Friday 18 January 2013

So you think you know what’s happening in Mali?

The current conflict in the West African country of Mali seems incomprehensible. And if you think you have a grasp of the situation, it is probably based on ill-informed and speculative reporting in the media, in which events are interpreted in terms of the stock narratives of the right (‘war on terror’) or left (‘French imperialism’).

If you know anything at all about Mali, it is probably because you are a fan of world music, in which Malian musicians such as Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré and the Tuareg band Tinariwen are prominent and have built a substantial fan base in Europe. Even then, Mali’s politics have probably passed you by.

So it is useful to read this short, clear, expert backgrounder, which debunks all the myths. It turns out that the conflict isn’t primarily about resources, neo-imperialism or religion. It’s about saving the Malian state:
At least 9 out of 10 Malians are Muslim, they are grateful for the French intervention, and they want no part of the intolerant, totalitarian project reserved for them by the coalition of Islamist groups now controlling Mali’s north.


  1. Quite apart from its music, Mali is actually a state worth saving. Until last year's rebellion and coup it had been a stable democracy for a decade or so and was developing further in this direction.

    It has a Liberal International observer status party. and

    A further factor is Mali's location. Were the Islamists now in control of the north to take the whole country they would be on the borders of Senegal - the only long-term functioning democracy on the continent apart from South Africa - where an LI member party is in power. They could also destabilise other neighbouring countries where there has been democratic progress,

    In difficult circumstances, the spread of democracy in parts of Francophone Africa has been a somewhat surprising relative success in recent years, and the fighting in Mali may threaten far more than that country itself.

  2. I live and work in Mali (I suspect I am the only card-carrying Lib Dem in the country!) and Bruce Whitehouse's blog is excellent - Alex Thurston's Sahel Blog and Peter Tinti's blog are also excellent - if you read those three, you'll know about as much as most people in the UK about Mali.

    Got to take issue with Mark's points though. Mali had a facade of democracy, but it was never stable - it had had a string of rebellions in the north since independence, and the drug trade was so embedded in the state that it was possible to land a 747 full of cocaine in the desert, unload it, and just leave the plane there without anyone batting an eyelid. And it's where AQMI used to keep their hostages, regardless of where they grabbed them, because the state was so weak. It was stable, but all was far from well.

    I'm also not convinced that Mali has any particular strategic significance - 'safe havens' only work if they're close to the place they're wanting to attack, and northern Mali isn't close to anywhere. Even if the Islamists did take over the whole country (and worth pointing out that it's a very large country - the Senegalese border is 2 full days' drive from Mopti, which is the current frontier with the Islamists), they'd be unlikely to be interfering in Senegal, which is actually a functioning state. We ought to be helping end the war because it's the right thing to do, not because it's in our interests to do so.


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