Howard W French writes: Pundits who bang on about the events in Mali on television today speculate glibly about the possible linkup of militant Islamic movements in places like Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, and northern Nigeria, potentially constituting a vast sea of Muslim radicalism and hostility to the West. They would do better to understand that such currents are inherent to the politics and culture of this region and are in no way a recent import. Rejection of borders and of the European drawn states is as old as the borders themselves, and Islam has always played a central role in this, as intellectual base, religious justification and rallying catalyst. These currents have been given added force and coherence by the age-old movement of peoples and ideas via pastoralism, overland pilgrimage to Mecca and the existence of large, sprawling and aggrieved transnational ethnic groups — like the Tuareg, Hausa, and Fulani, to name three — whose interests were never considered by the imperial mapmakers.
Most of those who write on today’s crisis seem to ignore that the Tuareg, who are a key to events in Mali, have been sporadically fighting for decades against the country of that name we see on the map. During a visit I made to Timbuktu in the 1990s, Tuareg rebels fired mortars into the town that landed within meters of my hotel with no prior warning, scrambling tourists and creating a state of emergency.
As for other rebel groups in the region, their general pattern has been to raise tensions like this, forcing the government, in effect, to sue for peace by offering money, talks about greater autonomy, or other concessions. What was new this time had less to do with the presence in the equation of an al Qaeda spinoff than with the fact that there has been no government worthy of the name in the capital, Bamako, since a military coup overthrew the elected president last March.
Before we start breaking out hammers in search of nails, this crisis should serve as a powerful reminder of the necessity of much stronger preventive diplomacy in Africa in general, a thread that runs through major crises in Rwanda, the Congo and most recently Côte d’Ivoire. When I spent time in Mali in the summer of 2011, Western diplomats seemed scantily informed and almost blasé about the situation there; this at a time when the political cognoscenti was already warning of an advanced state of rot that involved mounting corruption, drug trafficking, and high-level dawdling over rising Islamic militancy.
However, even the best diplomacy, which we clearly haven’t had in Africa, won’t change the fact that the Sahel is in for a period of extended unrest and uncertainty. Its vastness contains some of the most sparsely inhabited real estate anywhere, peppered here and there by far-flung population centers with little economic viability or connection to the outside world. Places like these are easy to attack and hard to hold, and the militants’ game of blackmail for greater resources is extremely tempting.
Whatever the political or religious labels of the militants, however, the biggest driver of turmoil in this region in the future will be population. The peoples of the arid Sahel have some of the highest birth rates in the world, and there is little prospect that they will be able to accommodate the quadrupling or more of their populations, as projected by the U.N., before century’s end. Under such scenarios, Mali will go from 16 million or so today to 75 million people. Even poorer Niger, next door, will surge from today’s similar population base to 125 million.
Explosions like these will make a mockery of the political map of Africa that is familiar today, as major ethnic clusters outstrip the claims of the present-day states to govern them. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb surely must be dealt with now, but over time it will be the least of our worries.