21 March 2013

Nigeria: Mali and the New Cold War


The white people are a very funny set of human beings. When the European powers fought each other from 1914 to 1918, they called it First World War. When they fought again from 1939 to 1945 they called it the Second World War. As far as they are concerned, they are the world! When they finished the "hot" war after defeating Hitler and his allies in 1945, they started what became the "cold" war which was basically the struggle for supremacy between the capitalist camp led by the US and the communist camp led by the defunct USSR. Even then, anytime there was any baseball competition in America they called it

"world series" because as far as they were concerned they are the world!

Just after World War II when American State Department planners were assigning each part of the world its "function" within the overall system of US domination, Africa was considered unimportant. George Kennan, head of the State Department's policy planning staff, advised that Africa should be handed over to Europe to "exploit" for its reconstruction. It is no longer so. The resources of Africa are too valuable to be left to others, particularly with China extending its commercial reach.

China does not have any colony in Africa, but, in the last 10 years, Chinese investments in Africa have increased more than 900 per cent. To counter the growing influence of China across Africa, the US enlisted the economically weak and politically desperate France with promises of supporting a French revival of its former African colonial empire. The US and France had earlier used Al Qaeda terrorists to bring down Gaddafi in Libya. The fall of Gaddafi precipitated the movement of arms across the Sahel which inflamed the rebellion in northern Mali.

Mali is a landlocked country with a population of 12 million people but it has a land mass three and half times the size of Germany. The conflict in northern Mali has its roots in tensions between northern elites that had been growing in recent years.

Tuareg tribes of aristocratic descent saw their hitherto dominant position in Kidal region increasingly eroded by the policies of the Malian government under President Amadou Toumani Toure (2002-2012). To exert control over the north, Toure drew on leaders of Tuareg groups formerly vassal to the aristocrats as well as Arab tribes from Timbuktu and Gao regions. Toure gave them free rein to participate in northern Mali's flourishing drug trafficking trade as well as the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom.

One month before a scheduled presidential election, on March 22, 2012, President Toure was ousted and driven into exile in a military coup led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo. Sanogo claimed the coup was necessary because Toure's government was not doing enough to quell Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. In a bizarre play of events, despite the claim that the coup was driven by the civilian government's failure to contain the rebellion in the north, the Malian military lost control of the regional capitals of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu within 10 days of Sanogo's assumption of office.

Threats of sanctions from regional and international bodies led to the cobbling of a transitional government headed by Dioncounda Traore. The initial unrest launched in early 2012 by the Tuareg's nationalist group, the MNLA, was secular and was aimed at demanding independence from Mali. This nationalist agitation over some legitimate grievances was soon taken over by Ansar Dine and MUJAO which have Islamic agenda and are affiliated to the AQIM. The crisis has since degenerated into full-blown terrorist activities across the Sahel.

What triggered direct French intervention was the attack by Ansar Dine on the southern town of Konna on January 10, 2013. Transitional president Traore declared a state of emergency and called on France to help. Within hours, Paris intervened ostensibly to prevent the fall of the country's capital, Bamako. But, there are clear indications the French agenda in Mali is anything but humanitarian. French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted in a French 5 TV interview that "the goal is the total re-conquest of Mali. We will not leave any pockets".

Like most conflicts in Africa, whether initiated by external or internal actors, the Mali crisis is also primarily driven by resources. The deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure had initiated a systematic mapping of the vast wealth under its soil. Mali has large deposits of copper, uranium, phosphate, bauxite and, in particular, a large deposit of gold in addition to lots of oil and gas. Mali is the third largest exporter of gold in Africa after South Africa and Ghana. About 75 per cent of France's electricity is from nuclear power and sources of uranium are essential. At present, France imports most of its uranium from Mali's neighbouring Niger Republic.

With the French intervention, the original plans as outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2085 of December 20, 2012, became obsolete. The Africa-led peacekeepers from eight West African countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo as well as Chad from Central Africa had to now intervene in the conflict immediately. Even the initial 3,300 troops had to be doubled. Mauritania and Algeria have refused to participate for fear that, if they got involved, the conflict would spill over into their territories.

And for the fact that the Niger capital, Niamey, is only 180km from the conflict area in northern Mali and that Niger also has a significant Tuareg population just like Algeria, Mauritania, Libya and Burkina Faso, the government of Niger Republic has invited the US AFRICOM to station a drone base in Niger. This will help the US to oversee the vast Sahel region as well as northern Nigeria where Boko Haram insurgency is continuing.

With all these NATO, US and other western deployments across Africa it will not take long before other powers such as Russia and China begin to seek similar deployments too. After all, here in the Gulf of Guinea, all the P5 members of the UN Security Council - US, UK, France, China and Russia -- have stakes and investments. And that will then mark the beginning of a new cold war with Africa as the same frontier again. But this new cold war is deadlier, costlier and more dangerous since the enemies and boundaries are not well defined.

What is most important now is for African countries to have good leaders and good governance; after all, what brought these deployments by the western powers is conflict which was largely brought by failure of leadership in these countries. Niger would not have contemplated inviting US if there was a strong neighbour like Nigeria in capable shape.

France would not have directly intervened with their president, Francois Hollande, being cheered in the streets of Gao if there was good leadership in Mali. But, in the meantime, let us not kid ourselves: a new cold war has begun and Africa is the theatre. The objectives are clear and the endgame is well defined. History is always on the side of the oppressed.

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