When governments change hands in most countries there’s always a great deal of continuity between them, ensuring that regardless of who comes to power, instability won’t ensue. This is because the civil servants and military bureaucrats who carry out the government’s business usually remain in place.
In the US, this continuity sometimes includes unelected officials in high office. For example, when Obama took the White House he kept Robert Gates, who was serving under Bush, as his Defense Secretary. One of the greatest disappointments for the many American voters hoping for a more peaceful world.
In terms of foreign and military policy in Africa, this bureaucratic continuity is likely to apply even more than usual to the continent under a Trump presidency. Africom, brought to life in 2007 and headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany to cover all of Africa except Egypt, is the United States military command tasked with military to military relations and operations in 53 countries.
Considering what seems to be the generally incurious nature of the President Elect, it’s likely that drone strikes and occasional special forces raids will go on unimpeded.
While the media and politicians ignore Africa (until they want to go on some heavily armed crusade there), many powers, both international and regional, are engaged in jockeying for military and economic influence throughout the continent. This is a little-discussed story that has unforeseen consequences for Africans, a contemporary replay of the 19th century scramble for the continent.
In Mali, a landlocked country in west Africa, the US and the country’s former colonial master, France, are sometimes reluctant partners in trying to combat a variety of militant groups, some secessionist and some Islamist, while working against the growing economic clout of rivals China and, to a lesser extent, Russia.
The destabilization of the country is at least partially a result of the NATO intervention in nearby Libya, a gift that just keeps on giving to arms manufacturers and armchair generals, while spreading misery and death throughout Africa and the near east.
When Libya fell in the Fall of 2011, Muhamar Gaddafi’s vast stores of conventional arms were stolen by various groups. Many of these arms stayed in the country, fanning the violence we still see there today. The US military is once again bombing Libyan targets, this time to fight the newly established ISIS affiliate at the request of the country’s UN-backed government.
Other weapons traveled east to Syria, where they were used to make more war, not only on the government and security forces of that country, but on ordinary citizens and minority groups who had lived together peacefully for generations.
Less remembered, right after Gaddafi was deposed, some of these arms made their way south, mainly in the hands of Tuareg people who had been serving in the Libyan army. They were brought to the lawless Sahel region of Mali, where an uprising was followed by a coup, more uprisings and many betrayals.
The Tuaregs, a traditionally nomadic people believed to be of Berber descent, were not taken into account when European powers divided up the region at the end of the 19th century. As a result, they are a significant minority population in a variety of countries including Algeria, Niger, Libya and Burkina Faso but control no territory of their own.
Although France is still proud of its ‘civilizing’ influence throughout Africa, in reality, it and other European nations did the opposite, drawing artificial borders and setting local groups against each other, while bringing their own unscientific and religious prejudices with them. The United States and the Soviet Union continued this process after the 2nd World War.
Many westerners shrug off violence in Africa as if it is somehow normal, a form of racism that allows them to ignore the responsibility of their own countries for the crises facing the continent. This includes contemporary ones like climate change, which has drastically changed life Mali and many other countries.
Other commentators blame religion for many of the problems facing the region. Rather than being a destabilizing influence, the arrival of Islam in west Africa brought written language and initiated a Golden Age that lasted centuries.
In most places, it blended with local cultures and was absorbed into them. This is why we see kinship groups, tribes and even caste systems that long predate its arrival in Africa having more importance than Islam in many countries where it’s the dominant religion.
In Mali, animist traditions as well as strains of Sufism have blended with the Malicki school of jurisprudence that is one of the four main schools of Sunnism, creating a unique form of Islam. Wahhabism, a fundamentalist strain derived from the Hanbali school, from which Islamist and Salafist ideologies draw much of their inspiration, is a relatively recent arrival, exported from Saudi Arabia.
The Chaos Spreads
The Tuaregs, including some of those who returned to the Malian Sahel from Libya, declared their own state, the Republic of Azawad and quickly began taking territory in the sparsely populated and defended north. Although they promised equal treatment for other groups in the region including Songhai, Arab and Fulani peoples, their biggest mistake was to ally their movement, the MNLA, (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) with a variety of Salafist groups.
The most prominent of these is Ansar Al Dine, rumored to have connection to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), that group’s North African affiliate, but there were many others with more obvious associations. Another group, called Al-Murabitoun, is led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian veteran of the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, known as “The Marlboro Man”. This group and others like it are often involved with criminal enterprises from cigarette and cocaine smuggling to human trafficking.
As an aside, it’s interesting that Salafist gangs which ban smoking and drugs in their own territories are so often found to be enriching themselves through these very things. It makes one wonder how different the world would be if they were treated like the common criminals they so often are, rather than a civilizational threat requiring massive military responses.
Ansar Dine quickly turned on their moderate Tuareg allies, aiming to take over the whole country and impose their ideology throughout Mali rather than creating the Azawad homeland that had been the rebels’ original objective. Soon after the MNLA was fighting a losing battle against its former allies.
Meanwhile, in Bamako, the country’s capital, a faction in the military, frustrated by what they saw as the government’s incompetence in dealing with the crisis in the north, deposed the country’s President Amadou Toumani Toure in a coup d’etat in March of 2012. The mutiny was led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, who had received training in the US and is now standing trial for the crimes of the coup regime. The government he installed invited the French to intervene in the north.
The French and their allies have claimed some measure of success for their intervention in early 2013 but recent reports and multiple attacks by terrorist groups in the country since show how tenuous this is. In fact, the country is believed to be the most dangerous post in the world for UN peacekeepers. As we have seen in many places, the Salafist groups in the north did not stand and fight but rather disappeared, many crossing porous borders into nearby countries.
A peace accord meant to guarantee a measure of autonomy to the Azawad was ironed out in May of 2015 and was finally agreed to by the parties in early June of that same year. Unfortunately, it’s increasingly fragile as Tuareg leaders are not seeing the hoped for change, “I repeat regularly to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita that the necessary initiatives must be taken to ensure the reintegration of the people of northern Mali into the community,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is reported to have said recently.
Although it appears that the difficulties in Mali, which have also contributed to Europe’s current refugee crisis as well as to instability in neighboring countries, will likely continue for many years to come, they do offer a lesson on the costs of so-called humanitarian intervention. None of the experts in NATO capitals predicted that the destabilization of Mali would be one of the results of regime change operations in Libya. Across the political spectrum in the west, there are still far too many people who believe that the right amount of bombing can solve the world’s problems.