How did Mali get here? (Part 3: Anti-imperialist explanations)

To account for the extent of state decay and recent political violence in Mali, Western journalists, diplomats and security specialists have often focused on proximate causes (e.g., Islamic radicalization, state corruption, the spread of small arms, and inter-ethnic tensions) with little attention to historical, social, and political-economic context. Better informed accounts by Malians and others seek to identify the long-term processes behind this instability. While these various narratives converge at points, for analytical purposes I will put them in three separate categories: anti-imperialist, geopolitical, and institutionalist. Each category has shaped policy and scholarly discourse regarding Mali, yet none can entirely illuminate Mali’s situation on its own. This post focuses on anti-imperialist analyses.

Russian charter image

Image from a Russian translation of the “Mande Charter

From the late colonial period, a strong anti-imperialist perspective informed Mali’s ruling elite. Emerging during the quest for liberation from French rule, this perspective led US-RDA intellectuals to pursue a strong central state and national identity (cohered through a single political party) at home and pan-Africanist policies abroad. Wary of neocolonial designs on the region, Malian nationalists in the 1960s accused France of opposing their new country’s full sovereignty by sabotaging its federation with Senegal and inciting the Tuareg to revolt (I. Sidibé, 2005; Lecocq, 2010; Mann, 2015). Certain Tuareg and Arab chiefs’ advocacy of continued French rule, e.g. through the OCRS (see part 1 of this series), constituted an unpardonable offense in Malian nationalist eyes (N. Keita, 2005). For its part the French government hoped to maintain troops on Malian soil, notably at the Tessalit garrison, after independence to support its ongoing war in Algeria. This desire fueled mistrust and resistance among Malian leaders, who fervently supported Algerian independence (Joly, 2013). Modibo Keita’s regime celebrated the final departure of French forces from Mali in September 1961 as a signature achievement for the young nation, and held up Mali’s new army as a symbol of national dignity (Mann, 2003).



Seydou Badian Kouyaté

Suspicion of French motives has shaped Malian politics and national identity ever since. More than half a century after Mali’s independence, the specter of French meddling in Mali’s internal affairs still aroused public fears (Koné, 2017). Denunciation of Western economic exploitation of Africa features in jihadi as well as nationalist propaganda. Anti-imperialist narratives represent Mali’s “Tuareg problem” as primarily exogenous and Tuareg rebels not only as feudal racists but also puppets of neocolonialism. Asked in 2015 how Modibo Keita’s government handled the 1963 Tuareg rebellion, Seydou Badian Kouyaté–a former minister in that government–replied, “We went to war. That crisis was provoked by French colonists who had served in southern Algeria and some in northern Mali. Those colonists… pushed our brothers into rebellion.” In this telling, the revolt stemmed not from heavy-handed administration nor from the nomads’ history of resistance to state control, but from covert French manipulation.


Aminata Dramane Traoré, altermondialiste par excellence

Malian anti-imperialism took on an altermondialiste tone in the 1990s, with activists such as former culture minister Aminata Dramane Traoré decrying neoliberal economic reforms as an affront to national sovereignty (Siméant, 2014). Once Mali’s crisis flared in 2012, she and other critics linked it to Western efforts to destabilize the country and region. “The West’s interest is for a central Malian state without real control over the northern part of its territory,” she asserted (Diop and Traoré, 2014: 141). Weeks after the coup, a group of Mali’s most prominent public intellectuals–including Traoré and Kouyaté–warned of the “planned recolonization” of the country and invoked the memory of the OCRS.

Anti-imperialist narratives sometimes nourish conspiracy theories casting Mali solely as a victim of a “great game” between global powers and ignoring domestic drivers of rebellion and state incapacity. Such theories were popular among Malian journalists and intellectuals. Malian officials, despite their own anti-imperialist sentiments, have generally refrained from openly accusing France or other foreign powers of interference. In one notable exception during a 2015 speech to Malian troops, IBK appeared to lend credence to reports in the Malian press of an arms embargo against the country. These reports accused Western governments, particularly France, of trying to destroy the country by preventing its military from rearming. Yet no embargo ever existed: the Malian government continued buying weapons from sources in Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere.

Malian nationalists’ concerns for their country’s sovereignty were both sincere and reasonable, though. French intelligence services had maintained close ties with Tuareg leaders (Marchal, 2013). With Mali’s once-vaunted army in disarray, over 4,000 French soldiers were deployed to Mali for Operation Serval (2013-14), followed by 1,000 posted there indefinitely for its successor Operation Barkhane. Operating out of sensitive bases including Tessalit (regarded by some, rightly or wrongly, as “one of the most geostrategically important locations on earth”!) and letting MNLA rebels control Kidal, even collaborating with them on the ground to hunt jihadi fighters, French forces only stoked Malian suspicions of their true purpose in the region (Notin, 2014; Wing, 2016). Many in Mali similarly saw the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, as tainted by imperialist motives (Sabrow, 2017).


Operation Barkhane: Creeping recolonization?

Nostalgia for the US-RDA’s anti-imperialist ideals surged after the events of 2012. Some Malians blamed France for the 1968 coup, and lionized the late Modibo Keita as a martyr of neocolonialism. Political language regarding Mali’s present travails frequently echoed official rhetoric on Tuareg rebellion and imperialism from the early 1960s. Former prime minister Soumana Sako, for example, lambasted the 2015 peace accord signed by the Malian government, arguing that national reconciliation should not “condone impunity nor support the survival or resurgence of slavery-supporting feudal, racist, and obscurantist forces.” A political party in Bamako denounced a “vast plot to undo the Malian state as a unitary, democratic and secular republic.”

Such narratives thrive for good reason. As Chafer and Keese (2013: 5) noted,

conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the literature on Franco-African relations precisely because they have been dominated by secrecy. Moreover, France has in many cases done precisely what the conspiracy theories claim that it does–destabilize or prop up African regimes that are perceived as pro-French in order to further French interests.

Yet these and other authors find anti-imperialist suspicions of French influence overstated, as notions of a “French plot in the Sahara” often rest on unrealistic assumptions. Well before the 2012 crisis, Boilley (2005: 180) wrote that “a large portion of this fear was fantasy, ascribing to France interventionist designs that no longer operated through vague desires of political control like the OCRS, or the wish to unleash rebellions against the Malian central state.” France and other powers continue to defend their interests in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel today, but their methods have changed since 1957.

Scholars have also challenged the nationalist assumption that Modibo Keita’s revolutionary regime was brought down by external forces, identifying strong internal factors behind the breakup of the Mali Federation, the 1963-64 Tuareg rebellion and the 1968 coup (e.g., Mann, 2003; Keita, 2005; Lecocq, 2010). Defenders of US-RDA rule tend to exaggerate its achievements and overlook its mistakes, not least in managing the economy. Ultimately, states Ibrahima Sidibé (2005: 351), “Malian socialism collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.” Its corresponding anti-imperialist narratives have contradictions of their own which cannot be ignored.

Coming up in Part 4: Geopolitical explanations

Postscript, 30 May 2017: The anti-imperialist perspective is alive and well in Bamako’s political class, as evidenced by a press item on SADI party official Dora Cheick Diarra who explicitly traces Mali’s current destabilization to “the history of the OCRS.” Among the nationalist/anti-imperialist views expressed in this piece: “powerful invisible hands” profit from Mali’s destabilization to steal its riches; there was never a rebellion under Modibo Keita; and Mali’s supposed allies protracted the country’s emergency in 2012 by preventing the junta from dealing with northern rebels (though the words “rebel” and “rebellion” are tellingly absent from this piece, aside from the insistence that Modibo never faced any).

Offline references

  • Boilley, Pierre. 2005. Un complot français au Sahara ? Politiques françaises et représentations maliennes. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 163-182.
  • Chafer, Tony and Alexander Keese. 2013. Introduction. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1-12.
  • Diop, Boubacar Boris and Aminata Dramane Traoré. 2014. La gloire des imposteurs : Lettres sur le Mali et l’Afrique. Paris: Philippe Rey.
  • Joly, Vincent. 2013. The French Army and Malian Independence. In Tony Chafer and Alexander Keese, eds. Francophone Africa at Fifty. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 75-89.
  • Keita, Naffet. 2005. De l’identitaire au problème de la territorialité : L’OCRS et les sociétés Kel Tamacheq du Mali. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 91-121.
  • Koné, Kassim. 2017. A southern view on the Tuareg rebellions in Mali. African Studies Review 60(1):53-75.
  • Lecocq, Baz. 2010. Disputed desert: Decolonization, competing nationalisms and Tuareg rebellions in Mali. Leiden: Brill.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2003. Violence, Dignity and Mali’s New Model Army, 1960-68. Mande Studies 5:65-82.
  • Mann, Gregory. 2015. From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel: The Road to Nongovernmentality. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Marchal, Roland. 2013. Military (mis)adventures in Mali. African Affairs 112/448:486-497.
  • Sabrow, Sabine. 2017. Local perceptions of the legitimacy of peace operations by the UN, regional organizations and individual states – a case study of the Mali conflict. International Peacekeeping 24(1):159-186.
  • Sidibé, Ibrahima Baba. 2005. Les relations franco-maliennes à la recherche d’un nouveau souffle. In GEMDEV and Université du Mali, eds. Mali-France : Regards sur une histoire partagée. Paris: Karthala. 341-362.
  • Siméant, Johanna. 2014. Contester au Mali : Formes de la mobilisation et de la critique à Bamako. Paris: Karthala.
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1 Response to How did Mali get here? (Part 3: Anti-imperialist explanations)

  1. Pingback: How did Mali get here? (Part 2: From military rule to multiparty politics) | Bridges from Bamako

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