The West is at it again in Africa. On January 11, 2013, the French army suddenly invaded Mali, with the excuse that they were "invited" by the Malian Head of State, unelected President Dioncounda Traore, to come and help Mali fight Islamists and other Al-Qaida-linked jihadists in the north of the country. Reports indicate that the US is going to provide France with military intelligence to make the invasion effective. The UK has also announced that it will participate in this conflict, beginning first with logistical support. Thus the equation would be complete: the three most violent governments in the world - USA, UK and France - will once again be invading a country in Africa or Asia. Before anyone claims that these violent Western military groups are liberators, we must understand that the crisis in Mali was caused by Paris, London and Washington in the first place when they, under the banner of NATO, invaded and destabilized neighbouring Libya in 2011. Al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) most certainly exploited the void and subsequent chaos in Libya as created by the West, and strengthened their invasion and destabilization of one of Africa's emerging democracies that Mali was before this "collaboration" between the West and AQIM. The major problem thus is that the West and Al-Qaida want to fight their war on African soil. Africa needs to come up with a solution. The African Union must demand the immediate withdrawal of Western troops from Mali and other parts of West Africa and allow regional powers like Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal to handle their own regional affairs. The maxim "African solutions for African problems" will come to nothing if we always allow the West to pretend to come and help us solve problems they created in the first place. Before returning to the issue of the need for African solutions, a brief historical and socio-political contextualization about Mali and the West African sub-region is necessary.
Mali, a country of some 15 million people right in the heart of the West African region, was until a March 2012 coup d'etat led by Captain Amadou Sanogo one of the emerging democracies within the African continent. Mali became an independent country from France in 1960. During its 53 years as an independent country, the last two decades have seen a burgeoning multiparty democracy in the country.
However, all along, the country had been dealing with internal divisions, especially the long standing demands by the Tuareg ethic group in the north of the country to break away from Mali and form a new nation, which they call Azawad. Many of the governments of Mali and their leaders, including Modibo Keita (1960 – 1968), Moussa Traore (1968 -1991), Alpha Konare (1992 to 2002) and Amadou Toure (2002 to 2012) were managing this internal conflict as much as possible through negotiations.
Unfortunately, with the 2011 overthrow of Gaddafi and the destabilization of Libya and subsequent vacuum that ensued, the Tuareg of Azawad, who now became better armed with weapons from Libya, and supported by Al-Qaida-linked elements in the Maghreb, began a more effective armed struggle and ended up declaring the new state, Azawad. These Al-Qaida-linked elements have now completely taken over “Azawad” and other parts of northern Mali and are threatening to push south towards the capital, Bamako.
This scenario is obviously a threat to the security of the people of Mali, and West Africa as a whole. This is where the concern should be, not just focusing on the tired, hackneyed expression "International Community", which often just means the West. The worst thing to do in this context is to globalize this conflict, and make West Africa a new front line for the so-called war on terror.
Is it in France's interest to get involved in this conflict? The role of the French army is very much in focus here and there are analyses that claim that somehow the French presence is somewhat popular world-wide and it is in its interest to take the lead role in the conflict. UN resolution 2085 sanctioned an African-led intervention, not a French-led invasion, yet most of the headlines about this conflict are suddenly about the 'heroic' French presence in Mali. However, I believe that it is not in France's interest to continue to be in Mali, to always make itself part of the equation with regards to any issues in Mali. I am not sure Paris's decision to invade Mali was the right decision. It failed in Somalia, and before that, along with its western allies, in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. I do not think it will succeed. It should find a way out of this. Or else it would continue to be part of the problem. The people of Mali and Africa should be allowed to take care of their own internal security. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) group must institute a programme of negotiation to end this conflict or go to war by itself, if necessary. The idea that Africans cannot defend themselves is an unpalatable, even scary idea. France knows this but it insists on being there and the key word that explains this is empire-building. France does not just see itself as only a former colonial power in Mali and many other countries in West Africa but as part of its area of influence, as a neo-colonial power. Hence it must go there to do anything to prevent other invading powers from replacing it. Notice that France was one of the first European powers to cry foul about China's presence in Africa, which Paris interpreted and still interprets as a case of neo-colonialism that China is practicing in Africa. Paris is always wary about other powers threading on its area of influence, which ultimately has economic ramifications. France is eyeing Mali's riches (including gold and recently discovered oil reserves), Mali being one of the largest producers of gold in Africa, indeed the third largest after South Africa and Ghana.
Once France's role is fully understood, the next issue Africans must tackle is to take steps to ensure that West Africa does not become the new center in the so-called fight against global terrorism, which is mostly a fight between the West and Al-Qaida. Indeed this is a challenge to ECOWAS and AU. African governments, all Africans must not allow their continent to be a locus of global terrorism. We must do all we can to resist all invaders, all terrorists, including jihadists from the East and imperialists from the West. Immediate action must be taken, else the conflict is going to quickly spread across the borders of Mali as we have already seen in the January 18th attack of an Algeria gas field by the jihadists. These jihadists are trying to escalate the conflict to most parts of the region. That suits their tactics. Not only they, the West is also escalating the conflict. With France's presence there, other Western military like the US and the UK will in no time be present, even though so far they say they are lending only logistical support. It is time for Africans to act, to tell both jihadists and imperialists to take their trouble away from Africa and leave us alone. Africa should consider itself as dealing with two groups of invaders, the jihadists from the East and the imperialists from the West.
In conclusion, Africans, led by their political groupings such as the ECOWAS and the AU, must take decisive steps to prevent a protracted conflict. Despite claims by Paris that the military engagement would only last a matter of weeks, this could turn out to be a long engagement that would not be in the interest of the West African sub-region. Lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq and even Libya inform us that Paris is overly optimistic. It would take a lot of effort from ECOWAS, from West African regional leaders to bring back stability to the region. It is already gratifying to know that there are now calls for all alternatives to be pursued, including even negotiations, not just only armed confrontation. The situation is ever changing, but I believe that however long it takes the people of Mali and the entire African continent will overcome these jihadist and imperialist invasions. What we need in Mali and West Africa, as a whole, is a peaceful environment that is conducive to foreign investment. We do not want war!
Professor Adams Bodomo, an ECOWAS citizen - carrying an ECOWAS passport -, is currently Director of the African Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong.
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