Recent developments in the West African Republic of Mali are raising serious concerns about the possibility of yet another U.S. intervention. On March 22, one month before a scheduled presidential election, a military coup toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Quickly taking sides, the regional 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) demanded the coup leaders restore civilian rule. On March 26, the U.S. cut off all military aid to the impoverished country.
On April 1, coup leader Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, who has received military training in the U.S.1 and who is charging massive corruption by civilian political leaders, said he had reinstated the country's constitution and government institutions and would begin consultations to form a transitional government, which would be "responsible for organizing peaceful, free, open and democratic elections in which we will not participate." Those national consultations were to begin April 5 in the capital city of Bamako.
That was not enough for ECOWAS, an economic and military bloc with ties to the U.S. Meeting April 2 in Dakar, Senegal, the alliance's members closed their countries' borders with land-locked Mali and imposed severe sanctions, including cutting off access to the regional bank, raising the possibility that Mali will soon be unable to pay for essential supplies, including gasoline.
Meeting the following day in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the 54-member African Union imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on Capt. Sanogo and his associates. Also on April 3, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on the Mali crisis and declared its support for ECOWAS' efforts "to restore order in Mali. U.N. political affairs chief Lynn Pascoe told the council on Tuesday that ECOWAS had placed some 3,000 troops on standby to deal with the coup and rebellion in Mali."2
Roots of the Coup
What sparked the coup was the central government's inability to deal with the rebellion now underway in northern Mali, a region populated by the Tuareg, an ethnically Berber, nomadic people who eke out a living in the inhospitable desert. Long-standing grievances of neglect by the government have led many Tuaregs to despair of reform.
The simmering resentment came to a head in January after the U.S.-led bombing of Libya and the overthrow of that country's government. Around 2,000 Tuaregs who had been employed as soldiers by the Libyan government returned to Mali, heavily armed and with uncertain prospects of finding jobs or arable land. A rebellion broke out, one the government was in no position to counter, provoking a mutiny by angry rank-and-file Malian soldiers who chased President Touré into hiding. The Tuareg rebellion sharply escalated March 30, when rebels seized control of three key cities, including the legendary cultural and trading center of Timbuktu.
The armed rebels who now control all northern cities have several factions. One wing is demanding independence for the north. Another says its goal is to create an Islamic republic operating under strict Sharia law -- which might be all of Mali or simply the northern half, which this faction is calling Azawad. The conflict has reportedly driven some 100,000 people as refugees into neighboring countries, while internally displacing more than 90,000.
Meanwhile, important independent forces within Mali and in the sub-region are calling for an end to outside pressure and a peaceful resolution to both the coup and the rebellion.
Will the U.S. Intervene?
What raises concerns about a possible U.S. role are the important geopolitical position that Mali occupies, the fact that the U.S. military is already in the country, and the presence of known oil reserves under the desert sands of northern Mali.
Mali is strategically located between the Arab African north and the Black African south. This largely Muslim country borders seven other countries: (clockwise from the northeast) Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Senegal and Mauritania. This makes Mali of interest to the U.S., which seeks to counter the growing Chinese economic presence in Africa. (China is now Mali's largest export trading partner.)
Under the umbrella of its Africa Command, or AFRICOM, the U.S. has been systematically developing ties with the militaries of African countries, including Mali. Washington annually contributes about $140 million to Mali, half of it supposedly for humanitarian purposes, the other half to support "development" and the Malian military, an organization of just 7,000 soldiers. The U.S. State Department handpicks Malian officers for special training in the U.S.
Over the past few months, almost every incoming flight to Bamako has brought a dozen U.S. soldiers, obvious by their haircuts and by the greeting party that usually includes a couple of men in U.S. army uniform.3 No one will say how many U.S. military personnel are based in Mali, but there is no doubt that AFRICOM sees Mali as highly strategic to its goals in Africa.
In February 2008, AFRICOM representatives participated in a five-day "Strategic Level Seminar" held in Bamako and sponsored by ECOWAS. According to AFRICOM's website, "The seminar focused on the training needs of ECOWAS member states in the area of peace support operations."4 In other words, regional military cooperation. Further, "West African leaders' perspectives concerning their regional environment focused overwhelmingly on human security issues, rather than the state-versus-state competition that has been the hallmark of international politics."5 So this was a meeting to discuss internal security issues, like popular unrest and rebellions. Among the speakers at the seminar was U.S. Army Gen. William E. "Kip" Ward, AFRICOM's commander. The seminar was co-sponsored by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an outfit funded by the U.S. Defense Department.6
Then there's the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a "multi-faceted, multi-year U.S. Government (USG) program created to promote regional military cooperation among governments in the 'Pan-Sahel'" region, including Mali.7
In 2010, there was Exercise Flintlock 10, a "special operations forces exercise, conducted by Special Operations Command Africa with participation of key European nations," focusing on "military interoperability and capacity-building with partner nations throughout the Trans-Saharan region of Africa."8
In February 2012, there was Atlas Accord 12, an "annual-joint-aerial-delivery exercise, hosted by U.S. Army Africa," which "brings together U.S. Army personnel with militaries in Africa to enhance air drop capabilities and ensure effective delivery of military resupply materials and humanitarian aid."9 This took place while the Tuareg rebellion was unfolding in the north.
The Africa Command had planned to hold Flintlock 2012 in Mali last month, but canceled because of the insurgency. The exercise was supposed to bring together security forces from West Africa, Europe, and the U.S to coordinate "counterterrorism" missions.10
From Empire to Colony to Neocolony
For centuries, present-day Mali was the center of the mighty Mali-Sonrai Empire, with a land area larger than Europe, important gold mines, and a full-time army to defend its borders. By the 19th century, however, the central power had been greatly weakened and between 1880 and 1916 the region was colonized by France, which took over scarce farmland for cotton production.
When they were finally forced out of Africa in 1960, the French left behind desperately poor countries. Today Mali remains the 23rd poorest country on earth, with the 49th lowest life expectancy -- barely 53 years. It is one of eight countries currently facing drought and severe food shortages in the Sahel, the vast region that forms the southern edge of the Sahara Desert.
A country of 14.5 million people, Mali is a study in contradictions. Twice the size of Texas, it is one of Africa's largest but least populated countries. Rich in deposits of gold, phosphates, kaolin, and salt, its people have an annual per capita purchasing power of just $1,300. Less than 4 percent of its land is capable of growing irrigated crops. It has the world's third highest birth rate and the third highest infant mortality. Just 56 percent of its people have access to decent drinking water and all of them face a high risk of contracting malaria and waterborne diseases. Less than half the population can read and write, with few receiving more than an elementary school education. With no oil or gas production of its own, the country is dependent on others for its energy needs. Total annual spending by the federal government is $2.6 billion. (Virginia's budget, with half Mali's population, currently is $41.7 billion.) One particular legacy of colonialism is the desperately poor condition of the Tuareg, who along with Moors make up about 10 percent of the population.
It has been known for decades that vast oil deposits likely lie beneath the sands of the northern desert regions -- a fact that has been elaborately denied by successive U.S. ambassadors, although the oil deposits had been predicted in the 1950s by French geologists. In February of this year, two foreign companies signed oil and gas exploration deals with the Malian government "that oblige them to invest millions of US dollars in the search of petroleum in the country's vast desert. Both Algeria's national oil company SONATRACH and the Canadian owned Selier Energy say that the vast Taoudeni basin, at Mali's borders with Mauritania and Algeria, shows great potential for major oil and gas discoveries."11 In a world hungry for energy resources, who will get control of these reserves? U.S. strategists are fearful of China's growing influence, adding competition to greed as motives to control the area.
In Crisis, U.S. Sees Opportunity
It's not hard to see how Washington would view the present crisis as an opportunity to gain control, directly or indirectly, of this important African country. The U.S., along with most European countries, has condemned the March 22 coup, but has made no mention of the grievances of the Tuareg. (Coups themselves are not universally condemned by the U.S., which not only did not condemn, but is strongly suspected of being behind, the June 2009 coup against progressive Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.)
Regional economic sanctions will inevitably weaken Mali's government, making it even less able to provide for the needs of the Malian people, including the Tuareg. Inevitably, there will be calls for the U.S. to intervene -- for purely humanitarian reasons, of course. We have seen this pattern before, in Iraq, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Haiti, and in many other countries. With its listening base in Tessalit near the Algerian border and its February Atlas Accord exercise on airlifting humanitarian relief, the U.S. is well positioned to start flying military aircraft into northern Mali, giving it "boots on the ground," with a cover.
We believe that the U.S. military has no legitimate role to play in any other country, especially those formerly colonized and exploited by the Western powers. Humanitarian aid should be managed by the United Nations, not by the Pentagon.
Neither does the U.S government have the right to impose sanctions on other countries, whether it be Cuba, Iran, or Mali. Only the people of Mali have the right to decide their own destiny. This is the simple right of oppressed peoples to self-determination.
We say: U.S. Hands Off Mali! No Troops, No Sanctions, No Interference of Any Kind!
1 Craig Whitlock, "Leader of Mali Military Coup Trained in U.S.," Washington Post, March 23, 2012.
2 "U.N. council alarmed by al Qaeda presence in Mali" - Reuters, April 4, 2012
3 Personal correspondence.
4 "AFRICOM Senior Leader Visits Mali, Meets President," U.S. Africa Command, February 29, 2008.
5 "Transparency in Mali," U.S. Africa Command, March 6, 2008.
6 Op. cit., "AFRICOM Senior Leader Visits Mali, Meets President."
7 The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, U.S. Africa Command.
8 "Snapshot: Bamako, Mali," U.S. Africa Command, May 27, 2010.
9 "U.S., Malian Military Medics Train to Save Lives," U.S. Africa Command, February 10, 2012.
10 Op. cit., Craig Whitlock.
11 "Finally Serious Oil Explorations in Mali," Afrol News, February 14, 2012.