation. The area was first colonised by the French in 1815 – interestingly, only 26 years after the French revolution – which later consolidated its control over most of north Africa.
By the time of the 1880s Berlin conferences, set up to “regulate” European colonisation in Africa, France was able to claim control of most of north Africa as French colonies or, in the case of Algeria, a French department.
The borders were straight lines drawn on maps by Europeans who had never been there, slicing through natural barriers, linguistic communities and ethnic groups.
With the rise of African independence movements in the ’50s and ’60s, the French followed the British obsession with federations and initially established the short-lived Mali Federation formed by a union between Senegal and the Sudanese Republic.
The federation collapsed shortly after independence, in 1960, and the Sudanese Republic was renamed the Republic of Mali that same year.
French colonial interest and involvement in the area never evaporated, as it has sought to control the economy in favour of French companies exploiting the region’s natural resources.
The establishment of Mali, as even Defence Secretary Philip Hammond conceded to me last week, was illogical. It lumped together a number of entirely different cultures, including the Mande, Fula, Voltaic and Songhai, plus the Tuareg and Muars who are traditionally nomadic and inhabit the northern region.
The Tuareg people have significant populations in seven north African countries and number 4.2 million overall.
Tuareg nationalists have been campaigning for the establishment of a Tuareg state, which would obviously impinge on the national frontiers of many of those countries.
Similar situations have arisen in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria with the Kurdish people, who are likewise denied their own national identity – not unlike the Palestinians.
The main nationalist group in Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, was joined in the fight for independence by a number of Islamist groups, including Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
While the UN resolution 2085, passed in December, specifically condemns al-Qaida, it is rather reserved on the behaviour of the Malian army towards people in the north of the country, where there have been well documented accounts of human rights abuses and summary executions.
These include the summary execution of two dozen civilians in Sevare on January 10. The bodies were subsequently dumped in a well, as reported by Amnesty International’s Mali researcher.
The very lengthy UN resolution, which runs to 25 clauses, does remind Mali of its need to observe human rights and calls for a sustainable solution, but is vague on the question of the legitimacy of the existing government in Mali. The government, like some of its predecessors, gained power through a coup.
There is a section on political process within the resolution, which calls for elections to be held by April, or as soon as technically possible. There are no signs of that happening.
As late as last November, dialogue was taking place between the Malian government and the rebels.
The negotiations broke down, but once France launched its massive intervention – with Britain’s ready support – the situation rapidly deteriorated.
There is no doubt that the oil and gas reserves under the Sahara are enormous and extensive, and that France depends very heavily on those supplies for its own economy. It also relies on the region’s uranium, which fuels the French nuclear power industry. Nuclear provides 80 per cent of French electricity supplies.
But French self-interest aside, one must ask the question of where all of this leads to.
Mali’s 13 million people have an average life expectancy of just 49 and only a quarter of the people have basic literacy skills. Its poverty levels are appalling, with no prospect of improvement in sight.
The bombardment has all the hallmarks of 20th century wars – Western-manufactured super-advanced technology being deployed on poor people in poor countries.
There has been a political failure to recognise that the post-colonial exclusion of Tuareg people is at the heart of this conflict – a situation that has been very deftly exploited by al-Qaida.
Until now David Cameron has been relatively cautious in military activities to avoid being seen as another Tony Blair.
Yet the alacrity with which he responded to Hollande’s request to be involved in this war shows that there’s been a fundamental change in his attitude.
Indeed it’s an interesting question as to why France requested British logistical support anyway.
Cameron reported to the House of Commons on the initial involvement and since then the British presence has risen to about 400 service personnel, a figure that is set to rise further.
Yet still there has been no debate in Parliament. And the lack of a war crimes Act means that the PM could claim his right to send in forces under the royal prerogative.
This century has seen wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now more spreading all over north Africa as the combination of unrequited political demands and the presence of huge mineral resources draw Western forces in.
In the end, peace can only come through a political settlement, respect for human rights and the raising of living standards of the very poorest people whose wealth has been leeched away by the West.
Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.
Festering differences in the Malian army were graphically exposed today when government soldiers stormed the camp of the Red Beret presidential guard in Bamako, leaving one person dead and five others wounded.
- Mali: After the French fireworks, who will clean up the mess? (dailymaverick.co.za)