The West's Contribution To Mali's Tragedy

Destabilization in Africa Photo by Reuters/Benoit Tessier
Destabilization in Africa
Photo by Reuters/Benoit Tessier

The 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya led to fears, even among dictator Moammar Gadhafi's harshest African critics, that the resulting chaos would result in Libya's vast storehouse of arms fueling local and regional conflicts elsewhere in Africa and destabilize the region.

This is exactly what appears to have transpired in Mali, which, until recently, had been seen as one of the more hopeful political stories in Africa.

In 1991, more than two decades before similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others created a mass pro-democracy movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Despite corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Malians participated in regular competitive elections, radio stations and newspapers maintained their independence, and citizens engaged in lively and open political debate, giving Mali some of the highest rankings in Africa Advertisement in terms of civil liberties and political rights.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed rebels from the Tuareg minority in the north of the country, in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels' surrendered weapons in the capital of Bamako.

The Tuareg are semi-nomadic herders and traders in Northern Mali
The Tuareg are semi-nomadic herders and traders in Northern Mali

However, by last year, Mali's Tuareg rebellion had resumed with unprecedented firepower thanks to weapons captured by fellow Tuaregs in Libya. On March 22, elements of the Malian army -- arguing that the democratically elected government was not giving them adequate support -- staged a coup. The new military ruler, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo, called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the "war on terror."

Sanogo's training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. growing U.S. military involvement with allied armies in West Africa, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders.

With supporters of the ousted democratically elected government protesting in the capital and the army divided by the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the chaos in the south quickly consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country, declaring an independent state.

Then, with the Malian army routed and Tuareg forces stretched thin, radical Islamist groups, also flushed with new arms resulting from the Libya war, seized most of the towns and cities in the north. These extremists also overran additional U.S.-supplied Malian army posts, seizing 87 Land Cruisers, satellite phones, navigation aids and other equipment provided by the American taxpayer.

Most tragically for the people of the region, these Islamist extremists began imposing a Taliban-style totalitarian rule.

This savage repression, the potential threat from an al-Qaida-affiliated regime, loss of access to the region's military wealth, and indications that the Islamists were moving south, prompted direct French military intervention in January. The United States is supporting the French military effort by transporting French troops and equipment and providing reconnaissance through its satellites and drones.

However, given that it was Western intervention and militarization of the region that largely created this mess in the first place, this inevitably raises the question as to whether it will actually end up making matters worse.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco , where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies.

This article was first published at Santa Cruz Sentinel.