France in Mali: The longue durée of imperial blowback

Mark LeVine writes: The dispatching of French soldiers to beat back rapidly advancing Salafi militants in northern Mali represents the convergence of multiple circles of blowback from two centuries of French policies in Africa. Some date back to the beginning of the 19th century, others to policies put in place during the last few years. Together, they spell potential disaster for France and the United States (the two primary external Western actors in Mali today), and even more so for Mali and the surrounding countries.

Only two outcomes, together, can prevent the nightmare scenario of a huge failed state in the heart of Africa spreading violence across the continent. First, the French-led assault on the north must manage to force most of the Salafi fighters out of the populated areas presently under their control and install a viable African-led security force that can hold the population centres for several years. If that weren’t difficult enough, French and international diplomats must create space for the establishment of a much more representative and less corrupt Malian government, one which can and will negotiate an equitable resolution to the decades long conflict with the Touareg peoples of the North, whose latest attempt violently to carve out a quasi-independent zone in the north early last year helped create the political and security vacuum so expertly, if ruthlessly, exploited by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and its allied radical groups.

The first and largest circle of blowback returns to French colonial policy in North and West Africa, which was responsible for the creation of most of the states that are involved in the present conflict. France began deliberately to colonise large swaths of West Africa at the start of the 19th century, gaining control of what today is Mauritania and Senegal by 1815, followed by the invasion of Algeria in 1830, Tunisia in 1881, French Guinea, the Ivory Coast, and the French Sudan (which would become Mali) – in the 1890s, Niger in 1903-4 and Morocco in 1912.

It is impossible to know how the map of Africa would have evolved without European colonialism to shape it. What is sure, however, is that the European “scramble for Africa” that dominated the 19th century – and in which local rulers played a willing part whenever it served their interests – ensured that European powers would create the territorial foundation for modern nation-states whose borders bore little correspondence to the ethnic and religious geography of the continent. Mali in particular was composed of several distinct ethnic, linguistic and what today are considered “racial” groups. Its brief and ill-fated union with Senegal at the time of independence in 1960 highlights the artificial foundation of the region’s states and their borders. [Continue reading...]

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