Sandcastles and dustclouds in Mali in the aftermath of France’s intervention

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio

In his novel Desert the noble prize winning French author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio describes the two waves of destruction to which nomad cultures in the Sahel have been subjected in the past 100 years: French colonialism on the one hand, and modern labour migration to metropole and the alienation that goes with it, on the other. Whereas French immigration policies since the 1980s have driven the latter to its climax, the arrival of French troops in Timbuktu has signed off another chapter of the first. In fact, French troops had taken Timbuktu already in 1894. In Le Clézio’s novel, the link between the two narratives is the family and love story that connects the main characters. However, from a political history point of view the connection is the way the West, in this case the French state, has appropriated, used, abused and pushed around the political entities in the Sahel and its people, whether by subjugating them to colonial rule or by exploiting them as cheap, immigrant labour.

The current intervention of France in Mali has all the signs of perpetuating this pattern. What is at stake in the North of Mali? As before the groups that the French were (supposedly) battling were constituted of people whose primary objective was to extract themselves from the state and its characteristics, whether imposed nationality and “national culture” or taxation and rules. As before their way of living and making a living, does not fit the state’s – whether the Malian or the French – aims. Remember that it is the state’s customs booth that transforms long-distance trading into trafficking and smuggling. Yet, contrary to Le Clézio’s novel and the impression one could gain from past events, most often these groups seek to evade the state and its forces rather than to fight them directly. Using their intimate knowledge of the extremely difficult terrain as well as their capacities to survive in this hostile environment, these state-evading groups have commonly retreated into the desert, away from the grip of the state.

When France started marching on Timbuktu last week much of this hide-and-seek game seemed to be repeated. The French met no resistance when they “took” one city after the other… the “terrorists” had evaporated. Finding them is an almost impossible task if the sheer vastness of the territory is considered, but searching for them is a perfect excuse for the US to send in their drones for surveillance of the vast Sahel desert. Yet, what exactly they are seeking, who these people are and what kind of threat they represent – other than not accepting the state (which for a state, of course, is bad enough) – nobody yet knows.

If the French intervention has confirmed the Malian government’s belief that only force can hold the country together and keep rebellious groups down, it has not solved any political problems at all. Although Mali has announced that it would take up negotiations with those groups who have abstained from violence, there is a large array of indicators that such initiatives are bound to fail. In fact, during all this marching and winning battles, no one, neither the Malian government nor the Western decision-makers, has proven that they actually know who these groups are, their motivations and what kind of modus vivendi could be found. France, by the way, happily makes known that they actually never cared, they just intervened to show who the strong man is (confirming Jean-Louis Arcand’s argument that the whole operation is a marketing campaign to rid President Hollande of his marshmallow image) and now that this is done they’ll go home, as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius declared“Maintenant, c’est aux pays africains de prendre le relais. Nous avons décidé de mettre les moyens en hommes et en matériel pour réussir cette mission et frapper fort. Mais le dispositif français n’a pas vocation à être maintenu. Nous partirons rapidement”. (Now it’s up to the African countries to take action. We have decided to provide men and equipment to make this operation a success and to show strong muscles. But the French mission is not meant to stay. We will leave quickly.)

Sahel desert

Sahel desert region by Magharebia

Yet, there are some things happening which clearly should not be part of any “liberation” or intervention to save civilians and which legitimately raise doubts over the Malian government’s willingness and capacity to successfully negotiate a political solution. In Gao and in Timbuktu, Arabs and Touaregs – or people who were said to be Arab or Touareg – were violently attacked, their shops plundered and cases of lynching were reported. Furthermore, past experiences with African “peacekeeping” troops leaves little hope that they can decisively advance a protracted conflict towards resolution. Not only have African troops (albeit others, too) been involved in many cases of abuse, extortion and violence, they also represent a bunch of autocratic governments that barely agree among themselves and who certainly have not shown any particular sensitivity or capacity to deal with non-state and secessionist groups and claims. As Jeffrey Herbst pointed out a long time ago there is nothing more stable and immobile in Africa than the state borders set by the colonial powers, and this is so at the wish and travail of the African, metropolitan and elite governments themselves. The metaphor does not quite fit the climate, but sending in African peacekeepers sounds very much like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The paroxysm is reached when the Malian government’s sole plan for pacification is to propose elections. Not only do we know from sufficient scholarly research (let’s just mention Snyder/Mansfield’s study) that elections tend to exacerbate tensions and may actually lead to the escalation of violence, but this proposition also comes from a putschist government! It’s now one year since the “interim” President Diokounda Traoré promised elections, there is little reason to believe that they will live up to this promise now. Last November he showed his discontent with the Prime Minister by having him arrested by the army and, after a short stint in an army camp outside town, had him declare his “resignation”. Clearly this is not a sign that this President is committed to peaceful deliberation and dialogue, and predisposed to give up power when elections or the constitution require him to do so. What will happen is that with an extended network of UN agencies, African Union institutions and NGOs, the government will be able to stretch its bureaucracy into those regions that are far removed from the political centre, hence, extending a little bit farther its claim to statehood.

World literature is usually recognized as such because the stories told and the ways they are told go beyond the particular national or cultural identity of the story teller. They speak to the whole world as they sublimate the specific themes into more general, timeless and ahistorical narratives, which can be recognized by more than just the culturally initiated. The great dust cloud stirred up in Mali has only reignited a circular movement where colonial power – oops, sorry, former colonial powers – work together with local sedentary chiefs to establish and uphold a mirage of stateness, and, as a result, criminalising, marginalising and radicalizing those groups whose mode of life, culture and production evade the categories of the state. The violent and radical reaction of these groups serves as an excuse for expanding statist security and surveillance, hence pushing these groups further into the desert, hence marginalising them even more, hence… the wheel keeps on turning…

Catherine Goetze is the Head of the International Studies Division at the University of Nottingham China Campus. This post originally appeared on her person blog.

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