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The Role Of The Colonizer: France's Intervention In Mali

After Islamic extremists seized parts of Mali, the country's former colonial ruler, France, intervened with a ground and air offensive. This action raises questions about the role of former colonial powers in modern conflicts.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington, Neal Conan is away. After Islamic extremists seized parts of Mali, the country's former colonial ruler, France, intervened with a ground and air offensive. While the attacks have driven militants out of major cities, questions still linger about the future security of Mali, especially in the northern region.

The French action has also raised some questions about the role of former colonial powers in modern conflicts. So are you from Mali? We want to hear from you particularly. What are you hearing from Mali? The number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation by going to our website, npr.org, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, a pastor, an Applebee's receipt and an Internet firestorm. But first we begin with George Joffe at the BBC Studios in Cambridge, where he's a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University. Welcome, George.

GEORGE JOFFE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: First, could you give us an update on what's happening in the conflict in Mali?

JOFFE: Well, as far as we know, and the French aren't too generous with the information they provide, the French forces and the aircraft backing them have now cleared out all the major towns inside the north of Mali. That leaves, of course, the Islamist opposition, which is apparently dispersed into neighboring villages and into the desert itself.

And the Malian army is now supposed to be moving in to carry out mopping-up operations in the north, but they are unlikely to be able to complete that task, and there is supposed to be an African Union ECOWAS force coming in, some 7,000 strong, to complete the task and completely pacify the north over the next six months.

HEADLEE: What do we know about what led France to make the decision, the decision to intervene? Was there some sort of sense of responsibility for their former colony? Was this all about terrorism?

JOFFE: Well, you can take a cynical, or you can take a more idealistic view of that. You could argue that President Hollande, having just come to power eight months ago, had seen a great dip in his popularity in France, partly because of domestic policy. And the intervention in Mali provided him with an opportunity to restore that. And it certainly did.

His popularity went up dramatically almost overnight. But there's another explanation, too, and it is that Mali is a rather important state partly because of what had happened there in March of last year with the Toureg rebellion and partly because of the implication of a weak state there for Niger next door and for French access to the uranium mines there that provide France with its electricity.

And therefore, in a sense when the rebels in the north began to move suddenly south, the French took fright and felt they had to intervene to protect the Malian government to avoid the country becoming an Islamist redoubt.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with George Joffe. He's a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies at Cambridge University. But let me bring in a couple other expert voices here. Michael Curtis is a distinguished professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. He wrote a piece for the American Thinker last week called "The End of Neocolonialism," and he joins us by phone from his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Welcome, Michael.

MICHAEL CURTIS: Thank you very much.

HEADLEE: And also with us, Susanna Wing, who is associate professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on Mali, and she joins us by smartphone from his office. Welcome, Susanna.

SUSANNA WING: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Michael, let me ask you: What do you take of this cynical versus idealistic view of intervention that George just referred to? What are we to take from France's decision?

CURTIS: I don't accept the cynical position whatsoever. I think it was an important and very dramatic move, which is a forerunner of future international relations. Now, it all stems from the concept of neocolonialism, which is a coin termed in 1965 by - when Nkrumah became president of Ghana, and this was kind of a modern extension of the argument of Lenin, the concept of neocolonialism was the last stage of imperialism.

Now inherent in this position is that the former colonial powers now use various methods to operate in other countries not only in the economic field but also in the political, religious, ideological and cultural spheres. What's significant now is that a former country that was a colony of France has invited the former colonial ruler, France, to come in, and France accepted this and of course did what international countries ought to do in situations of that kind, come to the rescue of it.

The main problem here, the crucial fact and the significance of this, is that it is a fight against the Islamist threat. Now, the previous speaker mentioned the opposition, which is dispersed. Now that's a very mild word for the groups that are fighting there. They're terrorists, and they're Islamic jihadists who are trying to establish Sharia law in that country.

And France by its action has blocked it, ended it, and temporarily, at any rate, ended the threat to Mali and perhaps to Algeria and to France itself.

HEADLEE: OK, let me get...

CURTIS: But one must recognize, of course, that President Hollande recognizes the problem within France itself, which is related but a kind of separate problem, of the six million Muslims who are living in France.

HEADLEE: In France, yeah.

CURTIS: Have a kind of mixed and kind of ambiguous relationship with the state of France.

HEADLEE: Right. Well, let me - that's Michael Curtis. Let me take this to you, Susanna Wing, then, and ask you sort of the same question. What do you make of France's decision to intervene? Could it be a combination of a number of things?

WING: Sure, I would tend to agree with Michael Curtis that - and not take a cynical approach. I do think that Hollande benefited at home, but that was sort of a surprise addition to this action that he had taken really at the request of the Malian government. And I don't think we should forget that many - the majority of Malian people were hugely in support of this intervention because of their lives having been turned upside-down from the crisis, which began last year.

So sure, it's a combination of things, but to call it neocolonialism to my mind doesn't really fit just given the fact that this was an invitation, and that's not how we tend to think of neocolonialism. But there is clearly a deep connection between France as a former colonizer and Mali, and they were the country that was willing to step up to the plate right away when the ECOWAS and EU forces were just simply taking too long.

HEADLEE: Well then, George, how serious a threat is this terrorist group, the insurgents in the northern part of Mali? Is it al-Qaeda, as many people have described?

JOFFE: Well, first of all it's not just one insurgency. There are in fact at least four groups involved. Some of them certainly are Islamists. One of them, at least, claims affinities with al-Qaeda, it calls itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But the key force, the force that actually began the rebellion that ended up in the invasion of Southern Mali way back last March is in fact a Toureg force.

And they were seeking independence for the northern part of Mali, which is part of a very long argument going back to the 1960s in terms of the way they feel they've been treated by the central Malian government.

There is a lot of ethnic tension inside Mali, which partly explains that particular development. The Islamist groups, which have been based in Northern Mali, in the remote reaches of Northern Mali, for many, many years, then took advantage of that to extend their influence over the cities and towns there.

So you're looking at a very complicated situation. And beyond that, took, you need to consider whether, in fact, this is in reality a threat to surrounding states. Algeria, for example, has been dealing with this group ever since the 1990s, and I'm not certain really, despite the attack on In Amenas two weeks ago, that this represents an existential threat to the Algerian state.

It does, however, represent a threat to the Sahelian states, and that's really why France felt it had to intervene, along with the fact that France also has felt that it has a watching brief over all its own old colonies in West Africa.

HEADLEE: OK, well, let me ask this for you, Michael, before we take a break. I mean, you can't deny that there's a relationship, as Susanna mentioned, based on colonial days between France and Mali that made it more likely that France would intervene than perhaps any other country.

So to a certain extent France's intervention owes something to colonial days, doesn't it?

CURTIS: Well, it's certainly true that France is the logical country to intervene. Their link with language, the official language of Mali is French, although many people don't speak it, and much of the civil law system is based on French civil law. So there are these legal and constitutional and kind of cultural links that still remain.

Now I agree with the previous speaker, of course there's a great deal of tension within the Mali system. It's a very complex relationship, and you have got the remains of a struggle between the Berber population, the Touregs in the north, light-skinned, and the black population of the south, which is kind of a reminder of the historical importance of the slave trade.

Remember Mali is not the greatest and most desirable country in the world. Slavery in Mali has persisted for centuries and to some extent persists in certain amounts. But I would disagree with the argument that it was the Touregs that led to the present dilemma.

It did lead the movement to, of course, for independence and indeed set up a new state, which is called Azawad. It also has to be remembered that many of the arms which were used by these rebels came from Libya, and the Gadhafi outfit, and it was a military (unintelligible). And then tensions led to the fighting between the Touregs and the Islamist forces, which by July had been won by the Islamists, who have ended Toureg control.

But I think the key thing that's significant for me in all this - there are two things. One that the United States foreign policy and the rest of the world, the United States position unwilling, of course, to be involved to any considerable degree in the conflict in Mali, but they're all aware now that Islamists threaten the security and even the existence of other states in Africa, especially Algeria, in the light of this insurgence of Islamic forces in so many of the Arab countries today.

But the second thing is the actual experience now that is evidence of Islamic control of territory and the imposition of Sharia law and what it means in the prohibitions of free expression in all spheres, including music and dance. The newspapers have been full of what has been happening in the historic town of Timbuktu.

HEADLEE: And Michael, we'll have to take a break here for a moment.

CURTIS: Over the libraries and manuscripts and...

HEADLEE: We'll finish talking about that a little bit more in just a moment. That's Michael Curtis, also Susanna Wing, George Joffe still with us after a break. Malians, we're wondering what you hear from your contacts in Mali about this conflict. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Send us an email to talk@npr.org. We'll have more, as I said, with George Joffe, Michael Curtis and Susanna Wing just after a short break. I'm Celeste Headlee, and this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Three and a half weeks ago, the French military began an intervention in Mali to push back Islamic insurgents in the northern part of the country. French planes targeted extremist training camps and weapons and fuel depots over the weekend, and the military has taken control of key cities and pushed the rebels into the desert, some of them into neighboring countries.

A spokeswoman for the French armed forces has said they plan to leave Timbuktu this Thursday and move farther into the northeast, following fighters to remote outposts there. The French intervention raises questions about how former colonial power figures into present-day fighting.

And Malians, we want to hear from you. What do you hear from contacts back in Mali? Give us a call, at 800-989-8255. Or send us an email to talk@npr.org. And we have a call now from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Make sure I pronounce your name right here. How do you pronounce your name?

JOLA BAGA YOKO: My name is Jola Baga Yoko(ph).

HEADLEE: Jola, tell us, you are from Mali?

YOKO: Yes, indeed.

HEADLEE: And what do you think of French intervention?

YOKO: Well, we are very, very, very happy that French - the French government responded to the call for assistance from our constitutionally chosen interim president. Therefore, as far as we Malian are concerned, knowing the more than 350,000 Malian who have been displaced and some for more than a year and who are suffering in extraordinary fashion, we couldn't wish for more than to have the French come and help us get rid of this curse.

By the way, let me add that to the credit of France and of the French president, when he said, in Timbuktu and also in the capital city of Mali(ph), that France is just trying to repay some debt, that France remembers that Malian and many other Africans fought in World War I and fought in World War II to liberate France, some of us just had tears to come dripping from our eye, because this means that we are talking about a brotherhood of nations where nations do remember what others have done, even if it is decades ago.

So in short, we are extremely happy that France came to help. Oh let me add one more thing: All those powerful countries out there who may be sitting on the sidelines should understand or consult the French analysts and advisors, who knew that when you have a fanatical entity, there is no way to stop that one with dialogue or compromise, but by force.

And therefore there is not a question that if weren't for the military intervention, these groups who brought with them the arms from Gadhafi and others and who are therefore much more armed than the soldiers in Mali, well, these groups were going to perfectly destroy Mali as a country and then deal with the rest of the world. But I will stop there and take any questions if somebody has any.

HEADLEE: Thanks so much, that's Jola. Thank you so much, calling, us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Susanna, let me have you respond to this. Obviously it sounds like he's agreeing with all three of you in terms of the intervention.

CURTIS: Well, that's a very fine statement.

HEADLEE: But let me go to Susanna here, real quickly, if I could. And Susanna, to a certain extent isn't Mali just further evidence that the fight against Islamic extremism is whack-a-mole? I mean, as they push them further north into - aren't they escaping into other countries?

WING: Well, I think that's certainly possible. They are blending into the population in many instances, some people going south so they can blend into those populations, others going north. And they're simply not just disappearing and going away. And the question is: How will they be able to reorganize themselves? Will they be able to effectively reorganize themselves?

I think the idea that the French are going after camps and supply lines and those things, obviously that is an essential move, but many of these participants are just blending back into society. And what does that mean? We don't obviously know yet.

I like the point that the gentlemen from Baton Rouge raised, was about how the Malians themselves contributed to liberation struggles in France and to see this as being a turnaround. That's sort of a nice way to think of it. He certainly has expressed what I have heard from Mali, which is that people are extremely enthusiastic.

And I think in some ways, what the French accomplished in three weeks, these people have been suffering for month after month. And so there's such a sense of relief that things were able to change so quickly. I think they're wondering why it took so long.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you a question, actually, that someone posed over the Internet here, George Joffe. This is from Gary(ph) in San Antonio, Texas, and he says this: Why can't we talk about the real issue? Just as the U.S. invaded Iraq largely for the oil resources, France is involved in Mali for the uranium resources and oil and gas. This is one of the first points made. Everyone spins it into politics and terrorism, which itself has its roots in superpowers exploiting the resources of smaller countries. Is that true, George?

JOFFE: Well, it's partly true, that's to say the question of uranium is certainly very important as far as France is concerned. And the mines, actually in Niger next door, aren't so very far away from the areas occupied by the Islamic rebels in the north.

And indeed it's interesting to note that the United States signed, last week, a status of forces agreement with the Nigerian government partly for that reason. So there is some truth in that. But I think one can't overlook the fact that there is also a geopolitical argument, and that is that if indeed Mali were to be taken over by Islamist groups, that would represent a very threatening element inside of the whole of the Sahelian region, the southern Saharan region.

And worse still, it would link up with the rebels in the north of Nigeria, and that would be really very serious. So there is a very good argument for France to intervene from that point of view.

The real problem is whether that was the only way in which this problem could be dealt with. The Algerians, for example, were very unhappy with the French intervention, even though they felt obliged to give them over-flight rights over Algeria, because they believed that they could solve the problem through negotiation, and they had in part succeeded by detaching at least one of the Islamist groups and the Toureg from the whole groups in the north that were occupying the country.

So in a sense, there are two ways of approaching this, and many in Africa do feel, outside Mali, that in the end, negotiation of some kind will be necessary. Let me add one final point, and that is that the Islamist groups have been inside Mali ever since 2003. They've been there for a very long time. They were observed, people knew about them, but nobody was really prepared to do anything about it at all.

And then, in fact, when the rebellion, the Toureg rebellion took place last year, even then no real action was taken despite a condemnation of the United Nations and the promise, eventually, of some troops from Africa. So in a sense the crisis that developed at the beginning of this month with the Islamist invasion of the southern part of Mali forced an intervention, and France necessarily, because of its old colonial links, was bound to be the state that would step up to the mark.

HEADLEE: That's George Joffe of Cambridge University. Let's turn it to Michael Curtis, professor emeritus of Rutgers University. So Michael, how will the French get out, then? I mean, obviously the Malian army is not going to be strong enough to resist any further insurgent attacks for quite some time. The African Union forces are not ready to do what France is ready to do. Is France stuck there?

CURTIS: Well, it's a difficult issue which France has taken. First of all, it may be true that the fact that there are resources of oil and gold and uranium in Mali do have some impact on the situation, but I don't think it's an important one in any way. And I repeat what was said before, it's a movement which is significant at indicating what is now a new post-neocolonialist era.

It's very important in international politics, I think, taking place. The dilemma for France is that the international community has not been willing to take action. When the United Nations Security Council met, it expressed its grave concern, its grave concern. And you know any political scientist realizes that grave concern means don't take any action.

It's France that took the initiation and came in. Now the African force, under the banner of the Economic Community of West African States, is supposed to contribute 3,300 fighters, but it's coming in very small drabs, and it's unlikely to be a very effective force.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

CURTIS: France wants African nations, an African force to come and take over the responsibility, whether this would take place or not, one doesn't know. Certainly, they're reasonably well-equipped, but they're rather poorly trained. The United States is providing some logistical help but not very much. But whether they can cope with the Islamic forces, the al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Ansad Dine, the Defenders of the Faith, which is an extreme Salafist group, and the so-called Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa is another matter.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

CURTIS: But France is well aware of the dilemma and doesn't want to stay a moment longer...

HEADLEE: I'm sure.

CURTIS: ...than is necessary...

HEADLEE: I'm sure they don't.

CURTIS: ...(unintelligible) there's been some advance by the African countries themselves in helping Mali.

HEADLEE: Well, let's take another call here. This one is from Madison, Wisconsin, and this call is from Mamadu(ph). I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. Mamadu?

MAMADU: Yeah, Mamadu. I'm a longtime listener and first-time caller.

(LAUGHTER)

HEADLEE: Thank you so much for calling in. And you are originally from Mali.

MAMADU: I'm originally from Mali. I'm from Bamako, and I live here in the States for, like, since 10 to 15 years ago. So I've been, yeah, very much, you know, listening to what you guys have been talking about this issue. I have to say what is relevant, you know, in this case is all the population, you know, of Timbuktu and Gao and (technical difficulty) heavy they were, you know, that the French did that. And, you know, the red, you know, I mean this issue is very complex because Mali is a landlocked country, you know, and this problem is, you know, we have the Algerian issue, you know, Libya, and Bamako, we also had a putsch(ph), you know, in March of 2012.

So there is - this is a (unintelligible) issue. But for me, I'm a veterinarian, and, you know, when a cow is bleeding or a human being is bleeding, you know, you better do something right away. And I think Mali was bleeding and (unintelligible) just a couple days did the French did an intervention, you know, those Islamists, they will be in Bamako and will be (unintelligible) Somali, you know, (unintelligible).

HEADLEE: That's an interesting point. Thank you very much. That's Mamadu in Madison, Wisconsin. Let me take this to you, Susanna. He said had it not been for the French intervention, the insurgents, the Islamic extremists would have taken over Bamako. What is it really at that stage?

WING: Where it was, was they were (unintelligible) taken over a town called Konna, and they were very close to a very important military airstrip in Sevare and an important town, Mopti. And it looked like they could have very quickly just headed straight down to Sevare. And had they taken that airstrip, that's the primary airstrip for any action, military action in northern Mali, so that would have been huge. And then we also saw with the fall of the town Giabali(ph) which is more to the west in the country, that was another movement towards Bamako.

So it was perfectly possible. I never would have said it before, but when you saw how well-armed they were and what little resistance they were facing in terms of the Malian army, it was certainly possible, and that would have been a fundamental disaster. I don't think, you know, a disaster for all the countries in the region to have fundamentalist Islamists imposing Shariah on the people and using this then as a safe haven for...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

WING: ...you know, pushing jihadi philosophy.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me get a question in here to you, George. What - we're listening to all these reasons why it was a good idea for France to intervene in Mali, and they're all very convincing. Why don't they apply to a place like, say, Syria?

JOFFE: Well, there's a rather significant difference in the scale of the intervention required. If you intervene in Syria, it may well bring the current conflict to an end, but it will begin, as was the case in Iraq, a new insurgency against the occupying forces. And worse than that, given Syria's location inside the Middle East, it's likely to bring all the surrounding states into a situational conflict inside Syria too. And therefore, the implications of intervening in Syria are far, far greater than the implications of intervening in Mali.

And indeed, in the case of Mali, the situation can in this sense be controlled because unlike Syria the areas in which the intervention is really taking place are largely very scarcely populated, and therefore, it's relatively easy to make sure that threats to surrounding countries can be easily contained too. And I think it's for that reason that the intervention in Mali has been possible, whereas the intervention in Syria is a much more frightening prospect for Western states.

HEADLEE: Let me go, again, it's a phone call here. This is Martin(ph) in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. And, Martin, you're from Ghana, but you have your own ideas about why the French intervened. Why do you think?

MARTIN: I'm just thinking that it is - could it be because of guilt. The way, you know, the - in 1844, the European nations who colonized Africa divided Africa in such a way that they divided, for instance, the Tuareg (unintelligible) into different countries and many - this is the cause of what is happening in Africa. And now, the French are saying, you know, we have to intervene because, one, we are the (unintelligible). It is our fault also that this is happening.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean I will consider the Islamist rebels as one of it. That another reason is they are intervening because of the guilt they have.

HEADLEE: That's a good point. Let me take that you, Susanna. That was Martin. What do you think? Do you think to a certain extent at least partially there's an idea that you broke it and you fix it?

WING: No, I don't personally think that that is really a powerful argument. I - but I do think that there is this recognized ongoing commitment and connection. So I don't think this is in anyway a sort of French confession of having participated in the Berlin conference and carving up of African states, et cetera in the 1880s. But I do think that the French recognized that there's a close connection to this region because of colonialism and there are also many Malians who are French citizens now. And somebody brought up earlier, many Muslim citizens in Mali - in France, excuse me, who are French citizens who would support this action and who have family who are being basically run right over by these jihadis and wanted to see something done. So I don't think it's a move in terms of guilt, no.

HEADLEE: And you don't think that the French are going to get stuck there, like, say, the U.S. did in Iraq?

WING: Well, that's a very good point. And it's - I tend to think that what the French are going to try to do is to shift then to, well, to continue its air power and then to try and leave the security of these cities up to the ECOWAS forces, and I would also add the Chadian forces, which are, I believe, have already arrived. And that's not an army to be sniffed at.

HEADLEE: No. Whether or not that's successful, we'll have to see. Susana Wing...

WING: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...associate professor of political science at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. She spoke to us by smartphone from her office. George Joffe, research fellow at the Center of International Studies at Cambridge University, and he joined us from the BBC studio in Cambridge. And then we had Michael Curtis as well, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University. He's the author of a new book, "Should Israel Exist?: A Sovereign Nation Under Attack by the International Community." He spoke with us by phone from his home in Princeton, New Jersey. Thanks to all three of you for talking with us.

CURTIS: Thank you.

WING: Thank you for having me.

JOFFE: Thank you.

HEADLEE: After a short break, we'll turn to the opinion page, a light. It takes on a story of an Applebee's receipt. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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