Mali: France, Kidal, and the MNLA

The story I want to tell here can be told with headlines:

  • AFP, May 18: “France Accused of Favouring Mali’s Tuareg Rebels.”
  • Reuters, May 19: “After Crushing Mali Islamists, France Pushes Deal with Tuaregs.”
  • USA Today, May 20: “French Troops Depart Mali, Leaving Joy, Worries.”

These articles leave the reader with the impression that France is continuing to intervene in Malian politics even as it reduces its military presence there, and that its political stances are proving unpopular.

France and other outside powers have flirted heavily with the idea that the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), a movement that advocated northern Malian separatism during the early phase of last year’s rebellion, is a politically acceptable negotiating partner, and one that deserves some political stake in post-conflict northern Mali. Some Western policymakers find this belief alluring, I suspect, because it helps them categorize northern Malians into “good” and “bad” rebels and offers hope of putting various genies back into various bottles. If the MNLA speaks for northern Malians, the argument runs, reaching an agreement with it could resolve the conflict.

My own opinion is that the MNLA’s brutality and loss of political control in early 2012 refutes the notion that they can speak for northern Mali – they only speak for part of it. The recent withdrawal from the MNLA of one of its key leaders provides further evidence that the MNLA only speaks for some.

Outsiders would be wise to question the reductionist view that positions the MNLA as the most significant political force in northern Mali. Outsiders’ attempts to apply such a view could cause backlash on the ground. As the city of Kidal, which the MNLA now helps control, becomes a symbol in struggles over the future identity of Mali, France’s positions appear out of step with the views of many Malians. The Reuters article mentioned above explains:

A standoff over how to restore Malian government authority to Kidal, the last town in the desert north yet to be brought under central control, is sowing resentment with Paris and could delay planned elections to restore democracy after a coup.

Mali’s army has moved troops towards Kidal, a stronghold of the MNLA Tuareg separatists, but missed a self-imposed deadline this week to retake the Saharan town. France, which has its own forces camped outside, does not want Malian troops to march on the town, fearing ethnic bloodshed if it is taken by force.

[…]

Many in government and on the streets of Bamako blame the January 2012 uprising by the Tuareg MNLA for unleashing the other calamities that nearly dissolved the country. Nationalists now want the army to march into Kidal to disarm the rebels.

France is instead backing secretive talks being held in neighboring Burkina Faso, designed to allow the July elections to take place, while urging Bamako to address Tuaregs’ long-standing demands for autonomy for their desert homeland.

Clashes between Arabs and Tuaregs have shown that ethnic tension remains high.

More on the talks here, and a short case study of Arab-Tuareg clashes here.

As of Wednesday (French), the MNLA had expressed willingness to let Kidal participate in presidential elections in July, but continued unwillingness to allow the Malian army to enter the city. The longer the political and military standoff over Kidal continues, the more frustrated other parts of the country could become – RFI (French) writes that Kidal has become “a national obsession in Mali,” and that its name “is on all the lips in Bamako.” Historical memories may contribute to this “obsession”: Kidal was created in 1991 (out of the Gao region) with the hopes of helping resolve the Tuareg-led rebellion of that time. Many non-Tuareg Malians reportedly blame the Tuareg for Mali’s crisis and view the Tuareg as angling for a greater share of government largesse than they deserve. As anger grows over the situation in Kidal, Malians who hold such views may become outraged by outsiders’ attempts to elevate the MNLA as the north’s premier political force.

French and Malian Forces Complete Conquest of Three Major Northern Cities

The French intervention in northern Mali has progressed rapidly. I hope to write more next week about medium- and long-term political and security challenges in Mali, but for now I want to record some dates and specifics, since I imagine I and others will be referring back to this period frequently in the months to come. So here’s a brief timeline of which Islamist-held cities in northern Mali fell to French and Malian governmental forces when. My focus is on the northern provincial capitals of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal but I’ve included other towns and cities as well.

  • January 11: Operation Serval begins with French airstrikes
  • January 14: By this date, airstrikes have occurred in Konna, Lere, Douentza, Agharous Kayoune, and Gao
  • January 16: French ground operations begin
  • January 18: Konna recaptured (some sources say Malian troops retook the town on January 12)
  • January 21: Diabaly recaptured (some sources also list January 18 as the date of the recapture of Diabaly)
  • January 21: French and Malian forces enter Douentza
  • January 24: Hombori captured; air raids on Ansongo
  • January 26: Gao captured
  • January 28: Timbuktu airport captured
  • January 29: Timbuktu reconquered
  • January 30: Kidal captured

Al Jazeera details movements of African troops from yesterday:

A group of Chadian soldiers left their temporary base in Niamey on Wednesday, as their convoy rolled through the town of Gorou, Niger and towards the country’s northern border to enter Mali.

The troops are part of a larger African force known as AFISMA, which is due to send more than 8,000 soldiers to Mali to aid in the country’s fight against Islamist militants.

The bulk of the planned African intervention force for Mali is still struggling to get into the country, hampered by shortages of kit and supplies and lack of airlift capacity.

Around 2,000 AFISMA troops are already on the ground to fight the Islamists, who have retreated to the rugged northeast mountains of the Adrar des Ifoghas range on the border with Algeria.

Looking at the timeline, the rapidity of the French/Malian advance is striking though not surprising. But with the first phase of the reconquest (retaking the provincial capitals and other towns) seemingly almost complete, and France already looking for the exits, the medium-term security questions and political challenges are starting to loom large.

On Intervention, Popularity, and Colonialism in Mali

This post has two arguments to make. First, I urge observers of the unfolding conflict in Mali to be cautious about how they interpret reports of Malian enthusiasm for the French intervention. Second, just because the intervention is not “neo-colonial” does not mean that colonialism is not relevant to an understanding of the situation.

On the first point, there have been numerous reports (see one example) of Malians waving French flags, taking up collections for a French helicopter pilot who was killed in action, and performing other symbolic interactions. Anecdotally, many observers report a large, even unanimous degree of expressed support for the French intervention. The enthusiasm seems undeniable. But I think it is important not to assume that this feeling will have staying power or depth; those waving flags may attract more attention now than those who remain silent, and further bloodshed and chaos in the north could turn cheers to boos. I also think it is important not to argue that momentary popularity confers legitimacy on violence or on certain policy decisions; those who say that the intervention is justified because it is popular may soon find they need to make a different argument.

Related to this is the debate about colonialism. Professor Gregory Mann has, in a must-read piece that addresses multiple issues related to the intervention, argued that the French intervention “is not a neo-colonial offensive.” I agree with this in the sense that I do not believe the French are primarily motivated by a desire to establish direct, long-term political control over Mali. But I think it is important to underscore that many of the frameworks and infrastructures that are shaping the situation in Mali and the French intervention there have at least some roots in the colonial era: language, boundaries, policies, conflicts, etc. Colonial legacies also haunt us in the way international media and Western policymakers categorize and construct Muslims in Africa. Colonial legacies help structure current politics and policies in profound ways. Surely no one will argue that it is coincidental that France is taking the lead on a Western military intervention in one of its former African colonies, moving troops and equipment through other former African colonies like Chad. That the Malian government asked for French intervention* may mean that France did not impose its will on Mali in the same manner that colonialism occurred, but it does not mean that relationships of power between Mali and France are clear, or equal, or straightforward. I stress this point because I think there is a tendency in some policy conversations to ignore the colonial period, to view it as distant and irrelevant, to suspect those who bring it up of being radicals stuck in the past and allergic to any possibility of Western involvement in Africa. But the legacies of colonialism remain with us in important ways, and it is possible and necessary to discuss them in a responsible manner.

*More accurate would be Al Jazeera‘s phrasing: “Mali’s [interim civilian] President Dioncounda Traore sent a letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which he transmitted to the Security Council, and a similar letter to French President Francois Hollande seeking assistance from France, the country’s former colonial power, against the offensive.” To say that the Malian government asked France for help is to simplify power dynamics in Bamako and to project more coherence and authority onto the officially constituted interim government than it possesses, at least in my view.

Basic Reported Information on French Operations in Mali

This post attempts to sketch out basic information about the ongoing French military intervention in Mali. The rapid pace of events, starting with an attempt by the Islamist coalition that controls northern Mali to capture strategic areas in the Mopti region, has left observers struggling to distinguish between fact, spin, and falsehood. So some “facts” rest on shaky foundations. But here is what international and local media are saying:

French aircraft have reportedly bombarded at least five towns (map below) These include:

  1. Konna, a town in the Mopti region which Islamists reportedly took from Malian soldiers on January 10. By Saturday, Malian forces stated they had retaken the town.
  2. Lere, a town near the Mauritanian border which the Islamist group Ansar al Din captured from the ostensibly secular, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) in late November (more here), and which may have been the site of a training camp (French);
  3. Douentza, which the Movement for Unity/Monotheism/Tawhid and Jihad (MUJWA) took in September from a local militia;
  4. Agharous Kayoune, about which I could find basically no information; and
  5. Gao, a MUJWA stronghold and one of three northern provincial capitals.

USA Today reports that over 400 French troops are in Mali. Britain and the United States are providing equipment and logistical support. The Washington Post puts the numbers at over 400 in Bamako, and some 150 in the Mopti region. That article adds, “Mirage aircraft currently involved in the operation have been flying from nearby French bases, including one in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, but some helicopters and other aircraft have been flying from a Malian air base at Sevare.”

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland took questions on Mali on Friday, and the British Foreign Office posted a roundup of official statements yesterday.

Different sources have also analyzed the perspectives of regional actors such as Algeria (French). Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady wrote yesterday, “The view in Mauritania seems to be: ‘Dear France, good luck in Mali, keep us out of this mess. Thank you.”

Finally, here is a map showing four of the five towns reportedly bombed by French aircraft:

 

What is your perspective on all this?

Africa Blog Roundup: Mali, Libya, Jubaland, Sudan Maps, and More

Peter Tinti appears on the BBC to discuss the ongoing French military action in Mali.

Bridget Conley: “Libya in the African Context.”

Somalia Newsroom: “Jubaland Close to Becoming Somalia’s Next State.”

Shelby Grossman: “FOIA Cables on Lebanese in Sierra Leone”:

The thing that is most striking is that the documents assert over and over again that Lebanese in West Africa are funding Hezbollah (”hundreds of millions of dollars” according to one cable), but it’s unclear if these assumptions are based on any evidence other than hearsay, as none is provided.

Internally Displaced on the search for a map showing the 1956 border between Sudan and South Sudan:

The strength of the British administrators was, as John Ashworth rightly points out, their obsession with recording things.  This obsession however was bureaucratic (and they were hardly preoccupied with recording in mile-by-mile detail what was, to them, an internal border).  But this means that the entirety of the South Sudan National Archives collection from the 1950s – and its counterpoints in the Durham Sudan Archives and in the Khartoum Sudan National Archives – are the border proofs.  What is needed is a careful examination of who administered which areas, and which villages; that is the proof of the real border.  The detail is there; there are files here in Juba that trace disputes over single cows in the border regions, let alone administrative and taxation rights.  You’re not going to find a simple, easy, 1:10,000 scale map that will solve this (and who said even finding the map would resolve anything anyway?).  The map is in the notes.

Roving Bandit: “Does Policy Work?”

In West Africa and Paris, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Calls for Clarity on Military Intervention in Mali

Chadian President Idriss Deby has made several forceful calls recently for clarity on plans for a possible military intervention in Mali. Deby’s met Tuesday with Boni Yayi, President of Benin (and Chairman of the AU), and Malian Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra. Deby told reporters:

“It’s up to the Malians to tell us as clearly as possible what kind of support they expect from Africa, beyond what has been done by [the Economic Community of West African States, of which Chad is not a member], and what kind of contribution they expect of Chad.”

He and the AU called formally for the UN to authorize a military intervention in Mali (see a timeline of steps toward intervention in Mali here).

On Wednesday, Deby met with French President Francois Hollande in Paris. A military intervention in Mali was one of the central subjects they discussed. This was the first time the two men had met face to face, but not the first time they had discussed Mali: on July 5, the Presidents had a telephone conversation on the topic. Jeune Afrique (French) reported that at the time Deby gave his conditional support to the idea. But he recommended that the framework of the intervention be broadened beyond ECOWAS to include the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), with Western powers’ logistical support. “Under these conditions, Chad could participate,” he reportedly said. Since that time, the AU has signed on, and some Western powers (including France) have indicated they would support an intervention logistically, but the UN Security Council has yet to approve the force.

On Wednesday, following his meeting with Hollande, Deby spoke (French) of “total confusion” on the issue of Mali coming from ECOWAS, the UN, and Mali itself, confusion concerning the military option as well as the option of negotiations. Nonetheless he reaffirmed Chad’s intention to work “alongside the Malians so that Mali may recover its territorial integrity.” Deby’s statements in Paris tracked closely with his remarks the preceding day.

Africa News Roundup: Abdel Aziz Back to France, Jubaland Plans, Muslim Protests in Ethiopia, Trials of Mutineers in Burkina Faso, and More

The United Nations Security Council is considering a plan by the Economic Community of West African States and the African Union to deploy troops in Mali. The French government has urged the UNSC to pass the resolution approving the force by December 20.

Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who was shot on October 13, returned to Mauritania one week ago after an extended convalescence in France. Yesterday he announced that he will return to France briefly for further medical treatment, raising questions about the state of his health. At the same press conference, Abdel Aziz also stated his opposition to an external military intervention in Mali.

AFP: “Renewed Flooding Threatens Niger Capital.”

Garowe on “Jubaland”:

According to Jubaland authorities, there have been five committees set up to establish the Jubaland state in southern Somalia.

The committees include a Security Committee, Election Committee, Selection Committee, Logistics and Financial Committee, and an Awareness Committee, according to Jubaland sources. Each committee consists of 11 members.

The committees will be fundamental in creating the Jubaland state that has been backed by IGAD regional bloc.

IRIN:

After almost a decade of rebel rule, northern Côte d’Ivoire is coming to terms with a new authority as the government of President Alassane Ouattara, who assumed power some 18 months ago, establishes its presence in a region which effectively split from the rest of the country.

Aman Sethi’s op-ed on the Muslim protests in Ethiopia.

Reuters:

Seven gendarmes were jailed on Thursday for taking part in last year’s military mutinies in Burkina Faso, in the first trial linked to the outburst of deadly riots, protests and looting in the normally peaceful West African nation.

A new video from Abubakar Shekau of Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

What else is happening?