Colonialism Isn’t Dead Yet (Well, Not in Mali)

For those who have followed the situation, and even for those who haven’t, the story being told about Mali will be both convincing and familiar. It goes like this: In a part of the world known for instability, terrorists threaten to overthrow a democratic government. These terrorists are characterized by repressive political and religious attitudes and violent opposition to the status quo, which is one of relative peace, justice and economic fluidity. More innocents than would normally be acceptable are threatened; therefore, it is necessary for both Western and native military forces to respond decisively. The victory is (typically) swift and bloodless, at least from our perspective. Having avoided disaster, politicians, military figures, writers and citizens reflect on what has happened, mostly praising the intervention and the virtues of those who led it, while lamenting the potential tyranny of the terrorists and the evil that they represent.

This narrative is simple, attractive even. This narrative reaffirms most of our attitudes about the world and its economic, political, social and moral structures. I’d also like to argue that this narrative is harmful.

For example, consider who the terrorists are. The group that has asserted its power in northern Mali is brutal. They are known for enforcing summary executions and practicing violence and repression. A certain amount of collusion with organized crime and drug trafficking is also evident. What might not appear on the surface, however, and what helps to color our understanding of just how it is that such a seemingly horrid bunch are able to rule with a certain amount of legitimacy, is the fact that this group provides essential public services to a population that has been abandoned by the government of Mali.

We can dig deeper into the nature of the conflict from other angles. An article in the New York Times will likely only provide a few weeks’ worth of history. Perhaps brief mention will be made of the fact that Mali is a former French colony, but that’s about it.

We read nothing of France’s brutal colonization and even less about the process of decolonization — both of which bound large swaths of land that contained groups of people diverse in their ethnic, linguistic, religious and political backgrounds together, and how this process sowed the seeds of conflict while Western powers cared little. After all, instability generally means economic exploitation can easily be continued long past the date of independence.

In Mali’s case, we don’t have to look any further than the 2011 invasion of Libya to find evidence of France’s lasting economic interest that turned violent when their interests where threatened. When NATO decided to provide support to the opponents of the Gaddafi regime, France in particular played a leading role in the action, which exacted a bloody toll of its own. Drawing on a myriad of geo-political inspirations — not least among them control of North African oil refineries — Western powers helped to drive the “extremists” into Mali where they’ve controlled the northern territories for the past seven months.

My claim is not to defend the “extremists,” but to point out that their authority legitimates itself by means other than violence. I do not argue that France is solely responsible for the present situation, but I do argue that the history of French colonialism and France’s present economic interests play a clear and significant role.

More than anything, in the brief time allotted, I want to suggest that the faults of the narrative presented to us have grave implications. The same story that legitimates intervention in Mali also legitimated intervention in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam before that and indeed, all over the world. It should be clear that this narrative is not helpful; it solves far fewer problems than it creates. A deeper, more complex narrative must be written if we’d like it to answer the questions that Mali’s and many other nation’s conflicts ask of us.

One more thing: Late last Sunday night, France deployed troops to “protect” a French-owned uranium mine in Niger, which borders Mali. This development is evidence of France’s economic interest in upholding a friendly Malian government. Francois Hollande speaks much of peace and human rights but given his actions, it is more accurate to say that he defends the profits of French companies operating in the area.

Michael Dean thinks France’s colonial history is as stinky as its cheese.


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