Articles  •  Britain

Mali: French boots on the ground – fire fighters or arsonists?

20 January 2013

“France represents only humanitarian interests,” insists French president François Hollande. It is a solely a case of the war on terror, an attempt to stop al-Qaeda gaining another Afghanistan or Somalia – a collapsed state from which to mount operations into the “civilised” world of the imperialist powers.

It might seem strange that after a decade of imperialist wars and interventions, the world’s media has swallowed this hook, line and sinker. They ignore the fact that France itself has intervened militarily 60 times in its former colonies in Africa since they gained independence. What a lot of humanitarianism!

Yet the Malian crowd cheering on French troops in the country’s capital Bamako seems to justify this “humanitarian” intervention. The brutalities of Islamist forces in the north of the country, and their assaults on the historic religious practices of the people there, also seem to confirm this.

There is no question about the reactionary aims of the different Islamist groups who are imposing the brutal punishments in the areas under their control. Since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, and on the basis of their alliance with the Tuareg liberation organisation MLNA, they have obtained better weapons and massively increased their firepower.

But the alliance between Tuareg separatists and the Islamists was already collapsing before the French intervention. Although the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, they are by no means Wahhabis or Salafists, and there is nothing to justify the claim by the Islamist groups that they represent some form of “national liberation”. Their actions also led to clashes with the organisations of other nationalities of Mali, of which there are some thirty.

The Islamist groups have only around 2,500 armed fighters. Their ability to take control of the north of the country can be explained only in light of the country’s unhappy colonial and post-colonial history, as well as the appalling consequences of neoliberal policies since the beginning of the 1990s. Together, these have led to the collapse of Malian society and government institutions.

Mali is a typical product of “decolonisation”. Its borders were drawn by the former colonial power, France, and took no account of the distribution of its different peoples or their economic relations. The formation of the Malian state violated the free movement of the nomadic Tuareg, and the self-determination of the Moors and other nationalities was trampled on. The Tuareg and Moors were opposed from the outset to their regions being included in the states south of the Sahara, leading to uprisings in 1963, in 1990 and most recently in 2006.

Mali’s independence was formal rather than real, its economy and its ruling elites still tied irreversibly to French imperialism. In short it is what Marxists call a semi-colony.

The devastation of Mali is clearly not limited to the north. Since 1991, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has imposed its “structural adjustment programmes” on the country. This has meant cuts in infrastructure, health and social services, as well as massive inflation. The social consequences in an already poor country were dramatic. Today some 30 per cent of the population is officially unemployed, approximately three times as many as 15 years ago. Only 50 per cent of children ever attend school, and three quarters of the population are illiterate. One third of people have no access to clean water, and average life expectancy is just 48 years.

The economy and the society of the north of Mali have developed a “distorted” character. The lack of resources and increasing desertification has also had a severe impact on its agriculture and cattle rearing. The smuggling of raw materials, drugs and even people, together with control over transport through the Sahara, became, in the face of general decline, more and more important, and in places the most important source of income. In turn, that strengthened the fragmentation of the region, and meant that armed groups, including the Islamists, controlled the trade in water, in conjunction with criminal forces.

Even when Mali had a formally democratic government, before the coup of 2012, this was only a cover for large-scale corruption, clientelism, the enrichment of a few, political oppression and subordination to the IMF and Western imperialist powers. Although the coup of 22 March 2012 took place as a result of the failure of the government to recover and pacify the north, it also expressed a more general social discontent with corrupt President Amadou Tourmani Toure and his government.

The new “interim government” set up by the coup makers could rely on support not only from sections of the military and the elites, but also on parts of the trade unions and peasant organisations. Alongside “recovering national dignity”, they promised an improvement in the social situation. On the left, the workers and peasants of Mali supported the African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (ASDI), the peasant union Earth, Labour, Dignity, as well as the CSTM, one of the country’s two big trade union confederations.

Against the putsch, the United Front for the Defence of Democracy was organised by the former president, the right wing parties and the Social Democratic RARENA (which previously had formed a common parliamentary fraction with the ASDI), and also the National Union of Workers of Mali, the other big union federation.

In a situation where the elites of the country are divided, the leaders of the working class and the oppressed masses failed to pursue any independent politics, but sided with one or other faction of the elite and through them the imperialist powers.

Because of the social and economic crisis, the state structure of Mali has increasingly been eroded. In this situation, the Islamists are presented as a threat that justifies this intervention and the increasingly permanent stationing of troops. In reality, French imperialism is trying to prevent the collapse of a system whose decline and crisis was largely caused by its own and other imperialisms’ economic penetration, control and exploitation.

French investments in the country have to be saved and the country stabilised. Behind this lies the economic importance of Mali to France. In the north of the country, there are material resources, including uranium, to be exploited. Securing Mali means securing these riches.

The conquest of the north would therefore also lead to the strengthening of the oppression of the Tuaregs and the Moors. It would not overcome the national and social roots of the numerous insurrections, the poverty of the population, the decline of the economy and the expansion of semi-criminal forms of trade, but rather would strengthen them.

Lastly, Africa is a continent in which the struggle for the re-division of the world between rival blocs of imperialist power is being played out. The securing of “Francophone Africa” is a key task for French imperialism, in order to maintain itself as a player in the global struggle for power.

The demand for French troops, with or without a mandate from the United Nations (UN) is like demanding arsonists take over from the fire brigade. It must be opposed with no ifs and no buts. The labour movement and the entire left must campaign for the immediate withdrawal of these troops and against any imperialist intervention whether unilaterally or in the name of the UN.

Hollande’s excuse for his imperialist invasion is strengthened by the fact that practically all sides of the French parliament support the intervention, or at least offer no real opposition. This is naturally true for the governing Socialists and their Green allies, as well as the bourgeois Gaullists and the extreme right Front National.

But even the Parti de Gauche (Left Party) could not bring itself to unequivocally reject the intervention. In a statement on 15 January, the party failed to demand the withdrawal of troops from Mali but asked only that they should restrict their operations to the south of the country. On 14 January, the French Communist Party (PCF) took a position even further to the right, demanding only that French troops should carry out their mission under the aegis of the UN and the African Union. This is the scantiest fig leaf for supporting the intervention, since even though the UN has not so far mandated it, the West African alliance ECOWAS has, and if asked the UN Security Council will probably do so.

The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), however has openly opposed the intervention, rightly pointing out that France is the cause of most of the problems of the country and therefore cannot be the solution. The NPA’s website carried a statement of the Socialist Workers Party of Algeria with the title “Stop the French military intervention in Mali – No to Algerian Cooperation”.

In Britain and Germany we too need to say French troops out of Mali, no to British and German aid in this latest episode of the war on terror. Our solidarity must go to the youth and workers of West and sub-Saharan Africa, warning them that imperialist interventions are far from humanitarian.

We must encourage them to rely on their own forces to create a region of political freedom, liberation from the IMF and the multinationals seeking to exploit the mineral wealth of Mali and its neighbours. In this direction also runs the road of victory against the reactionary forces of Islamism.


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