Mali vs. the West

Is Mali the victim of a shadowy global conspiracy?

Malians are pondering this question more and more, and for many of them the answer is a clear “yes.” Surveying the chaos engulfing their country and region, they see the hidden hand of the world’s great powers.

Such analysis is common, and increasingly explicit, in the Bamako press since last month’s crushing ejection of the Malian military from Kidal by separatist rebels. Consider an article from the 16 June issue of Inter de Bamako (headline: “Crisis in the north: The national and international plot against Mali is confirmed”). Author Yacouba Aliou portrays the MNLA rebellion as a French creation, and claims that “everything that happens in Kidal is an initiative of France.” But the plot also includes the Americans, the Swiss, the Scandinavians, and Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Mauritania, whom he accuses of harboring the MNLA. The conspiracy extends further to all African heads of state, who “take no initiative except those coming from France and the USA.”


Mali’s “Azawad” rebellion: Made in France? (Photo: AP)

To those who perceive this plot, the fact that all these governments have been insisting that the Malian government reach a settlement with the MNLA is proof the plot exists. This insistence is, to put it mildly, a sore point for many in Bamako. “It would be more practical for the Malian government to talk with the HCUA [successor to the Tuareg-dominated Islamist group Ansar Dine] or MUJAO, labeled jihadists, than to talk with the thieves of the MNLA,” Aliou writes. If Western and African governments expect Bamako to make concessions to the MNLA, he supposes, it must be because they actively side with the rebels. He exhorts his compatriots to understand that “Mali is at war with France and its friends in Europe and the West.”

The reason for this war is power, pure and simple. After UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently urged all parties to Mali’s northern conflict to implement a ceasefire agreement, Yoro Sow, also writing in Inter de Bamako, angrily characterized the United Nations as “imposing the diktats of the winners of the Second World War, whose only desire is the domination of the world by iron, fire and blood.” The plot widens.

And the alleged Western conspiracy to divide and conquer Mali is not the exclusive preoccupation of opinion writers at a bottom-tier Bamako newspaper. The plot has also been condemned by Malian “civil society” groups, such as the Conféderation syndicale des travailleurs du Mali, a labor organization. In a statement released in February, the CSTM’s leadership denounced the “underhanded complicities of a fringe of the international community as malevolent as it is selfish, whose unacknowledged aim is the partition of Mali.”

Rokia Sanogo and Oumar Mariko at MP22 rally in Bamako

Rokia Sanogo and Oumar Mariko at MP22 rally in Bamako

Especially where the French are concerned, apprehensions of sinister designs are common among Bamakois, notwithstanding their enthusiastic welcome for French troops just 18 months ago. “France’s arrival in Mali is not in our interest,” declared Rokia Sanogo of the MP22 political movement earlier this year. “The MNLA is a creation of France, a mole. And France advanced the jihadist presence to be able to come here while supporting the MNLA.” Seydou Badian Kouyaté, who served in President Modibo Keita’s cabinet in the 1960s (and later advised Congolese strongman Denis Sassou Nguesso), similarly sees the MNLA as a puppet of French interests, and has accused France of waging a 50-year campaign of “raising the Tuareg against us.”

Such claims are not new to Mali (see my 2012 post about “false flag” theories and my 2013 post on “intoxication by information”), and one should not overstate their significance in Malian society today. Unlike in, say, Zimbabwe, allegations of neocolonialist plots have been absent from official government discourse. The state newspaper L’Essor, in fact, has tried to quell these rumors, declaring that “always trying to stigmatize [France and the UN] stems from a denial of reality.” Nonetheless, the recent surge in allegations of a French or Western plot to destroy the country demands serious analysis.

There is a self-serving element to these conspiracy theories, particularly concerning the Malian government’s stance toward Tuareg separatism. If the MNLA and other rebel groups were hatched by foreign powers, they cannot also express legitimate political grievances of the country’s northern residents. By painting the movement as externally generated, its critics can absolve themselves and their state of responsibility for the present conflict. They need not account for years of inept, corrupt and occasionally brutal central government rule, because France makes a handy scapegoat.

But there is a more substantive element too, because like all conspiracy theories (see Peter Tinti’s “On Conspiracy Theories and Uncomfortable Truths“), the “MNLA as French puppet” narrative is based on nuggets of fact. Le Nouvel Observateur reports that Tuareg rebels have received covert assistance for years from the DGSE (France’s foreign spy agency), which believed they could track down jihadists holding French hostages in the Sahara. (In the US, Rudy Atallah has also advocated using Tuareg fighters as a “force multiplier against the Islamists.”) As recently as mid-2012, according to a report published in Le Monde, the French government airlifted arms and fuel to the MNLA.

And Malians harbor nagging doubts about the role of the “international community” in their nation’s conflict and its resolution. If France and its allies truly support Malian national unity, why were MNLA troops never bound by the “cantonment” process in Kidal under the terms of last year’s Ouagadougou Accord (an accord that was itself denounced by a Malian presidential candidate as “the greatest plot against Mali’s territorial integrity”)? If the US government truly stands with the Malian people, why didn’t it intervene to help beat back the rebel threat in 2012? (Forget about the Leahy Law–nobody I’ve met in Mali believes US foreign policy can be constrained by something as puny as law.)

Beyond their self-serving and substantive aspects, however, what I find most troubling about Malian conspiracy theories is the shared assumption upon which they’re based: that the policies of Western governments are designed to maintain Western dominance by destabilizing the rest of the world.

Boko Haram: Made in USA?

Boko Haram: Made in USA?

Western powers, under this assumption, see peace and prosperity in the Third World as a menace to their own welfare. Because their wealth is based on the subjugation of impoverished nations, they strive to keep places like Mali poor and conflict-ridden. Mohamed Diakité, in his column in the Bamako weekly Tjikan, suggested earlier this month that Boko Haram, the virulently anti-Western terrorist group that has kidnapped and slaughtered thousands in Nigeria, is actually a creation of the CIA. His rationale? Because Nigeria recently surpassed South Africa as home to Africa’s largest economy. “The hidden stakes behind all this are simply economic,” Diakité writes. “It’s a matter of slowing Nigeria’s rise to power as a West African regional power and countering the breakthrough of certain emerging Asian and Latin American countries in Africa, notably China and Brazil.”

What I disagree with here, even more than the baseless accusation of US support for Boko Haram, is its underlying worldview of global politics as a “great game” (and a zero-sum game at that) in which the stability of the global South is inimical to the interests of the global North. This rationale is a fixture among francophone African analysts of the geographic and demographic foundations of international relations, commonly called la géopolitique.

My translation of BS Diarra’s (2013) chart explaining Mali’s conflict

My translation of BS Diarra’s (2013) chart explaining Mali’s conflict

It’s not easy for me to evaluate geopolitics and its assumptions, in part because my training is in anthropology rather than political science or international relations. I’ve read political economy and dependency theory, but I’m skeptical of a Western imperative to destabilize the Third World for three reasons. One, it flies in the face of my own experiences in Africa, where I have known representatives of Western governments and international organizations to be genuinely committed to promoting peace and economic security–even though they fail in this mission far too frequently. Two, the idea that the West seeks to profit from chaos in the South ignores the fact that peace is generally good for business and foreign investment, while war is not. Overall, instability in Mali, Nigeria or Syria does not make Americans, Canadians or Norwegians better off. And three, this model of politics reduces Africans to passive victims in a global historical narrative, ignoring the dynamic processes of “extraversion” (see Jean-François Bayart) and “political ju-jitsu” (see Gene Sharp or Stephen Ellis) in which Africans and their leaders have long been engaged.

The American university students I teach perceive the US as a primarily benevolent force in the world. They see Africa’s poverty and conflicts as the result of the continent’s insufficient modernization. I have to show them that the history of US and Western engagement with Africa goes a long way to explaining African problems today. But where I attribute the cause to our collective (and often self-serving) blindness to our policies’ consequences, my Malian friends are much more likely to attribute it to a deliberate strategy of Western hegemony. Mali’s conspiracy theories are not invented by unread peasants; they are elaborated and swapped by the most educated members of society, some of them with Western graduate degrees. Their beliefs stem not from ignorance of the facts, but from a distinctive interpretation of them.

While I don’t accept this interpretation, reading recent accounts of Mali’s “war with the West” makes me question my own analysis of global politics as seeking, if not greater justice, then at least enhanced cooperation and stability. Is this view misplaced? Has our world not changed since Niccolo Machiavelli’s time? I hope someone with poli sci or IR credentials will enlighten me.

Postscript, 10 July: The Bamako daily L’Indépendant claims it has received a confidential document, “concocted” by unnamed “partners involved in the resolution of the crisis,” which lays out Mali’s future partition–but it neither shows the document nor provides details on which countries produced the document.

Postscript, 10 September: The New York Times has published an article on Iranian views that the Obama administration set up the radical jihadist group ISIS as a means to divide and conquer the Middle East.

Postscript, 5 November: A leftist alternative news site is running an interview in which someone named Francis Boyle describes the Ebola virus currently ravaging West Africa as a possibly weaponized strain released by US biological warfare laboratories; he adds that US military efforts to contain the outbreak in the region are merely a smokescreen for an invasion. This interview is now discussed in francophone Africa via its translation on the Canadian altermondialiste site


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33 Responses to Mali vs. the West

  1. Tim Tillinghast says:

    Interesting analysis, as always, Bruce. I have seen similar accusations made in the Kenyan press recently saying that the US and Britain are behind security issues there, seeking to destabilize and undermine the government there. The rationale is similar.

  2. Carin Wall says:

    Bruce, as always I enjoy to read your blog but this time I have some objections. 1. You forward allegations that Scandinavians could be part of a plot of harbouring the MNLA. In spite of your recognized sceptisicm, this is of course grossly misleading. 2. “A hidden hand of world powers” ? A Western conspiracy to divide an conquer Mali? And Western dominance to destabilize the rest of the world?” Well, I don’t think that Mali is so important that the West would mobilize to “conquer”. And I don’t follow you any longer.

    But I agree with you about the Malian suspicions visavi the international community, in particular on a basic level. In Kidal for example, people see that MINUSMA and Serval enjoy provisions of drinking water, food (including vegetables) electricity (or at least light at night). Which the population do not have access to. This is of course problematic. As well as the question of why Serval and MINUSMA simply watched MNLA and others enter Kidal in May without trying to hinder them with the following battle and massacre of civil servants.

    Keep posting your reflections! My comments are purely personal.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks Carin – I had intended my skepticism toward Mr. Diakité’s conspiracy theory to be evident in my tone, but perhaps I should have been more explicit in this regard. To be clear, I don’t believe that there is a Western plot to destabilize or conquer Mali.

      • Carin Wall says:

        Dear Bruce, thanks for comment. Yes, I think you should make that clear. And that those of us who care for Mali and are disppaointed with IBK should try to encourage forces who are seriously working for reconciliation and reintegration of the North with the rest of the country. I follow Mali/Sahel now from Algiers, who is trying to play a role as mediator.

  3. Tieba says:

    My friend, geopolitics might not be your forte so stick to anthropology: Leahy Law is being violated daily by the US. Furthermore, stability doesn’t always benefit the corporations which the “West” always fight for. I hope to see your view changed one day regarding these conspiracies, maybe it will be little too late anyway.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Of course the Leahy Law is selectively applied; of course there are economic and material stakes in the conflicts in Mali and everywhere else. Does that mean there’s a conspiracy? Don’t Western powers have better ways to maintain their dominance than hatching Third World rebellions? (I’m thinking of debt, bilateral and multilateral aid programs, the WTO…) If you’re better qualified than I to be a “geoanalyste”, I hope you’ll engage with these substantive questions.

      • Tieba says:

        Bruce, do you think any the mentioned governments will go on TV to say that they have “other” plans besides peace in Mali? This is where the conspiracy starts. I am pretty sure you have much bigger experience in international affairs than I do, but claiming that West has better things to do than supporting rebels for their own interests is plain ridiculous! I will not even cite one example. And, thanks for recognizing that Leahy Law is being violated, which further demonstrate either your naivety or that you are among the “special agents”.

  4. mckniffj says:

    Best thing I’ve read on this blog.

  5. Your second point in the nth paragraph is kind of interesting: “Two, the idea that the West seeks to profit from chaos in the South ignores the fact that peace is generally good for business and foreign investment, while war is not. Overall, instability in Mali, Nigeria or Syria does not make Americans, Canadians or Norwegians better off.”
    I wonder though- instability in a particular country may not make others well off per se (weapons sales or what be it put aside), but conflict can also be a way of imposing a fundamental change to the governance of a country: to it’s government/ruling coalition, to its laws, to its relations with neighbors, etc. And that can be very profitable indeed.

    • Tieba says:

      Thank you, Bruce might be a good Samaritan but this world is more complicated than that.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        More complicated indeed. I understand the rules of “realpolitik,” I just think its practice is subtler than conspiracy theories allow. My conviction is not that Western governments don’t support Third World rebels; it’s that Western domination doesn’t rely exclusively or primarily upon such rebellions, and that most of these rebellions are endogenous in nature rather than exogenous. (Does the US really need to foment unrest in Nigeria? The Nigerians are pretty good at doing that on their own.)

        Your “special agents” comment above speaks for itself, Tieba. MNLA sympathizers have already denounced me as a propaganda outlet for the Malian government, so it’s nice to be the object of paranoia from both sides for a change!

      • Tieba says:

        Ahh Bruce! What do you think when the State Dep was caught planning to start a revolution in Cuba, a couple of months ago? Doesn’t US have anything better to do? Haven’t you seen a PBS documentary about how the US was training rebels in Syria (…until they became the new Isis, while some seniors government members are talking about removing Al Maliki who has been more and more close to Iran than US).

        I have plenty of these examples. But no need to say more.

        Funny comment regarding the “special agent”…By the way, they usually are undercover, creating more confusion for both side 😉

        From your fidele reader,

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        Tieba, I’m well aware of the history of US meddling and “regime change” around the world. The question I’m trying to explore here is not whether the US and other Western governments seek to change other regimes; they have and they do (although, generally speaking, not regimes such as Mali’s with which they have friendly relations). The question I’m trying to explore here is whether the US and other Western governments sow instability expressly for economic gain. It seems to me that these are two different questions.

  6. Stephane says:

    Great article and very balanced although you did not mention that Malian opinions towards France and the “West” have changed over time: from naively over-enthusiastic in January 2013 (at the beginning of the French intervention) to openly critical and conspiracy-leaning by mid 2013 (when the French bolstered MNLA while initially preventing Malian army from entering in Kidal).

    As for the shared assumption amongst conspiracy theorists that “the policies of Western governments are designed to maintain Western dominance by destabilizing the rest of the world”, perhaps that assumption is derived from the simple (albeit often wrong) psychology belief that “past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior”? 🙂 There is a long and well documented history of great powers (whether they are Westerners or not) fomenting trouble in Third World countries, therefore some believe the same logic is still at play…

    You ask a great and fair question: “Does the US really need to foment unrest in Nigeria?” The answer is obviously NO. However that same question could be asked about other places where there have been documented hostile covert actions. “Does the US really need to foment unrest in Nicaragua?” The answer is NO, but that did not prevent the US from destabilizing that country in the 80s.
    “Does the US really need to foment unrest in Syria?” The answer is still NO. Whether Assad stays in power for 10 more years or whether he is overthrown tomorrow, it will hardly change anything in the US. However just yesterday, Barack asked Congress for $500 million to train and equip Syrian rebels, i.e. bringing more chaos to that country. To what purpose? US wealth is by no means tied to anything in Syria.

    I personally don’t believe in conspiracy theories any more than I believe in “benevolent powers”. I believe in people doing what they believe is good for them, even if it involves crushing other people… That’s the world we’re living in.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      Thanks for these thought-provoking questions. As I wrote in response to Tieba above, I recognize the US govt’s long history of destabilizing regimes it perceives as adversaries (Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria…). But the governments of Mali and Nigeria are not in that camp, as far as I know. Why would the US seek to destabilize them? The question remains as to whether instability in the Third World generally, or (for instance) Nigeria specifically, is in the US economic interest. My impression is that US policymakers value stability in a given world region because it’s predictable; in fact, I suspect that they prize stability more than democracy, justice, or having a high score on the Human Development Index. But this is just a subjective impression on my part.

      • Stephane says:


        As for Mr. Aliou’s comments, well I will let him defend himself since I don’t agree with much of what he says. However for the record, he cites an “International” conspiracy, not just a Western conspiracy. In other words, besides the usual suspects such as US, UK, France (and more exotic ones like… Scandinavia!) non-Western countries (such as Burkina, Mauritania, Algeria, Qatar) also seem to be on the payroll… As you can see from the readers’ comments, not everyone agrees with him, especially when he incriminates… Niger! A country that has thus far been very supportive of Mali with whom it shares many security concerns.

        As for your broader questions about France’s role in the North (and South), I believe this (retrieved) article from the Nouvel Observateur sums it all up:

        From what I understand, France’s main objectives through the MNLA were to:

        – weaken Kaddafi’s support,
        – have a “force multiplier” in the Sahara (as you already mentioned) against Jihadists,
        – gain access to strategic locations such as Tessalit (a long sought-after outpost in the desert from where one can control much of the region),
        – gain access to potential, yet highly hypothetical so far, resources (oil and uranium) in the North should Tuareg insurgents accede to independence or “autonomy”.

        That plan went havoc when MNLA sided with the Jihadists (to the point of forming a unity government) they were supposed to fight and were later defeated and expelled from from the territory they were claiming. Therefore France’s role was pivotal in getting them back in the game after their organization nearly collapsed (just like France was pivotal in rescuing much of Mali’s South). If not for France, yes the MNLA would hardly be in control of anything. However the same can be said about Mali’s government. Anecdotally, Azawad’s “independence” declaration was announced from Paris…

        For much of 2012, when Northern Mali was supposedly under MNLA’s control, France (like many other countries) did not seem to have many qualms with that occupation. France intervened only when Jihadist threatened to push further south, triggering a full collapse of Mali, and perhaps of some neighboring countries (we will never know for sure).

        Today the French don’t believe the Malian army can control the North (who does?) and use MNLA as a proxy force to maintain a semblance of order, or at least prevent Jihadists from asserting their control overtly.

        So yes, I do believe that much of what happens today in Kidal has French tacit approval. The same can be said about what happens in the South (Hollande was very clear about Malian presidential elections -“je serais intraitable”.) Negotiations for “defense agreements” are underway under heavy French pressure…

        In a nutshell, I am far from agreeing with Mr. Aliou’s conspiracy theories, however I also believe that much of French actions are for their own interests and not in the stated goal of “helping” Mali. That’s the point I was making earlier: not a galactic conspiracy, just governments making decisions for their selfish interests regardless of consequences for others…

        To be clear, that does not mean I am putting all the blame on France’s shoulders. Quite the opposite: Malians themselves are to blame for what is happening to them. If Malians were able to get their act together and control their territory like Niger and Mauritania facing similar threats were able to do, then we would not be in this crisis.

        It is hard to describe what would have happened in a parallel universe where no Libyan intervention would have taken place, and with no French support to the MNLA. We would probably have another Tuareg uprising, but with no more intensity than what happened in the past. Hard to say…

        I hope I have clarified my position about France’s role in the North (and South).

    • Tieba says:

      Stephane, not only that $500 mls. 1.5 billions was already approved. Let’s be honest, do you think the congress will not ask “what are our economic|whatever gains?” The West has more interest than what we, the mass, know.

      Bruce, when regime change (or whatever change for lack of better term) fails or is not suitable, then the other actions will follow suits such as complete mayhem for years to come (have you seen the Killing of Mugabe documentary?). Bruce, the West get involved for corporations, and I think we can agree on that.

      • Tieba says:

        Despite all the means available to the West (as you already mentioned), destabilization is widely used today!

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        We keep going round in circles, and I still can’t seem to cut to the heart of the matter. Returning to the Mali case, let me ask: Just how much does France’s role matter in the north? If not for France, would the MNLA (or some similar group) have come into being in northern Mali in late 2011? If not for France, would the MNLA (and allied groups) have taken over the north in 2012? If not for France, would the MNLA currently be in control of Kidal? Do you agree with Mr. Aliou (whom I quoted above) that nothing happens in Kidal without French approval?

  7. bamakofotostory says:

    On a smaller, everyday life scale, I tend to approve your saying “Nigerians (Malians too) are pretty good at doing that on their own.”
    And I share your questions about the conspiracy theory, of which I hear every day, not only in papers, but in grins and maquis.
    Then again, I recently discovered a very old project developped by the french in 1957, called OCRS, Organisation Commune des Régions Sahariennes.

    Click to access 1._ocrs_montage.pdf

    Strangely enough, the map covers an area very similar to what a great Azawad could be.

  8. Very interesting article like always, professor. Looking forward to the next one.

  9. Albert Forbes says:

    I know I’m late haha, but thanks for the insight, I love hearing two sides of the story!
    All Mali has to do is get rid of the corruption in their government and force their politicians to focus more fundings towards their military training and border security, instead of personal use ex. $40 million on a business jet? seriously? That $40 million could have been spent on the training and arming of the army and the air force.

    Well, corruption is something that is hard to correct. No wonder the government is trying to blame it on other countries, when its many politicians in Mali who need to correct themselves.

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