I did a double take when I heard that the French president had been awarded the Unesco Peace Prize for his military action in Mali. But I shouldn’t have really been surprised given that Barack Obama and the EU have both been ludicrous recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The jury decided to give the award to President Hollande for his “great contribution to the peace and stability in Africa”. Whatever one’s views of France’s intervention, this is a somewhat premature statement given that it is far from clear whether it has been successful.
After being front page news for weeks, Mali now seldom gets a mention, at least not in the UK. When that happens you know that things are not proceeding as planned. From the little that is reported, it is clear that pockets of fighting are still going on, with news that Britain, the US and the EU are to deploy troops to help the thousands of French soldiers and airmen already there.
France says it launched its military action in January to save Mali from being overrun by al-Qaeda linked jihadists. These already occupied the northern part of the country and were moving in on the capital Bamako, we were told.
Footage of Malians greeting their French saviours amid grim stories of Islamists’ excesses bolster the claim that the mission is a humanitarian one. The Unesco prize itself certainly reinforces this, and of course, the Mali president himself begged the French to enter his country.
However, others see it as nothing less than western interference, led by Mali’s former colonial power and supported by Nato, whose de facto leader, America, is now involved in 35 African conflict zones. Sadly, there is no shortage of African governments willing to open the door to them.
This was the view of a packed meeting in London recently. It was part of a larger conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the February 2003 march against the Iraq War and concluded that Mali represents a fresh front of the war against terror as part of the new scramble for Africa.
Veteran Africa hand Victoria Brittain talked about Mali’s “golden age” 50 years ago when it was led by “the Nyerere of francophone Africa” Modibo Keita. Like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana he became the victim of the Cold War and was ousted in 1968, eight years after independence.
A series of dictatorships followed and Mali went from “being a country of great sophistication” to one of the poorest nations in the world, with a crumbling political class and army, she said.
Although touted elsewhere as an African poster boy for the free market and multi-party democracy, Mali became, like Guinea Bissau, a corridor for hard drugs and Islamists, while in the the north, Tuareg nomads launched their insurgency in protest at decades of neglect.
It was into this “fractured body politic” that the US stepped in 1998 to provide Mali with military training. A beneficiary was Captain Amadou Sanogo, by all accounts the incompetent leader of the March 2012 coup that plunged the country into further catastrophe.
At the time, Mali was reeling from Nato’s “appalling adventure” in Libya, when Tuaregs, who had been part of Gaddafi’s war machine, returned home armed to the teeth to step up the insurgency. This in turn was hijacked by Islamists. Events in Mali she said were “a wake up call of the blowback of American involvement in Africa”.
The other speaker, civil society campaigner Explo Nani-Kofi, asserted that Mali’s very creation was a result of western interference. Like most African countries colonial borders were drawn up in a way that ignored ethnic integrity, sowing the seeds for division further down the line – the Tuaregs. One only has to look at Mali’s oddly geometric butterfly shape to see the truth of this.
Nani-Kofi also mocked the anti-terrorist motivation for the conflict. From Afghanistan to Mali, “al-qadea groups have been created at every stage by the west. Then they say they are going after them as an excuse to get their resources”, he said referring to Mali’s gold, uranium and hydrocarbon resources. Very handy for a bankrupt nation like France.
Back in the main conference hall, Mali became a running refrain among speakers as it was held up as an example of the drift to endless war, an “imperial project” reborn by the war on terror launched post September 11 2001.
“These wars are effectively imperial wars backed and waged by the world’s only global empire, the United States”, and supported by Washington’s “vassal” states in Europe, declared writer and campaigner Tariq Ali.
Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Mali appears at best fragile. On February 1, a fortnight after French troops landed, Amnesty International condemned “serious human rights breaches” including the killing of children. in an airstrike. There have been numerous reports of reprisal killings and summary executions by the Malian army, which by all accounts is an undisciplined force.
As for the Malian Islamists, they tend to melt away and lie low to avoid huge casualties, then re-emerge, prompting both the US and the UK to both state that the military operation will last for years, even decades.
One thing is clear, the collapse of the Gaddafi regime has enabled America to re-flex its muscle elsewhere in Africa via weak or repressive governments to whom it gives aid, military assistance and now drones. Back in the days of slavery, such leaders would have been fighting to get to the front of the queue to sell their people down the river.
The real enemy though is not al-Shabab in Somalia and other supposed al-qaeda affiliates but China, which has become America’s main rival in Africa in the race for key mineral resources. While it can no longer compete economically with China, militarily the US is still a power to be reckoned with.
It is no surprise then that the Africa Union appears to have been cast in the role of supporting the western effort in Mali, rather than shaping it. Decisive regional or continental intervention would surely have made all the difference, but unlikely given the AU’s most recent failures in Libya, and in Cote d’Ivoire, where the French finally stepped in to end the stand off between the two rival election candidates in 2012.
Make no mistake, the Mali intervention is a colonial war by another name and the situation there will become worse not better, whatever Unesco says.