In light of recent events in Mali- namely France’s decision to intervene against the advancing Islamist groups in the North- it is perhaps first important to examine those larger causes which have led to political instability in the West African nation.
Mali has as a tradition of weak political institutions and a lack of democratic pluralism. Its first post-independence President, Modibo Keita, was an autocratic leader who pushed a quasi-communist agenda. Keita’s administration fell to a bloodless coup d’état in 1968, swiftly replaced by a military Junta who would rule until 1990. In the aftermath of that military regime, calls for multi-party democracy emerged in the country. Simultaneously, in Northern Mali ethnic violence between the Touaregs and the African Malians of the South led to a politically turbulent situation. The situation in the North would continue to frame Malian politics well into the 2000’s, even as Mali experienced its first consecutive democratic administrations. In 2002, it became clear that democracy’s roots remained shallow in the country. That same year over 50 political parties participated in the Presidential elections.
In late 2011, incumbent President Amadou Toumani Touré, known locally as “ATT”, announced he would be stepping down following the Presidential elections in 2013. Touré had, earlier that year, failed to win a referendum which would have enabled his candidature for an unprecedented third term. Elections were supposed to be held in April of 2012. To some, namely those unfamiliar with the delicate nature of politics in that region, Mali had never before appeared as stable as it was then. In January of 2012, what appeared to be a minor case of military mutiny in the capital would lead to a transformative bout of political corrosion nationwide. Ironically, it was that unforeseen immunity-the result of military frustration with a lack of government aid in combatting Touareg rebels- which led to an unprecedented territorial takeover by the rebels in the North.
In the media today, much is made of Libya’s role in current events in Mali. The fact that Islamist groups in the Malian desert were armed with Libyan weapons and military strategy is indisputable. However, the roots of Mali-Touareg conflict lie in local, pre-colonial realities. The Touaregs are ethnically Arab, having traditionally inhabited the desert regions between Mali and Algeria. Following independence from France, Touaregs were placed into a country, and dominated by a people with whom they shared little history. For the last one hundred years or so, there has been continual violence and disagreement between these two ethnically dissimilar groups. As with any relationship, the strength and frequency of the conflict has ebbed and flowed. Recent reports about Mali have tended to emphasize the role of the Arab Spring uprisings and the death of Moammar Gadhafi. While this may ensure that analysts and political scientists can place Mali within a neat and logical framework of international politics, it is an injustice to the people of Mali.
Last week’s unexpected news that France would immediately intervene in the North brought relief to both the Malian people and government. Early prognoses indicated that action in Mali would be undertaken at earliest by UN-led troops in the fall of 2013. Some have cynically called Hollande’s change of heart a political maneuver seeking to rectify his recent poor poll performance. Many analysts have labeled the decision to intervene as a reaction to accusations against Hollande of being indecisive and an anti-warmongering. Often forgotten in much of the discussion is that France and Mali continue to share a special sense of intimacy. As a former French colony, Mali has a history, that for a long time, intertwined with that of France’s. Even after Malian independence, the North African state remains an important and respected ally in the region. In terms of conclusions, recent developments have made it clear that a concrete set of motives have not yet been outlined. From what we can discern, Hollande’s motives appear to be less politically driven and more nuanced than originally assumed.
UPDATE: As of 16 January French troops are confirmed to be engaged in ground skirmishes alongside Malian forces against the Islamist militants. This is a departure from the original role the French troops were to fill, which mainly consisted of aerial support for the Malian forces.
– Henry Fieglar
(Featured photo: License EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, Creative Commons, Flickr)