Don’t worry everyone, it’s a success (according to France)

1 Feb

I wanted to keep our conversation over the French intervention in Mali going as we head into the weekend. My colleague and co-blogger Phil recently posted a great blog post on what a successful intervention in Mali should look like. Well, as of this week, it appears France’s answer is: ‘What we just did for the past three weeks’. This Aljazeera article reports how Jean-Yves le Drian, France’s defense minister, declared the intervention to be a success following the recapturing of key posts in northern Mali, essentially returning the North to Malian hands. Phil’s post and subsequent comments raised questions of the success of a military intervention, as well as the rhetoric surrounding the crisis in Mali. My comment got too long, so here we are.

I think that a successful intervention was always going to be the point at which the rebels no longer held any legitimate posts in Mali, after which security of these locations would be passed into the hands of the Malian army or perhaps ECOWAS. And as we know, interventions can still be deemed as “successful” without consideration for the aftermath, whether that aftermath is confined to post-conflict reconstruction, DDR of armed forces, development or restoration of electoral processes, etc. (“‘We’ll see’ said the Zen master…”). The 1994 US intervention in Haiti was seen as a success at the time, due to a swift execution of military goals. The subsequent failure of Haiti to recover from the electoral conflict that merited the intervention lingers to this day. So it appears ‘success’ is a difficult label to place on an intervention like this.

I have spoken with colleagues who have friends and family in and around Mali, and it seems that life is slowly looking like it may return to normal. But I think “What now?” is the question on everyone’s minds. In order to prevent an armed rebellion from recurring in Mali’s future, the root causes of the conflict must be addressed. These causes are grounded in flawed political representation that seems all too common in African nations, where you have the core of state power at one geographical end of the country and millions of people failing to garner sufficient representation (many are outright neglected) at the periphery of the nation (look at strife in Sudan, Uganda, DRC, etc.). Karen Jacobsen (2002)* discusses how governments can extend the reach of their legitimacy by serving those in the periphery, but how often is this the case?

The Aljazeera piece posted above illustrates how just because the armed groups have been defeated, does not mean that the northern territory dubbed Azawad by its recently fallen captors will be represented in Malian politics any more than it was prior to the past year. Political solutions are required that bridge the divide between North and South. So what if this fails to happen? Will anyone outside of Northern Mali notice? Yoweri Museveni’s seizure of power from an Acholi-led government in Uganda led to the formation of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the north, who have claimed to fight for the entire northern region of the country ever since (note to rebel groups: if you want regional support, don’t kidnap everyone’s children). Those in Northern Uganda still feel underrepresented by the government in the south. If this remains the case in Mali, what comes next?

The rhetoric behind the intervention has also been debated around The League. I’ll quote our colleague Evan, who brought up an interesting point:

Does anyone else think its odd, hilarious, or devastating that no news media, not even the Huffington Post (from as far as I can tell), is even questioning why the French are intervening in Mali? Its just taken as a given that France was a colonial power of the region, and sure they still have strong economic ties to the area, but that has nothing to do with it, its because the Islamic radicals must be stopped and its France’s turn this time around. Every news source just says, “violent Islamic extremists,” and we are all programmed to think, “oh okay their the bad guys from Mordor, lets get em!” But seriously I want to ban the phrase “Islamic extremists” because it eliminates all debate or discussion around the causes of an event and we are lead to believe that “these people” are crazy fanatics who can not be understood through rationality. I really don’t know who to be more angry at, governments who use the military as an instrument to protect the economic interests of their corporations, the media for completely giving up trying to inform the public of whats going on, or us, the public, who allow this to happen because no one has invented a convenient app on our iphones to “change things.”

I think Western media outlets certainly relish the use of “Islamic extremists” as a means of summing up the nature of armed groups in northern Mali. It is a quick, newly-unambiguous term that resonates in the minds of media consumers. Start talking about Ansar Dine or Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or the Tuareg people or the MNLA and readers will tune out (though the ‘Al Qaeda’ bit has certainly seemed to have some effect); say “Islamic extremists” and you’ve got their attention. It is a deplorable exploitation of short attention spans and limited curiosity in the 21st Century, but it’s also nothing new. The term “communist” could have carried just as much vehemence amongst Western media consumers in the second half of the 20th Century. Different day, different common enemy.

Evan brings up a good point regarding mankind’s separation of ourselves from the proverbial ‘Other.’ This sort of rhetoric is exactly what will prevent foreign powers from taking a more serious and concerted role in sustainable political solutions between the North and South in Mali. As Phil points out, the mentality behind these interventions always seems to be one of “We must do something; we will worry about the consequences of our actions later.” When France went in to Mali, Hollande was able to wave the flag of anti-extremism that essentially served as a free pass to intervene. I personally am not well versed in French politics, but I gather that this move was partly a political play in order for Hollande to establish himself as a firm leader who is not afraid to act when interests may be at stake. Or perhaps it truly was a moral imperative to end the abuses of human rights in Mali and stop the rebel groups before their reach extended too far. Or perhaps it was to fulfill some neo-colonial sense of responsibility to protect Mali that is embedded in the French political conscience. Regardless, the intervention was carried out, and is winding down.

But moving forward, without internationally recognized efforts to reconcile the differences between North and South, this intervention may prove to have further bifurcated the political, cultural and religious differences in Mali that led to the advance of rebels in the first place – alienating the ‘Other’ even more without heeding their needs and their right to pursue their own lives the way they wish to live them. What we seem to be faced with today is a global narrative that dictates that Islamic rule is toxic to modernity, and that the two are irreconcilable. I thought this narrative would dissipate post-Bush administration, but it seems to be alive and well today, and has certainly fueled the support for this intervention. I think this is a foolish narrative that must be reconsidered. So, with the right support and the appropriate attention paid, could Mali prove to be the breeding ground for a new understanding across political, cultural and religious divides?

In this blogger’s humble opinion, probably not. But wouldn’t that be nice?


*Jacobsen, K. (2002). Can refugees benefit the state? Refugee resources and African statebuilding. Journal of Modern African Studies. 40(4). 577-596.

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8 Responses to “Don’t worry everyone, it’s a success (according to France)”

  1. phillegitimate February 2, 2013 at 10:04 am #

    Thanks for following up on this story Devin!

    I think one of the deeply troubling things about the ‘normal’ to which it’s been claimed that Mali has returned is still a deeply problematic state. I’m thinking in particular of what normal means for the Tuaregs, most of whom are not mercenaries who fought with Gaddafi. The lack of a national homeland or sovereignty for the Tuaregs is a problem that exceeds the borders of Mali. I’m not saying the separatism and the knee-jerk creation of states is necessarily the answer, but I am saying that this ‘normal’ that is apparently so desirable is one that is based on arbitrary borders and frontiers, and one that recognises UN member states plus a few others. Stateless nations don’t get a lot of play. They don’t get much of anything.

    Anyway, very good to see the discussion developing here.

    • Devin February 2, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

      I think South Sudan is a major success story in recent history in moving beyond the arbitrary divide of African nations and creating a political body that is more representative of a population. But it never ends there. Many peoples of Northern Uganda would rather have a combined sovereign “Nile Republic” with what is now South Sudan rather than be tied to Museveni’s government in Kampala. Similarly, based off of what I have gathered through the events that have unfolded, perhaps regions of southwest Algeria may feel more at home in a sovereign Azawad.

      If you, or any readers of this blog, have not read the book King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, I highly recommend it. It paints a vivid picture of King Leopold’s obsession with the Congo and the pillaging of resources that followed, culminating in the division of the entire continent of Africa according to the wishes of European powers. I always wonder if these powerful men had the foresight to anticipate the world we live in today, would they have thought twice?

  2. Devin February 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    And of course, the retaliation: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/02/world/africa/timbuktu-endured-terror-under-harsh-shariah-law.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y

    The intervention may have come to a close, but the lingering effects of the Tuareg uprising, of militant rule, and of the abuses of human rights enacted along the way are not likely to disappear anytime soon. The state of “normal” is likely even more problematic than it was prior to 2012. Have matters been made even worse??

  3. alicemforsythe February 2, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Hi guys! while I haven’t been posting, I’m really loving continuing to read what’s posted on here. I thought I would add just some of my reflections, on Mali in general and on the great conversation here….It is fascinating how ‘Islamic extremist’ as a term does seem to dominate this story in the media. I’m not sure whether its because of confusion or journalistic laziness, but if you look at the many many years of Tuareg rebellion in Niger, I’m not sure you’d see similar tones of fear of the other, as you say. What is different about Mali, is the involvement of factions such as AQIM, but then again, we have seen these guys before too, first and foremost in Algeria (where they most certainly recognized as Islamic extremists, or terrorists perhaps, as bombings seemed to be their MO) but then also throughout the Sahel in Mauritania, and now Mali and Niger (albeit it’s been a while that they are in this region). Is it the picture that is now painted in Mali: a weak state(govt) + its downfall by a coup + ethnic group rebellion+ factions of other religious-based groups present = a hell of a news story that allows for the fear, alienation, and assumption that the ‘evil Islamists’ (whatever that actually means) are the ones to blame and fear. We can’t forget that those who live in Gao, Timbuktu, Dire and elsewhere throughout the north. are unfortunate bystanders in this situation.

    On another brief topic, I’m interested in this ECOWAS idea of a ‘solution’, or at least being helpers to a solution. It kind of blows my mind….just wondering about the validity of a regional economic cohort of countries being turned to for security and very political/ethnic matters. Is it total mission creep (if using that term here is appropriate) or is it just the case that there’s no one else around west Africa other than several weak states, so hey! If we look at them as a collective then maybe well get better results. I’d love your thoughts on that matter.

  4. Devin February 5, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Thanks Alice, its great to hear some background from someone who has worked in the region. I think the reliance on ECOWAS is a bit unnerving as well, in large part due to the human rights abuses of which ECOWAS forces have been accused (see a HRW piece on ECOWAS here: http://www.hrw.org/news/2003/07/18/ecowas-troops-liberia-must-respect-human-rights). I think regional cooperation is a valid effort – if West African states could work together to bring the state of emergency to a sustainable conclusion, it not only relieves pressure from the international community to commit its troops to the effort, but it could breed future cooperation among these states on matters of political unity, economic growth, security, etc. However, I think that a prerequisite for this would have to have been a formation of this region along locally dictated lines, as opposed to the arbitrary lines upon which the West African map was drawn. Ethnic and religious tensions make cooperation difficult, and certainly not sustainable. Reliance on an ECOWAS solution reminds me of Homer Simpson’s run for Springfield Sanitation Commissioner, running on the slogan of “Can’t someone else do it?” referring to the garbage cleanup that no one else wants to be fully responsible for, including the residence in which the mess was made in the first place. I recognize that Malian forces are not enough to prevent the events of the past year from recurring, but neither is another influx of regional troops.

    Returning to the questions of rhetoric, I think that the use of terms like “Islamic extremist” and “terrorist” in Western media (by the way, skim through Al Jazeera’s coverage on the situation in Mali and you can enjoy some timely news on the matter without this terminology cluttering the facts) continues to detract from the need for political solutions to Mali’s divisions. By labeling rebels and continuing to focus on the enactment of Sharia law, it is very easy for the global community to view AQIM, Ansar Dine, Islamic Movement for the Azawad, etc. as nothing but terrorists who have no political ambitions and no political validity (this goes back to points made by Evan and Phil). When we can dismiss these groups as violent extremists, it’s less work for us – no need to seek political solutions that are expensive and time-intensive. The whole situation seems wrought with one cop-out after another, in my humble opinion.

  5. Devin February 5, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    This is one of the best articles I have read that explore the changing dynamics of inter-ethnic tensions in Mali right now. I honestly fear that these isolated retributions towards Arabs and Tuaregs in the North could escalate to proportions seen in too many contexts throughout Africa in the past. Awareness is key, please read: http://www.irinnews.org/Report/97382/The-dynamics-of-inter-communal-violence-in-Mali

  6. georgina February 10, 2013 at 12:09 pm #

    I’m reading the book The Geopolitics of Emotion by Dominique Moisi and it keeps bringing me back to our discussions here. It talks about our relationship with the”other”, how we have become a culture of fear, how self-perceptions are not necessarily reality and how political and economic maps aren’t objective portraits of natural realities, but subjective constructions…really interesting book that touches on some of the issues we have been discussing here. Check it out if you have a chance.

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