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.

22 thoughts on “On Intervention, Popularity, and Colonialism in Mali

  1. I think you are reading too much meaning into these things. The people of Bamako were a few days away from being ruled by Islamic fundamentalists (similar to the Taliban) and they are very grateful for whatever help that came.

    It is that simple.

    • There’s also the possibility of ethnicity, historical geographic divides etc. There were a good number of people who were willing to put up with those Islamist forces when they offered actual law and order.

      • Bamako practices a tolerant form of Islam (a bit like Lagos which has a significant Muslim population). I would be very surprised if Muslims in Lagos welcome Taliban style rule – the same applies to Bamako.

        Northern Mali like Northern Nigeria, is a bit more fertile soil for Taliban style rule.

  2. Pingback: On Intervention, Popularity, and Colonialism in Mali « tamoudre

  3. I think the points you make are strong ones. Clearly the way African issues are dealt with by the non African international community is along colonial lines. This is significant. Not just for the African countries. The result is that often the most inappropriate actor (at least from a PR perspective) is expected to take the lead. That actor, be it France or Britain is often more relucant to become involved because of the colonial legacy than it would be otherwise (because for one they fear the reputational consequences across Africa). If this intervention is the correct step – shouldn’t it have happened 9 months ago?

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  6. I’d be interested to see how support for the French breaks down along tribal lines, Bamara, Bozo, Fulani, etc. I would imagine, given the brutality of the al Queda and their version of Shia that across the board the majority tribes in Mali, who practices a much more secular form of Islam and see Christianity and Judaism as relatives, not rivals, to be welcoming of the intervention, given the Malian forces inability to prevent the Islamist expansion.

    And though you can’t, as they say, unring the bell, of colonialism I doubt that France has motivations of conquest in their actions. I would think this is more national interest in not letting Islamist expansion move further northward into Algeria/Morocco or to the capital Bamako. Mali (and the Sahel) in general is not rich in natural resources (unless you count salt, which once made the princes of Mali some of the wealthiest men in the world) or is it a viable trade route to anywhere (the Silk Road long ago abandoned).

    And I would imagine France’s action is in direct relation to the United States’ inaction. One can see this situation as a reversal of the Bush doctrine to some extent and perhaps the establishment of the Obama one. The last decade+ saw the US take the lead in confronting the combination of Islamism and terrorism where ever it had taken root – Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Phillipines or where we opened the door to it in Iraq. We bore the brunt of the cost, we bore the brunt of the casualties, we caused the brunt of the casualties and we bore the brunt of the blowback. For better or worse it was an American led endeavor.

    [Note: I am fully aware of the support of our allies, particularly Britain, Canada and France in confronting Islamic fundamentalism and mean in no way to diminish the sacrifice of it’s military members].

    I believe now America is looking to Europe and America’s other allies and saying the problem of extreme Islamic fundamentalism is as much yours, if not more, than ours and it is time for your nations to take the lead. America’s support seems now to be that of financial, intelligence, logistics and material. You can see this with Libya, where we let Britain and France take the lead and America a back seat, Syria, where France has been the most supportive of the anti-Assad forces and now Mali.

    It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve been to Mali but it holds a special place for me. Unrelated to above does anyone know if the Dogan people have been over run by the Islamist? They are in the area east of Mopti, along the Bandiagara Falaisse.

  7. Pingback: Gabon to Mali: History of French Military Interventions in Africa | World News Curator

  8. A Jay Ulfelder has a piece on his site about the probability of events playing out the same even if Qaddafi (or however it’s spelled this month) hadn’t fallen.
    To summarize: Mali was very unstable even if it wasn’t realized and Sanogo was inconsistent about his reasons for the coup and only mentioned the events in the north when specifically asked about them.

    I might have to revise my opinion that separatist conflict caused this. While military victories might have made them less frustrated and coup-prone, if Sanogo was constantly not mentioning the war then it seems hard to see how it was his driving concern.


  9. Intervention is one lens through which to look at how Mali and France manage crises on the ex-colony’s soil. What about before though? You had plans drawn up for an essentially African intervention force- probably with Western money, but still. Or what about what we can imagine the ‘after’ will look like? The French are telling anyone with a camera and microphone that they want to pass longer-term occupation over to probably and ECOWAS force within sharp delays.

    Do you see these as an evolution in the nature of the relations France has with these countries over which it used to rule? That there still exist old structures and ties between the two seems obvious to me- but when it comes to the whole picture of the crisis, I wonder if France’s role hasn’t changed in a fundamental way, a way that that considerably lessons the weight we should give to the effects of that period in history.

    Or do you see it as an evolution in another sense? Is Paris now going to become the guardian of last resort for Niger and Mauritania against transnational extremism?

    I would love to hear what you think.

    • These are great observations and questions. My short answer would be that France’s role is evolving but that the past partly structures that evolution – how could it not? I am no expert on French foreign policy – I defer to people like Tobias Koepf on these things – but my take as a layman is that France now partly plays the role of referee in the politics of its former African colonies. It will, in other words, pick winners when there are intense disputes; Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, etc. And of course France wants to protect its citizens who live in these countries.

      In terms of the political handoff to ECOWAS in Mali, US officials have at points invoked the Somalia model – African soldiers, Western money. That seemed to be what Paris (and to some extent Washington) had in mind during the latter half of 2012, and what they may hope to transition to in the medium term.

      What do you think?

      • I think you’re pretty accurate with regards to where French Africa policy wants to go on a political level. It has its own voice, but it also has clout with the key regional hubs for negotiating conflict and managing crises: Dakar, Ouaga, Libreville. Since the Ivoirian electoral crisis at least, I see it as on one hand using influence to create a local outcome- demestic politics, ‘unicorns’ (Force de la licorne) and ECOWAS- while at the same time creating momentum internationally, precisely to ‘pick winners’.

        As to the political handoff to ECOWAS, I personally don’t see any way other than an AMISOM-type model. Where would they get the money from if not? At any rate the French are very much emphasizing the role, not just of African peacekeepers, but of African forces in the actual fighting. To me that is probably the biggest change this time around.

        Although…I was at a conference for security sector reform in Dakar last November, and came back pretty unimpressed with the current capabilities of West African militaries in handling larger cross-border networks of armed resistance.

        Your piece was a very interesting read, I look forward to more.

  10. I agree with your assessment of French-Malian relations, and hope that no one actually expects a 19th century colonial takeover. Modern imperialism is more subtle, but also still obvious in its power dynamics. Many foreign interests are dipping their hands into Mali looking for their own interests first, and the interests of Malians second. This is a cause for concern in regards to achieving a political resolution with the north’s peoples.

  11. You make two very good points here: there is certainly a colonial link – especially in the structured link between the powerful (France) and the weak (Mali) – and I think everyone is aware of it. It’s a shame the African force couldn’t get its act together sooner. What happened to all the money spent training an African Standby Force in the Sahel? I seem to remember joint exercises in Senegal many years back. On the second point about Malians applauding the intervention: where are the other African voices? Where is the AU?

  12. Pingback: Mali analysis round-up | The More Things Change

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