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.