From A World to Win News Service;
Ethnic groups, the national question and Islam
The Tuareg minority, related to the Berbers of North Africa's coastal mountains, is itself composed of several different tribal groupings. Together with people of Arab origin, Tuaregs are estimated to make up 10 percent of the 15 million total population and live primarily in the North. Since 1960 Tuaregs have led four separate rebellions against the central Malian government and its neglect of the northern region, centred around the demand for autonomy there. Mostly nomadic herders, they are spread across a more or less contiguous area in several countries –
and Niger as well as Mali.
With significant investments in
Mali and ties to both the Malian
state and the movement for autonomy in the North, Gaddafi had also incorporated
Tuaregs into the Libyan army. Thus after the imperialists invaded, led by then
French president Nicolas Sarkozy's Mirage jets in March 2011, and Gaddafi's
government eventually collapsed, Tuaregs seized modern Libyan weapons and
headed for northern Mali, according to numerous reports. Although this is
likely only one reason for the plentiful supply of guns and equipment in Mali, it begins
to explain why the poorly organized Malian army was easily defeated when the
Tuareg movement took over northern cities and declared Azawad independent.
Then also heavily-armed and well-equipped jihadist forces, organized into groups such as Ansar-al-Dine, Mujao and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), took over militarily as the MNLA pulled back and reportedly offered to negotiate. The French maintain they are bombing only the jihadist groups (with numerous civilian casualties) and many within French political circles are arguing for talks with the MNLA, while others say they are only a political cover for the jihadists who settled in the main town of Timbuktu as well as Gao and others along the Niger River. Competing heads of clans still figure heavily in the social structures of the
northern territory and are said to be
another factor in what appears to be constant reshaping of alliances and splits
between Islamic armed groups. Local residents apparently told reporters that
the armed group who invaded and took over Konna last April 2012 was composed of
lighter-skinned Tuaregs and Arabs as well as blacks speaking several different
languages from Mali and from
the neighbouring countries of Niger
According to press accounts, Canadian and French citizens also were involved in
As soon as the French launched their air strikes in mid-January, driving the Islamic forces further into the desert areas, some emboldened Malian army soldiers carried out retaliatory acts against people they suspected of supporting the Islamists (perhaps this was not unrelated to the army's having been routed by them a year ago). This helped fuel press reports that ethnic conflicts were behind the war. In addition, local residents furiously targeted mainly Arab businesses, many run by merchants from neighbouring
a long history in Mali.
When these stores were ransacked, large caches of ammunition where found in
some of them that merchants had either stocked willingly or under pressure for
the Islamic forces. This increased suspicion that Arab merchants had supported
the Islamists during the 10-month occupation.
In fact imperialist meddling does stir up the possibilities for these divisions to take nasty forms among the people. The African Arab slave trade predating colonisation also left its mark on ethnic divisions between North and South. Many Malians are quick to say that they have lived for centuries with numerous different and languages and tribal groupings, mostly black-skinned, but also mixed (Peul) and lighter skinned peoples, and that these ethnic differences are not the main factor driving this crisis as the media has sometimes implied.
Ninety percent of the Malian people are Sunni Moslems, the remaining 10 percent mostly animist. Thus much of the local population in the northern cities initially did not see a strong distinction between themselves and the Islamists, and did not put up much resistance to them. However, reports say most people quickly turned against the fundamentalists who made life miserable for them by banning radio and television (including televised football events!), beating women, cutting off hands for "blasphemy" or "loose moral behaviour", and carrying out executions under the new and much harsher version of Islamic law they rapidly imposed on the population.
In the process of the foreign grab for
land, resources and zones of influence that has also benefited small parasitic
ruling classes and elites, imperialist relations of domination and organised
dependence become mixed with remaining pre-capitalist social relations. In Mali, this
includes a not-so-distant past of slavery, not legally abolished until 1905.
Scholars describe a caste-like system in which some tribal/ethnic groups were
vassals (often referred to as slaves) of others, including among the Tuaregs.
There are reports that the current war has also created the social terrain for
"masters" in the North to recuperate their former vassals, or their
children, still recognised as belonging to inferior castes, thus stirring up
Under Islam, the traditional social code of polygamy and child marriages as well as female genital mutilation represents a huge oppressive burden on Malian women. On top of this, when Islamic fundamentalists occupied the northern cities they began flogging women in public for not fully covering themselves with the newly-imposed veil, reportedly whether they were young girls, grandmothers or pregnant mothers. Suddenly women were not even allowed to talk to their own brothers in public.
Scholars argue that the Islamisation of the Malian state has in fact already been well underway for some time and that Moslem law in the form of shariah is already mixed in practice with "modern jurisprudence". The absence of the state from the daily lives of most of the population, heightened by the 2012 coup d’etat, created a vacuum that "moderate" Islamic forces in the High Islamic Council have stepped into more vigorously, both providing services to the people and taking up a cabinet post in the government. The New York Times reports that they oppose the jihadists and have already played an important political role for the Malian government by negotiating the multimillion-euro ransoms paid for the release of hostages taken in the North by AQMI over the past decade.
Trafficking hub with state complicity fuels parasitism, warlords, and jihadis
In a word, the North is awash in money and guns, but has no paved roads or electricity. In addition to not developing the region, the deposed central government in
is accused of tolerating organized criminal trafficking networks, from which it
profited nicely. Customs officials are apparently generously compensated or
rare in the porous border area that Mali
shares with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger
and some Bamako
bureaucrats are said to have become rich on sources other than government
Centuries-old trading routes have become conduits for cigarettes, drugs and other forms of trafficking in the northern region, at the vortex of the southern Algerian and Libyan Sahara,
and west from Mauritania.
In addition to cocaine, Moroccan cannabis resin and a significant amount of
ransom "business" through hostage-taking in the past several years,
trade has expanded into guns, through the changing political situation in North Africa. The control of smuggling also appears to be
intertwined in the Tuareg political rebellions. At stake are large profits both
from trafficking and from taxes numerous networks controlling the routes impose
on each other as goods are moved through the region. To try to maintain its
authority and keep control over the north, in 2006 the Malian government
utilised these rivalries by pitting one group of Tuareg rebels against others.
Geopolitical stakes being played out in
stated immediate aim and belligerent means of achieving it, clearly France has been
accelerating its efforts to shore up its influence in the Sahara-Sahel.
Contrary to its image after refusing to join the war against Iraq initiated
by former president G.W. Bush, the French state has not been idle militarily.
Far from it. Sarkozky dispatched troops to Afghanistan
and into the conflict in Ivory Coast,
and recently special forces into Somalia. Deploying 2,000 Chadian
mercenary soldiers in Mali's North, who are not part of ECOWAS but have plenty
of experience in previous conflicts in Central African Republic on France's
behalf, also figures into its strategic plans, experts point out. Despite the
talk of ending "Francafrique", the business daily Les Echos wrote
that in Mali the stakes for France are its future presence in Africa.
A new political order and the role of the imperialist powers within it are being fought out and recast in the region. The crumbling of the old order of post-independence states in the Sahel-Sahara has been accelerated by the mass uprisings against the
Mubarak in Egypt and France's Ben Ali in Tunisia. There is also the
instability and opening that Gaddafi's fall in Libya
created, together with other armed conflicts in the Sahel, notably Sudan. And the
antagonism between Western imperialism and the political Islam shaping many
developments in the Middle East is influencing the internal dynamics and
struggle over this recasting of political configurations in West and North Africa as well.
is increasingly a major player in this geopolitical recasting of the region,
through active intelligence bases in several countries, training soldiers and
solidifying ties with the leadership of a number of West African armed forces.
The US-Africa command, or Africom, was set up under George W. Bush in 2008
expressly for the purpose of monitoring Islamist forces and preventing their
implantation in a West African state where they could find a haven. According
to Rudoph Atallah, former U.S.
director of counter terrorism for Africa, the Sahel
is a "destabilized region with ethnic conflict that if not dealt with
quickly many disgruntled groups will be recruited by Al Qaida". He said
that military intervention is one approach the U.S.
is considering in Mali,
while assisting France
and helping to pay the bill. US
drones are already flying in Malian skies. In fact it appears that the
imperialists are actively destabilising the region for an outcome more to their
liking, sometimes cooperating and sometimes acting on their own. Already huge
camps of Malian refugees fleeing the fighting sprawl along the borders and are
causing tensions with neighbouring states.
Economic interests and particularly exploring new energy sources also underpin the scramble to reshape states and political configurations in the
Sahel. France is heavily dependent upon uranium
deposits in Niger
for its nuclear power. Several imperialist countries, together with Algeria, Qatar
and China (a rising
aggressive presence throughout Africa) have their eye on the untapped gas
fields, oil and uranium deposits apparently lying under the northern desert
sands in Mali.
China recently constructed a
third bridge in Bamako
and in many African countries it has combined commercial penetration with
For the people of
Mali nothing good can come out of
French imperialist military intervention, with or without West African or UN
troops to project a different image, or out of religious rule. In fact,
imperialist domination has provided the conditions for obscurantism to persist
and grow in new forms. Both imperialism and Islamic rule maintain the Malian
people in a position of continued subordination to dominant interests and the
whole ensemble of economic and social relations they need to break out of to
build a radically different society.
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