Mali’s existential threat: Jihadism, or the French?

I have tremendous admiration for Salif Keita, who for decades has reigned as the Malian singer best known to Western ears. His recordings, concerts, and activism have made him famous all over the world. With a career dating back to the 1960s, the man has an incredible backstory. Having released what he calls his final album earlier this year, this eminence grise is spending his twilight years in Bamako helping Mali’s young artists.

And, as of now, making political statements.

In this short recording, Keita addresses Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as “IBK,” and no relation to him). In familiar but respectful language–the singer addresses his president in Manding as kɔ̀rɔ, “elder brother”–he says he’s not seeking money or power, he’s just a Malian who loves his country. “But you know well,” he tells IBK, “that Macron, France, is sending people to kill Malians. It’s not the jihadists at all. They’re spreading false rumors about jihad, but there are no jihadists in the north. France is paying people to wreak havoc, to kill Malians. The cream of our youth is being killed.” Keita implores IBK to stop conspiring with the French and to put Mali’s welfare ahead of his own. He adds darkly that it would be better for IBK to leave power of his own accord than to be chased from power.

The notion that Mali’s grave and gathering insecurity stems not from militant jihadists but from French neocolonialism is not some fringe conspiracy theory in Mali. It’s been around in different forms for years, propagated for example by Muslim leaders with their own agendas. Mahmoud Dicko, the longstanding figurehead of Malian political Islam, blamed violence in the country’s central and northern regions earlier this year on “invisible, obscure forces that are planning to destabilize the entire subregion” (see video below).

Mali’s intellectuals have made similar interpretations of recent events. Professor Isaa N’diaye, a lion of Mali’s nationalist left, has raised the possibility that massacres of entire villages in the Mopti region–acts framed in the international media as perpetrated by local militias fueled by ethnic antagonism–were actually carried out by “foreign mercenaries.” The foreign mercenary is a recurring bogeyman in the Malian political imagination, and N’diaye’s analysis fits into a long history of anti-colonialist discourse in the Malian press and intelligentsia.

As brazen attacks against Malian army garrisons in the north have multiplied (most recently in Indelimane, in the Menaka region, where over 50 government troops are believed killed in a strike claimed by an ISIS affiliate), interpretations like these have become increasingly generalized among Malians, from Muslim activists to members of the francophone elite to ordinary people. Street demonstrations in Bamako and Sévaré have denounced France’s alleged role in stoking the deadly violence and called on Barkhane, the French military force in the region, to leave–along with UN peacekeepers and troops of the regional G5 Sahel security force.

As an anthropologist, I feel a certain duty to shore up my own anti-colonialist credentials. I am no supporter of France’s self-interested policies in Africa. Mali and its neighbors would be better off today if they had never been colonized. Successive French regimes have certainly contributed to the Sahel’s problems over the past several years, most notably through their involvement in ousting Qaddafi in 2011, then their decision to destroy armed jihadists in Mali while ignoring (and, occasionally, partnering with) armed separatists in the country.

Yet the argument that Mali has no jihadist problem, that all its woes stem from imperialist interference, and that the country would be just fine if France would only leave it in peace (see Mahmoud Dicko’s interview above), strikes me as a refusal to confront the internal problems that have sapped the Malian state since independence nearly six decades ago and have pushed a growing segment of its population into open revolt. As long as Mali’s intellectuals, religious leaders, and artists continue to frame their country’s crisis as purely or even primarily exogenous, this crisis will persist.

Denial, the saying goes, ain’t just a river in Egypt. These days it flows through Mali from end to end. And it finds confluence with a current of public frustration and despair the likes of which the country has not seen since 2012–the last time a Malian president was chased from power.

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8 Responses to Mali’s existential threat: Jihadism, or the French?

  1. fromhere2timbuktu says:

    This is disingenuous. Keita and the Malian intelligentsia you so disparage are not simply blaming the French or international world, or denying any jihadist presence. They are linking their interests, and suggesting that their government tolerates this and in so doing are destroying the country. This feeling was present in Mali even before the crisis. Indeed it was well known, that the government had links with AQMI, it had given them camping rights in the north specifically to undermine the rebel separatist movement. This was a major factor in the military coup d’etat. The military were being sent in to fight, badly equipped, forces the government had links with. It is you and this western perspective that refuses to acknowledge its own purpose that is in denial.

  2. brucewhitehouse says:

    Let me be clear, I respect Prof. N’diaye’s courage and while I often disagree with him, I would never disparage him. Forgive me if I have mistranslated Salif’s words, but he seems to say that whoever is killing Malian troops is being sent/paid by France to do so. Is that not correct? I would also appreciate it if you could explain, what is the western perspective’s “own purpose” to which you refer?

    • fromhere2timbuktu says:

      A friend has translated his words for me. He is talking to IBK. The thrust of his argument is that IBK is in the pocket of the French and failing to protect his people, that he and his family profit from Malian misery, that he should leave for France before Malians remove him as they did ATT. He says he is not a politician, not running for president, and he has a position and can say what Malians across the country know and are saying but have no voice. That the problem in Mali is not jihadism but mercenaries, and yes he accuses France and so his own president of complicity.

      From the outset of the crisis there have been two narratives, the outside world’s and the local one.
      Think of the recent massacres in the Dogon région. Thé outside world has been trying to pin this on inter-ethnic tension between Dogon and Peul. No one inside Mali is calling it that, they see these attackers coming from across the border from Burkina on motor bikes, speaking English, or Arabic.
      If we want to understand what is happening in Mali why do we deny the local experience? Its not like any journalists are out there on the ground reporting.

      • brucewhitehouse says:

        OK, thanks for that clarification. I stand by my interpretation of Salif’s words: he claims that it’s not jihadists in the north but mercenaries doing the killing. Well, the people who filmed themselves taking over the FAMA garrisons in Boulkessi and Indelimane were speaking Fulfulde (Peul). And I have yet to understand how France or the West benefit from all this. If France took home all the gold mined from Malian soil this year it would not cover its costs of maintaining its forces there. I understand the popular frustration in Bamako and throughout the country with Mali’s governing elite, and with the French; this frustration is amply warranted. But I maintain that reducing this crisis to its external factors is wrongheaded and will not help Mali in the long run.

  3. Mark B says:

    Very good article… Many thanks..

  4. thepathfinderinternational says:

    A similar thing is going on in Nigeria where Fulani Herdsmen terrorize non-Fulani territories, yet the narrative, especially from the government, is that these terrorists are “foreign”; that they are not local Fulani; that they are associated with Boko Haram or ISWAD etc. These are true only to the extent that Boko Haram and its attempt at taking over the country aligns with the internal mechanism of Fulani Hegemony, hence the attempt by the government to deny the local factor. When and IF Fulani Hegemony succeeds in entrenching itself over Nigeria, there will be LESS attempts by Boko Haram/ISWAD to attack the government. This Hegemony, in concert with those in Mali, CAR and other parts of West Africa, would have solved the “Fulani Question” in West Africa–which is the bottom line for these attacks.
    While Boko Haram had its origins as Kanuri-based, the reality is that the group had common cause with the Fulani through their version of Islam anchored on terrorism as the preferred methodology towards attaining political power

  5. Karen Marie Greenough says:

    Thanks again, Bruce. I heard a rumor here in BF that the French are actually allied with the jihadists.

    • brucewhitehouse says:

      One hears similar things in Iraq/Syria about ISIS–that the US actually created and funded it. I still don’t understand how such an operation would serve US interests–unless you believe the US policy goal is simply to “take the oil,” in the words of our commander in chief.

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