Early on in my time in Kasoa, Ghana, I met a colorful neighbor named Bright. Bright, who was born in Togo but has lived in Ghana since he was 12, is a jack-of-all-trades. He owns an electrical shop in Peace Town, teaches French at a local primary school, served as an electoral commissioner in Ghana’s 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections, and everyone once and a while drives a cab. As a result of his multiple occupations and boisterous personality, Bright seems to know everyone in Peace Town. After meeting him, he invited me to hang out with some of his friends one night at his shop and I happily accepted the invitation.
As he is a French speaker with a deep knowledge of Ghana, many French speaking immigrants from nearby African countries gravitate towards Bright. Two such young men, Ibrahim and Mamou, who I met that night at Bright’s shop, along with Mamou’s sister, Maimouna (Ibrahim is their cousin) have become close friends of mine and have helped me feel at home here in Peace Town. The three of them are all Malians who are in Ghana studying English.
As the majority of men assembled at Bright’s shop that night were born in French West Africa, the conversation quickly turned to West African politics in general and Francophone West Africa in particular. The men remarked that Ghana, flawed as it is, is a veritable oasis of stability and Democracy in West Africa. Bordered by French speaking countries on all sides, Ghana is also one of the few English speaking and former British colonies in region. The Francophone immigrants, while critical of any form of colonialism, expressed that the French style of colonization and continued involvement (read: meddling/manipulation/imperialism) in the affairs of its former colonies was to blame for the instability of French West Africa. Exhibit A: Mali.
Like most Americans, I was pretty ignorant about Mali. On that night and on many nights following, Ibrahim, Mamou, and Maimouna educated me about Mali’s history and current events. They explained that the convergence of a military coup which ended 10 years of democratic rule, a Taureg rebellion/vie of independence in the North of Mali, along with an influx of radical “Islamists” in the North (many fleeing Libya after Gadhafi’s fall) had drastically destabilized the country. At the time of my first lesson on Malian politics, the “Islamists” and Tauregs (who formed a strained and temporary alliance) controlled much of Northern Mali. But, as has gotten an incredible amount of attention from international new outlets in the last week, the insurgents have made much southern headway over the last few months, worrying many that the capitol of Bamako in the south would soon fall and the entire country would fall under a harsh “Islamic” law and serve as a dangerous refuge for radical “Islamic” terrorists.
One evening last week was a low point for my Malian friends here. Rebels seized the central cities of Konna, Douentza, and Diabaly and seemed poised to capture Mopti and Sevare on their push south toward Bamako. The Malians have friends and family in those cities and were scared for their safety. Ibrahim’s mother, a nurse in Mopti, told him that many civilians had been injured and killed in the fighting between the Malian army and the rebels. Like many in Mopti and Sevare, she was trying to catch a ride south. While Ibrahim and Maimouna (Mamou wasn’t around that night) were afraid that their loved ones could essentially become casualties of war, they were also concerned about what would befall their friends and family if the rebels succeeded and imposed their brutal interpretation of Islamic law. Stories have abounded about public stonings and dismemberment in the rebel-controlled north. Many Northern Malians with the means to do so have fled south, many of those who remain are afraid to leave their homes.
The next day, France intervened. In the days since, French and Malian troops have effectively driven the insurgents out of some of the central cities and are engaged in combat in others. While still concerned, the Malian crew here is more upbeat and optimistic that their family will be safe. According to reports, most Malians seem to feel the same. But, as is usually the case, the situation is more complicated.
Some critics have raised concerns about the nature of Western intervention in Mali. France has launched air strikes and already has over 1,000 troops on the ground. While France has claimed that it has entered into the conflict purely out of self-defense, afraid of Mali becoming a haven and training ground for terrorists, the Western power’s military intervention in its former colony has raised suspicion. Britain and the United States have gotten involved by assisting the French army, with the latter considering possible drone strikes. Some analysts have expressed fears that this whole conflict is part of the US’s larger imperial agenda, pointing out that the Malian army and the captain who lead the recent coup which destabilized the country have received training from the US military over the last decade. Though I don’t believe French, British, or American involvement in Mali is by any means altruistic, I’m still too ignorant to really comment on these ideas. I’ll include some links below and you can decide for yourself.
But what seems to be the constant throughout this crisis is the increased suffering of the Malian people; trapped in a crisis being waged and escalated in their name. When I first met the Malians at Bright’s shop, Ibrahim and Mamou were confident that France and possibly the US would get involved. When I asked them why, they explained that Mali was too enticing for them not to. As Mali borders 7 other African nations and serves as a bridge between West and North Africa it is not only of military but also economic significance. Whoever controls Mali will profit from the trade of the many legal and illegal goods which pass through the country everyday. While all sides of the conflict have proclaimed noble motivations for fighting, these economic motivations can’t be ignored.
On the day after France’s initial air strikes, Ibrahim told me that his mother had told him that many civilians had been killed by French bombs. The French air strikes received a lot of media attention, but none of the stories that I read in the western press mentioned civilian casualties. Instead most international news outlets printed the picture of the one white French soldier who had been killed and gave some updated death tolls for the Malian Army and the rebels. On another night, Ibrahim told me that the Malian army would likely use the conflict as political cover to ramp up its practice of tapping people’s phone calls and abducting people who expressed anti-government or anti-army sentiments. “It’s bad in bad,” he told me. And I’m afraid that that is going to be the case in Mali; bad inside of more bad. Whether it’s the razor of radical “Islamists,” French bombs, American drones, or fists and bullets from Malian soldiers, many Malians who only want peace will suffer in the days, weeks, and months to come. The well-being of the many sacrificed for the ambitions of the few.
Sophisticated conspiracy, opportunism, or just helping out; here are some further ideas on the nature of Western involvement in Mali: