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Sahelian Blowback
What’s Happening in Mali?
by VIJAY PRASHAD

Tucked away in the corners of the news media sits a report that the U. S. government will provide $5 million in trucks and military equipment to Mali. The aim of this donation is to help the Malian military fight the group known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Last December, AQIM kidnapped two Canadian diplomats, who were released after four months. This is what they do these days: kidnap, extort, run guns and drugs. Islam is a veneer.

AQIM comes out of the brutal Algerian Civil War (1991-2002), which took the lives of over 200,000 people, and was fought between the secular-authoritarian National Liberation Front and various Islamist factions. The war ended when the Islamists lost the armed conflict. A few hardened veterans turned to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in the late 1990s, and this group became the AQIM (adopted into the al-Qaeda fold by its junior amir, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in 2006). AQIM conducted a few spectacular operations, including kidnapping of tourists, bombing of Algerian military vehicles and suicide bombing. AQIM’s leadership comes from that well-known class of jihadi graduates known as the "Afghan Arabs," people like Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud (Abdelmalek Droukal), who did his time in Afghanistan.

The association with al-Qaeda is a propaganda coup, with Wadoud telling the New York Times that the link not only strengthens their sense of theological unity, but it also brings "grief and sorrow to our enemies." This is bluster. AQIM is a small shop with a large sign, paying its franchise dues without increasing its own business. But since AQIM operates on the border between Algeria and Mali, and does some of its business in Mali, the U. S. government decided to help fortify Mali’s military. $5 million is not much money for the U. S., but for a country with total revenues of $1.5 billion, with a military budget of about $70 million per year, this small disbursement is considerable. And it is set to increase. Keep an eye on that.

The U. S. government has worried that the turmoil in Algeria would spread across the Sahara into places such as Mali. In 2002, the Bush administration set up the Pan Sahel Initiative, which became, in 2005, the Trans-Sahel Counterterrorism Initiative (later Partnership, TSCTP). The point was to take the military forces from the seven "willing" Saharan countries and train them to fight their various foes, some of whom might be offshoots of al-Qaeda (AQIM, however, was not formed till 2006, when this military interchange was already fairly advanced). With the Trans-Sahel project, the U. S. government put in $500 million over five years, mainly for military hardware. As if the militaries of Ghana and Nigeria, which joined up, need more funds.

Through the TSCTP, the U. S. government wanted not only to fight the Islamists on the battlefield, but also take on their extremist ideology. To this end, USAID got some funds to help revise textbooks, pay for schools that teach a "tolerant ideology" and run rural radio stations "by broadcasting moderate views and providing information on government services." The money for these non-military functions was available in 2005 and 2007, but not in 2006. Because of this fluctuation, according to the General Accounting Office of the U. S. government, "the mission suspended its peace-building program in northern Mali."

All attention focused on the military aspect, although even here there is some uneasiness. The U. S. Embassy in Bamako was quick to point out that this $5 million for the trucks and other military hardware comes not for the U. S. military, but from the U. S. State Department. Although, State is not the only one involved; from April to June this year, three hundred U. S. Special Forces "advisers" trained the Malian military at three of its bases. These Sahelian initiatives are now run through Africom, the U. S. African Command, set up in October 2007. It operates a program called Joint Task Force Aztec Silence. The Cowboys are playing Cortez in the desert. The "Silence" after Aztec is chilling.

The insurgents in northern Mali are various. The longest tension is between the Malian government and the "Taureg rebels." The Tauregs are the Berbers nomads of the Sahara, who live across the boundaries of the countries that make up northern Africa. Known as the "Blue Men of the Desert" for their indigo robes, the Tauregs have faced a challenge to their independence and to their livelihood. The former has come from the attempt first by the colonial states and then by the new national states to integrate them into the state structure (and to fix international borders, to which the Tauregs scoff). The latter came from a century long deterioration of the land around the desert, of the long drought that has changed the Taureg’s ability to conduct their form of pastoralism (this is one of the major problems that effects Darfur, as has been so keenly brought out by Mahmood Mamdani in Saviors and Survivors).

The Tauregs have a long history of struggle with the Malian state, starting in 1962 in the Adrar N’Fughas mountains, when the Tauregs resented the attempt to bring them under the control of the newly independent state. A history of rebellion against the French had only strengthened their resolve to protect their way of life, and only a concerted military campaign by the new Malian state forged an uneasy peace. The droughts of 1968, 1974, 1980 and 1985 devastated the pastoral way of life, sending the proud Taureg peoples south to seek livelihood in the cities of Mali. Libya’s oil wealth was able to absorb many of the migrant Tauregs, who joined its military and its informal labor force.

A second rebellion opened up in 1990, and quickly the Malian state realized that a military solution was not possible. The government and the Tauregs signed the Accords of Tamanrasset, which led to a National Pact in 1992. The basic position was that the state would make a commitment to decentralization, and to some kind of development (between 1968 and 1990, Mali spent only 17% of its total infrastructural funds in the north; between 1991 and 1993, it spent 48% of its funds in the region). But was this development always a chimera?

Mali came out of colonial rule in devastation. Nothing was left to it. The colonial Office du Niger indulged a fantasy, trying to recreate the inland Niger Delta into a cotton-growing region. Corvée labor and forcible relocation of the peasantry were the more ghastly sides of the process, but the structural point is that Mali was rendered into agriculture with little value-added processing or industry as part of its colonial development (the story of the colonial era is accessibly told in Monica van Beusekom’s 2002 study, Negotiating Development: African Farmers and Colonial Experts at the Office du Niger, 1920-1960). Mali’s "independence" came with severe constraints.

The French were ejected, and a popular government led by the charismatic Modibo Kéita came to power. But the country was dependent on one crop (cotton) for more than half its GDP, it had little processing and industry and almost no sources of energy (all the oil is imported, and the hydroelectric plants at Kayes and Sotuba are much too modest for the needs of consumer consumption, not to mention industrial development). Poor soils and lack of access to water in the northern part of Mali put pressure on the agricultural side, and Mali’s distance from the sea (1400 miles on either end for this landlocked country) make it hard to take its agricultural products to the market. Further, the cotton subsidy regime in both Europe and the United States strike to the heart of Mali’s attempt to grow its already dismal economy.

Kéita turned the planning ministry over to Jean-Marie Koné, a moderate and not a Marxist, who had put his own stamp on the process. By 1965, Samir Amin had already concluded that the gap between Mali’s plan and its implementation had called into question the entire "planning function" (Trois expériences africaines de développement: le Mali, le Guinée et le Ghana, Paris, 1965). Kéita was not given a chance. General Moussa Traoré left the barracks in 1968 and ended Mali’s first experiment with democracy. But Keita’s government did start a process that allowed Mali to become self-sufficient in cereal production by the early 1970s. That ended in the mid-1970s. If Malian socialism had been permitted some more time, it might have produced a model for a small land-locked country.

Traoré had none of Kéita’s imagination, and none of the socialist movements’ patience with devolution of power. When things turned bad, he went to Washington. The World Bank welcomed him in 1981, and Mali became the test case for its "structural adjustment" policies. Ten years of grief for the Malian people came to an end in 1991 when a political movement removed Traoré and replaced him with another Man in Green. The tide had turned against the military, which handed over power in 1992 to the Alliance for Democracy in Mali. Its leader, Alpha Oumar Konaré became President.

Konaré cut his teeth in Kéita’s era as a student leader, and then as a member in the Marxist-Leninist Parti malien du travail, later joining Traoré’s regime as a minister and then throwing himself into the creation of a civil society (as editor of a cultural outfit, Jamana, as a newspaper editor and as founder of Radio Bamako). Mali inherited a criminal debt, over $3 billion, much of it driven up during the military rule. Sixty percent of Mali’s fiscal receipts went toward debt servicing. Salaries could not be paid. Konaré’s hands were tied. As one of his associates told Howard French of the New York Times, "We service our country’s debt on time every month, never missing a penny, and all the time the people are getting poorer and poorer." Konaré, now a liberal, begged the United States and Europe to either forgive the debt or restructure it. No development in the North could occur to bring peace to Mali, with the National Pact of 1992 in danger of being impoverished economically and politically. Washington held fast. Moral hazard was the name of the game. George Moose, Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, caviled, "virtue is its own reward." How could Mali be bailed out? That would set a bad example for the rest of the indebted countries.

In 1995, Howard French reported from Bamako for the New York Times, "Diplomats also speak of this large landlocked country as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic militancy from its northern neighbor, Algeria. Already Mali faces a destabilizing conflict involving Taureg tribesmen in the north, but any settlement has been thwarted by a lack of resources. At the same time, Mali’s debt burden, contracted under years of dictatorship, consumes so much of the country’s revenues that there is little left for development needs." The point was clearly made. No one listened. Konaré could not move any agenda. He left office in 2002, and went to the African Union. His successor is equally despondent.

But unlike Konaré, the current President Amadou Toumani Touré is a former military General. Ruling outside a political party, Touré has been equally unable to find a way out of Mali’s structural debt crisis. The festering unrest in the north continues. In 2006, Taureg rebels took two military bases in Kidal and Menaka. The government hastily conducted a peace deal (the Algiers Accord), making all those tired promises of development once more. In January 2009, the battle in the north recommenced with the Malian military moving against the camps of the Taureg leader, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, who was not part of the Algiers Accord. Bamako hopes to bring all parties to the table, although this kind of armed attack reduces confidence among the Taureg, and might move some to the AQIM and its offshoots (at least they have a trade that pays well).

The AQIM, despite the swagger of its leadership, has become a kind of trans-Saharan gang. Kidnapping of tourists is a source of its revenue: it demanded five million pounds for two Austrian tourists, who were freed in November 2008 (Austria denies that it paid the ransom). Certainly AQIM is now a major player in regional arms smuggling, and in drug running, the two growth industries in areas devastated by drought and debt. There is a suggestion that AQIM has sent militants to Iraq, but these numbers are very low, if they are at all true. The bulk of "foreign fighters" in the Iraqi insurgency come from the Mashriq, the states of the Arabian peninsula in the main and Jordan. The AQIM is a criminal gang. Algeria, Libya and Mali should be able to form a regional process to disband them.

Touré is playing a double game: he has pledged to start a "total struggle" against the terrorists, but won’t release his troops unless they are better equipped and trained by the United States. It wants air power (a reminder of the time when the Italians bombed the Berber with the view that the bombs "had a wonderful effect on the morale of the Arabs," according to the Italian air commandante in charge of the 1911 operation). Touré is using the AQIM threat to consolidate his power, and to bring in the cash. More money is on offer for counterterrorism than for development.

Washington’s counterterrorism spectacles see only al-Qaeda. The debt burden and the impossibility of governance are not on the agenda. Whether the State Department or the Defense Department give arms to the Malian military says more about the anxiety in the U. S. than about the dynamic in Mali. Once more the U. S. will strengthen the military against civil society, and once more we might see Mali fall the way of Guinea and others in the region that were set up to become dictatorships. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quite rightly called the mass rapes by the Guinean military "criminality of the greatest degree." If better sense does not prevail, not long from now we might read of similar atrocities at the Modibo Kéita Sports Stadium in Bamako.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007, which was chosen for the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Award, 2009. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu