Islamist combatants retreated into the vast desert areas as Paris, with 3,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali, has announced plans to hand over their pursuit to a hastily assembled force from several African nations.
Upon fleeing Timbuktu, Islamists burned a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts. While in control of the city they had destroyed centuries-old sites revered by Sufis, a branch of Islam the sectarian reactionary groups seek to stamp out. Shrines, graves and mausoleums were attacked with pick-axes, shovels and even bulldozers, according to Reuters.
With a population of 15.5 million, Mali is among the 25 poorest countries in the world by per capita income. Life expectancy is 53 years, with just eight doctors available per 100,000 people.
Eighty percent of the population is engaged in largely subsistence agriculture, fishing and herding. Capitalist development is very uneven and relatively new. Commercial gold mining, for example, based in southern Mali—Africa’s third-largest gold producer today—began operations just 20 years ago.
The forging of a modern working class, still in its initial stages, and the growth of cities are laying the basis for a fighting alliance of toilers that could advance the interests of the majority.
Huge land areas in the north are sparsely inhabited by nomadic Tuareg tribes, who herd goats and sheep in the Sahara desert spanning the borders of Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
The formation of a nation, or nations, within the Malian borders inherited from European colonialism remains an incomplete process. Tuaregs have fought the government based in Bamako for control of territories in the north since Mali became an independent country five decades ago.
Several years ago, areas of the Sahara desert in northeastern Mali were discovered to harbor vast quantities of oil and uranium, the latter of which an Australian-based company Oklo Resources Ltd. began to explore before Islamist groups took over the area.
Unintended consequenceThe current crisis in Mali is an unintended consequence of the imperialist-backed overthrow of the Moammar Gadhafi regime in Libya.
Thousands of Tuareg mercenaries who served the Gadhafi regime were among African people from lands to the south of Libya who were forced to flee pogroms by government opposition forces and had limited places to go. Four days before Gadhafi’s assassination, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) was formed in Mali, with reinforcements from the returning heavily armed Tuareg mercenaries.
In January 2012, they launched a rebellion aimed at forming an independent state in northern Mali. About 1,600 Malian army troops then defected to the Tuareg’s side, creating a crisis within the already weakened Malian military, much of which had been trained by U.S. special forces. On March 21, 2012, a section of the U.S.-trained officers, led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo, carried out a military coup in Bamako.
A couple weeks after the coup, Tuareg fighters took control of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu, the capital cities of three northern provinces. In early April, the MNLA announced a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, combatants from three Islamist groups—al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa, and Ansar Dine, a predominantly Malian Tuareg and Moor group—moved to displace the MNLA. The Islamists took Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in the north, imposing strict sharia laws. All of the estimated 300 Christians living in Timbuktu fled.
The city of Timbuktu in northern Mali was known for its diverse music and culture until the Islamists took over.
After encountering AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in April 2012, city hotel owner Aberhamane Alpha Maiga closed the facility and fled with his family south, the Financial Times reported.
Upon returning to the city for a visit in September, he found, “there was no music, no television, no football and no smoking. Women’s freedom of movement had been curtailed. Suspected thieves had had their hands chopped off. Shrines had been destroyed. The secular Tuaregs who started the rebellion were nowhere to be seen,” the paper said.
AQIM is a mostly Algerian and Mauritanian group that has been present in northern Mali since 2003. It was an ally of deposed Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure who, according to al-Jazeera, gave AQIM “free rein in Tuareg areas, with a wink and a nod from the Malian army.” The Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa, a split off from AQIM, has made the MNLA one of its main targets.
Shortly after the French offensive got under way, a faction split from Ansar Dine, forming the Islamic Movement for Azawad. Taking its distance from AQIM, the group calls for negotiations with the Malian government and autonomy for northern Mali.
Malian army executes ‘light skins’The Malian army, which accompanies French forces in their drive north, has executed at least 30 people in the central town of Sevare and surrounding areas in January, according to the International Federation of Human Rights.
“The group said the victims were people accused of working with the Islamists, of carrying weapons, of lacking identification cards, or simply being ‘light skins’—Arabs or Tuaregs,” reported the Times.
Among those arrayed against Tuaregs and Moors are Fulani and Songhai ethnic militias Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo, which have fought alongside the Malian army, as well as compiling “kill” lists and “allegedly committed massacres against Tuareg civilians,” reported al-Jazeera.
Paris’ intervention in Mali is aimed at securing French interests throughout the region vis-à-vis those of their imperialist rivals from the U.S. to Europe, as well as Beijing. Important resources for French industry include uranium in Niger, manganese in Senegal, and oil and gas in Algeria, Libya, Gabon and Cameroon.
French companies face some of the stiffest competition from China. Paris’ share of overall imports into Africa fell to 8.9 percent in 2010 from 16.2 percent in 2000, while China’s rose to 12.5 percent from 3.4 percent in that period,” reported the Wall Street Journal.
The Barack Obama administration, which has initially been holding back in providing military assistance requested by Paris, has now decided to provide three air tankers to refuel French warplanes over Mali as well as cargo planes to transport French troops and equipment to the country.
Washington has also reached agreement with the West African country of Niger, which borders northern Mali, for stepped-up U.S. military presence there, with preparations under way—subject to White House approval—to fly unarmed surveillance drones out of bases there.
Paris had already announced it is sending special forces to Niger’s two main uranium sites, mined by the French nuclear company Areva. Some 2,700 workers are employed there with another mine scheduled to open next year. But the bosses have had to confront workers fighting for better conditions. Last July some 1,200 workers at one of these mines conducted a 72-hour strike demanding higher wages, reported Uranium Investing News.
In another development, MNLA fighters said Jan. 29 they had taken control of Kidal, a northern Malian city by the Algerian border that Islamist forces had seized 10 months ago, reported the Financial Times.
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