Tag Archives: Mali

From Camels to Cavemen: Picks of the Week

14 Apr

Hollande Finds His Gift Camel Was Consumed

I gave a presentation on the Mali Conflict at an NYU conference on Friday, and would have dearly loved to include something about Hollande’s camel. Fifteen minutes just wasn’t long enough, however, to do justice to a topic of such import.

Something tells me Hollande wanted that camel out of his hair and into the tagine all along. An express-posted replacement camel probably wasn’t what he had in mind.

Narco War on TV Screens

I just read Ioan Grillo’s El Narco, a great insight into the rise of the Mexico’s militant drug cartels. In this piece for The Dissident Blog – an interesting project in its own right, and published by Swedish PEN – Grillo highlights the difficulties faced by Mexican journalists, pressured by both the government and the cartels (who are themselves in conflict and not a united entity) to pursue certain editorial lines. The piece is also a testament to the importance of critical, ethical journalism, which is never so obvious as when such journalism and journalists are under threat.

Red Cross chief blasts US for force-feeding Gitmo inmates

The detainee hunger strike at Guantánamo drags on: this article does a good job of highlighting not just the immediate cause of the huger strike, but also the sinister and completely misdirected approach by the US administration to breaking the strike.

Reckoning with Genocide

Yes I’m giving biased attention to Latin America. Expect this to continue indefinitely.

Interesting piece by the New York Review of Books on the slow road to accountability and justice in the aftermath of the mass killings – including a brief account of why these constitute a genocide – in Guatemala in the 80s.

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

NYU’s very own caveman, Slavoj Zizek, on the ethics of charitable giving. Zizek is far easier to understand in animated form.

Mali’s First Suicide Bomber

11 Feb

On Friday the BBC ran a headline that reads Mali conflict: ‘First suicide bombing’ in Gao (note the inverted commas: they’re important).

The article went on to explain that this was actually the first known suicide attack since the French intervention in Mali began last month. Further into article came news that there had also been fighting between factions of the Malian army (red berets vs. green berets).

What galls me is the focus on a ‘historic’, histrionic suicide attack as the most important, and highly symbolic development in Mali. The description of the attack contains all of the usual tropes evoked by the ‘western media’: the sudden, furious strike of a lone assailant (in this case on a motorbike, with a belt of explosives); the reference to a mysterious, Orientalish extremist group (The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa – note that J-bomb) with a genealogy to a familiar, reviled group (“an offshoot of al-Qaeda”); a quote from the extremist group, demonstrating the depth of their irrational, West-exploding hatred, and their determination to inflict more harm (“against the Malian soldiers who chose the side of the miscreants, the enemies of Islam”); and of course, the connection somewhere in there between the bomber, the irrational violence, and Islam.

The suicide bomber, in this article and in other accounts, is a deranged lunatic, indoctrinated by shrewder lunatics who exist in the shadows of underdeveloped places plotting and preaching the downfall of the West in the burniest, bloodiest ways possible. In these accounts, the suicide bomber is inevitably a product of Islam. Only Islam, it is implied, can produce this degree of fanaticism and violence, this desire to kill, even to the point of destroying the self.

Prof. Banu Bargu (at the New School) offers a very different account of the suicide attack. Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of a larger phenomenon that she calls the weaponisation of life, or perhaps more simply human weapons, a category that covers kamikaze attacks, hunger strikes, suicide bombings, self-immolations, and a range of other forms of sacrificial violence. Beyond this, Bargu argues that the suicide attack is part of the standard repertoire of modern warfare and violence. The suicide attack is the product not of rabid ideology, but of a calculation, the same calculation that every act of violence involves: how to achieve a suitable effect given the resources available and the factors in play. For some groups such calculations lead to the conclusion that drone strikes are the most efficient form of violence, giving the most bang for your buck. For other groups – state and non-state, religious and secular – the suicide bombing or other human weapon is the most effective, efficient option. Religious indoctrination is thus one variable among many within the calculus of violence.

Casting the Malian suicide bomber as exceptional, as the first (and by implication the vanguard of a wave of such attacks) suggests that there is a difference between this violence and all others. It also conveniently keeps the focus on the extremist threat (whether real or imagined) while sidelining what to me seems a far more urgent issue: infighting and bloodshed within Mali’s military.

Treating the ‘Mali conflict’ as the product of outside insurgents trying to topple a state plays into some very convenient rhetoric about this intervention. It also overlooks the fact that there are deeper fractures in the Malian state. A coup in capital precipitated the conflict that followed. Intervening against the outsiders, and chasing them to the borders of the state may make for a rapid victory, but it does nothing to address one of the root issues of the conflict, nor to acknowledge the full range of violence at work.

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.

What does a successful intervention look like?

28 Jan

For the past ten days or so I’ve been reading the BBC’s updates on the French military intervention in Mali. Day by day I watch the colours on the BBC’s map of Mali change, the red points of air strikes dispersing further to the north and west while the blue points of towns recaptured by French and Malian troops multiply and surge towards Timbuktu.

Timbuktu – a longstanding metaphor for the mythic, mystic end of the earth. A distant point that has become the pivot of BBC’s Mali map. In the context of this conflict, Timbuktu has shifted from the exotic to the familiar, but it remains a distant grail. When (if) Timbuktu is recaptured, it will feel (to me, to us) as though Mali has been retaken.

After initially finding surprisingly few deployed friends and surprisingly well-organised enemies, France’s intervention appears to be going well. The rebel forces are being pushed out of the lower half of the country, and back into the northern wilds. There may be hope of a swift, decisive intervention. Not the bloody quagmire of other recent interventions.

What exactly would a successful intervention look like, though? The word itself suggests only that France and friends will turn up, will get involved. Pacification could be measurable in terms of peace achieved or claimed. Neutralisation might be measured in terms of opposition thwarted or incapacitated. An intervention seems a far more logistical concept: the BBC reports on the number of troops intervening, while offering few details about what they’ve actually done (and to whom).

Intervention seems a pretty vague term, especially if it is being arrayed again an opponent willing to embrace a more aggressive mission: occupation, decimation, purification (I’m not claiming that these are actually the ideas espoused by the rebels in Mali).

France’s intervention is being conceptualised as an urgent response to the southward push of the rebels ahead of the arrival of troops from other African nations. It is being articulated as a mission of salvation, preventing Mali and West Africa (and maybe even Europe) from falling into darkness. In that sense the BBC map offers another vision of a successful intervention. When all of the known points on the map are the blue of ‘recaptured by French and Malian forces’, when there is no need to hatch parts of the map as ‘rebel controlled’ and nothing left to mark red with ‘French air strikes’, maybe the intervention can be called successful. When Timbuktu, the only known point on the map, is reclaimed, perhaps the intervention will have achieved the only endpoint it could possibly have had in mind. And all those other Malian unknowns – the children pressed into military service and bodies dumped down wells; the human element which is conspicuously absent from a static political map – will be overlooked in the interests of wiping all those clashing colours off of the map.

This seems to be the peculiar logic of intervention. It is always born of emergency, of exceptional circumstances, always demands the putting aside of other considerations in order to pursue the imperative of action. We must do something; we will worry about the consequences of our actions later.

On the use of child soldiers in Mali

23 Jan

Always rearing its ugly head through one news source or another, it seems that every single day I stumble across some report detailing the use of children in armed conflict in some region of the world. More often than not, these children are typically wrapped up in conflicts alongside rebel groups or the government forces trying to hold them back in some country in Africa. While the usual suspects tend to be clustered around the Great Lakes region or the Horn of Africa, this week we see continued child soldiering in Mali, home of the world’s newest international military intervention campaign.

This time, while rebel groups are guilty of incorporating youth as young as 10 into their ranks (for the attractive price of $700 for their families), this week’s reports highlight children who are fighting alongside Malian troops to hold off the rebel advance. The recent French pledge for military assistance, providing 2500 troops to add to an expected influx of 2000 African troops from neighboring countries, that sent the intervention in motion has ushered in the involvement of a growing international community. The United States has been hesitant to increase its footprint on the ground, but pledged its support through helping to fly in French troops to Mali. This brings to light yet another instance in which taking a firm stance on the use of child soldiers must be ignored in order for the West to protect its own security interests.

With rebel groups comprised in part of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb terrorist group, France, the United States and their allies would be keen to see the end of the rebel advance southward through Mali. This will effectively trump any considerations for ceasing to support governments who incorporate children into their military ranks.

It could be argued that it is these children’s right to join in the fight. After all, this is not a situation like that of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and surrounding regions, which has relied almost solely on kidnapping and abducting youth into their ranks for their continued armed operations. There is no report of Malian troops forcibly recruiting these youth. So let’s assume for the sake of the thought I will end with in this post that these children, as young as 11 years old, find it to be their God-given duty to defend Mali and its people from the Islamist advance. In more ancient times, this commitment to armed defense would have been considered an act of heroism and even a right of passage in societies all over the world. Though today, we have frameworks like the Convention for the Rights of the Child and the Child Soldier Prevention Act (which is rarely enforced), which dictate that the use of children in armed conflict is not only illegal according to international law, but is a morally bankrupt practice.

Now, I whole-heartedly agree. I personally believe that children have no place in modern war. The Spartan-esque traditions we see glorified in films and television is a relic of the past which has since been replaced and made obsolete by the (albeit arguably fundamentally flawed) invention of universal access to education and respect for the rights of the child to which the international community is supposed to adhere. According to emerging, if not established international norms, the place for children is in schools – not on the battlefield, not in the labor force, but in school. Now, as an ‘international educator’ I recognize that this is VERY FAR from the reality around the world. Children are needed at home, children are needed for family income, and these are sacrifices that families choose to make for their survival. That is a whole other can of worms. But using children on the battlefield, putting a gun in their hands, making them take the lives of another human being, another child, their own family members (again, I recognize this is likely not the case with the children in Mali at the center of this discussion), is fundamentally wrong. I have heard people attempting to argue against this, and I invite their comments on this blog post.

HOWEVER! (where would critical thought be without this wonderful, wonderful word)…as a citizen of the United States, I recognize and believe that the interests and security of all people must be defended. Ensuring the security of citizens is a state’s primary responsibility, so it makes perfect sense why this intervention is paying absolutely no attention to the issue of children on the battlefield. Even if attention was paid, how far could it go? Recent attempts to address the issue of child soldiering were most famously made in the brief life of the Kony 2012 movement, which at the turn of the new year, has ultimately failed. Here was a case of a public outcry for military intervention to bring child soldiering to a halt in Northern Uganda (more accurately, in the surrounding Great Lakes region where Joseph Kony’s LRA actually still exists). This attempt was mostly brushed over and forgotten by the international community. The roots and causes for the LRA conflict were of course oversimplified by the Kony 2012 campaign, but for a brief moment, the world cared about preventing children from taking up arms in battle. However, despite the LRA being labelled as a terrorist group, they pose no immediate threat to Western security, certainly not to the degree that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could be argued to pose…

So as I follow the rebel advance and the Malian-French defense in the news, I am left plagued with a moral dilemma for all involved and all invested: is ignoring the use and abuse of children in war worth defending national and international interests? Is there any way to reconcile the two? A recent discussion at our Human Rights & Education Colloquium this past Fall semester left many of us asking similar questions, and left me expressing my growing pessimism for this phenomenon. With rehabilitation centers for former LRA combatants being closed in Uganda and more children taking up arms in Mali, are we likely to see the end of the use of child soldiers in our lifetime?