Mere hours after the French intervention in Mali began, the international commentariat sprang into action. Their responses have ranged from principled opposition to unqualified support, while journalists in Mali and academics based there and elsewhere have tended to provide more expository analysis.
The situation is confusing and complex. However, a few things can be said with some measure of certainty: the western powers are in Mali with the support of most Malians; they are acting under the legal aegis of UN Resolution 2085 and will soon be working alongside Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) forces. This is not naked imperialism on the part of the French. The intervention that began on 11th January was the right move.
To understand it, one must look back over the events of the past year. On 17th January 2012, a largely secular, Tuareg-dominated group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) attacked the town Menaka in the north east of Mali. Attempts to win greater autonomy for northern Mali (Azawad) have been ongoing for decades, and many northerners saw diplomatic efforts as failures. They were supported (at least initially) by a number of Islamist groups, including Ansar Dine, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Fighting continued throughout early 2012, and by April the anti-government forces could claim to exercise control over northern Mali. Meanwhile, Ansar Dine had been imposing strict Sharia law in the newly seized areas. While all this was happening, several commanders in the Malian army decided that President Amadou Toumani Touré had handled the crisis poorly, and deposed him in a coup on 22nd March. In the resulting confusion, the now fragile anti-government coalition took Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu over just three days.
Now that the Malian government ceased to control the northern territories, fighting began between the MNLA and their erstwhile allies. By July, the MNLA had lost control of the major northern cities to the Islamists. Ansar Dine, AQIM and MOJWA made steady progress south for the rest of 2012, prompting the UN Resolutions that authorised future outside interference. But after Islamist forces seized Konna on 10th January 2013, the French were forced to act. Had the Islamists gained control of Sévaré airport, flying troops and arms (not to mention humanitarian relief) to affected areas would have been impossible. Subsequent attacks on Segu and on Bamako would have met little resistance. The human cost would have been vast.
Opposition to the intervention has mainly come from left-wing sources. France “meddling” in the Sahel fits into a broader narrative of “la Françafrique” (France’s often troubling relationship with its former African colonies), especially when access to natural resources reserves appear to be at stake and the enemy appears to be fundamentalist Islam. Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist who has spent the past five years in Mali, has interrogated these arguments and found them specious at best, bogus at worst. The only natural resource we know Mali has in abundance is gold. The extent of oil, gas and uranium deposits is uncertain. And right-wing attempts to spin this conflict as the latest stage in the “war” between Islam and the west fail to recognise that it is rooted in state collapse, separatism and different interpretations of Islam.
Our central concern should be the protection of innocent lives. At the moment, that means supporting military intervention. But just as necessary as the military intervention is a political one. This is where criticism of the Western intervention is on much stronger ground. Two supra-national organisations will oversee mediation efforts: ECOWAS and the UN. ECOWAS has appointed Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré as its main mediator. This was a mistake. As the historian Gregory Mann reports, “few Malians take Compaoré as a legitimate interlocutor.” And the UN has appointed Romano Prodi, former prime minister of Italy. No one is sure why, as Prodi has yet to demonstrate any knowledge of Sahelian affairs.
Commentary will continue to pour in as the aftermath of the crisis in Algeria becomes clearer and casualties mount in Mali. But we should heed the analysis of experts like Whitehouse and Mann. This initial phase of western intervention was both wanted and needed by most Malians. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, but ECOWAS should take a leading role. If it doesn’t, the west will face louder and louder charges of “imperialism” — and their accusers, this time, may well be right.