Mali: France prepares for extended military occupation

France’s National Assembly and Senate have voted to extend the country’s military intervention in Mali. A resolution passed both houses of parliament on April 22 with a single vote against.

Three days later, the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 2100, creating a policing mission (known as MINUSMA) starting July 1. Its projected size is 11,200 soldiers and 1440 police.

France invaded the north of Mali with fighter aircraft and 4000 soldiers on January 11. The Mali government and its French benefactor lost control of the area last year to Touareg and other national groups fighting for autonomy and independence.

Right-wing Islamist forces that oppose the sovereignty aspirations of the national minorities then briefly rose to military dominance in the region. Their presence served as the key pretext for the French intervention, and the ongoing foreign military and police occupation.

There are about 6000 soldiers from African countries now serving in a “peacekeeping” role in the south of Mali. French soldiers are engaged in combat with Islamists in the north.

Also, there are a further 200 soldiers on the ground and hundreds more providing supplies and equipment in what’s called a “military training mission” by the European Union.

The United States is a key backer of the French intervention. It has significantly boosted its military presence in west Africa during the past decade. It recently opened a drone airbase in neighbouring Niger.

French vote

In the French National Assembly debate, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called the Mali intervention a political and military success. Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said: “All of Mali’s territory has been liberated”.

National Assembly deputies from the Left Front electoral coalition abstained in the vote. It said it wanted France's military contribution to be done under the umbrella of the UN. It also wants French aid reoriented in favour of local development.

Francois Asensi, spokesperson for Left Front in the assembly, said the problem with the government's resolution was its proposal for a French combat force outside the control of the UN Security Council.

He also expressed concern that the goals of the intervention were unclear. “We do not accept a lengthy and permanent presence of France in Mali,” he said.

But Asensi concluded: “It goes without saying that we cannot vote against the presence of French troops in Mali, but we will abstain.”

An April 23 statement by the French Communist Party, an important part of the Left Front, voiced similar concerns about the government resolution, including that France risks being drawn into a quagmire with “regional repercussions”.

A party member writing on the party’s website termed the decision to abstain in the National Assembly vote as “not very communist … Communists should oppose military interventions that lead to imperialist wars.”

An article by a correspondent from the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) gave a harsh assessment of the April 22 vote, in particular of the decision of the Left Front to abstain.

The reasons given by the correspondent to oppose the vote included: “Four months of military intervention at a cost of 200 million euros; no political solution in sight; no handover to Mali foreseen; and the power of France’s influence, as [foreign minister] Laurent Fabius has said, is strengthened.”

The article said: “This shameful vote allows for a lengthy military presence in Mali that will become a full-fledged territorial occupation in the interests of France and the other big powers supporting it.”

International plan

The plan for Mali involves MINUSMA being relegated to a policing (“peacekeeping”) role. The force will avoid combat as a large part of its ranks will come from African countries deemed to lack necessary training and resolve for combat.

Meanwhile, a separate French force of up to 1000 soldiers will be dedicated to combat operations and operate outside of UN endorsement and control.

For now, the foreign plan for Mali assigns a secondary role to the country’s army, which is considered too weak to play a key role.

Despite Mali receiving military assistance as part of the US-founded Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, its army lacks training infrastructure, is under-financed and under-equipped, and is plagued with corruption.

Mali's army leader Captain Amadou Sanogo was trained in the US. He led the overthrow of Mali’s elected government in March last year and retains key influence and power over the country.

Mali’s army is also tainted by last year's coup. Hence, foreign powers are weary of being seen to engage with it.

There is also a rush to get some kind of elected government back into office. UN Security Council Resolution 2100 calls for the holding of a national election as quickly as possible, preferably by July.

Most serious commentators in Mali as well as internationally recognise that the country is nowhere near ready to hold a national election. The military situation is unstable, the army officers safely ensconced in the capital city Bamako remain in effective control, and the country is enduring a severe humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian emergency

That humanitarian emergency is detailed in a series of reports published recently.

An IRIN report said towns in the north are in a state of “complete chaos” with no governing or social infrastructure in operation. In Timbuktu, for example, not a single international aid agency is operating.

The Guardian said on April 29 that close to 300,000 people are internally displaced in Mali and some 125,000 people are living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. Many are there due to ongoing drought conditions and the related creeping desertification of the north of the country as the Sahara Desert expands southward.

Food prices are spiralling upwards and aid needs are not being met. In March, agencies found one in five families in the north of Mali were suffering food shortages ranging from severe to extreme. The World Food Program is seeking to deliver food to half a million people around the country.

Hector Calderon of UNICEF Mali said that this year in southern Mali, 210,000 children will suffer from life-threatening malnutrition and 450,000 will suffer a less severe but still debilitating form of malnutrition.

Northern Mali will face emergency levels of food insecurity in less than two months if humanitarian access to vulnerable communities does not improve, international aid agencies have warned.

A recent, troubling report on the human rights situation was authored by Human Rights Watch director in France Jean-Marie Fardeau.

He said formal mechanisms of justice were “absent” from the north of Mali. He said: “In all the small cities, villages and encampments, notably along the Niger River, the forces that are supposed to guarantee the rule of law are absent, while undisciplined and violent elements of the Mali army have exacted serious retribution.”

Fardeau said 20 summary executions of civilians and had been recorded, and that more were likely to be uncovered. Mistreatment and torture of prisoners by the Mali army has also been reported.

For the first time in Mali's history, six military officers are being investigated for a human rights crime — the disappearance of five civilians in Timbuktu.

The serious allegations against the Mali army are a confirmation of the concerns about it expressed by the Touareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) at the outset of the French intervention. It said the army should be prevented from reoccupying the north of the country.

These concerns were ignored by France.

As the French rulers settle in for a long occupation in Mali, they face difficult political conditions at home. The Guardian recently reported that polls are showing plummeting support for the Socialist Party government of President Francois Hollande: “The one-year anniversary of the French left's return to the Elysée has been marked by disappointment on promises to cut unemployment, restore growth, contain the deficit and reverse Europe's one-size-fits-all austerity drive.

“Hollande's approval ratings have plunged to the lowest of any modern French leader ...

“Hollande's biggest problem is spiralling unemployment, a symptom of France's economic decay and zero growth. Unemployment is at 10.6% or 3.2 million people, the highest number since records began in 1996. More people are out of a job in France than at any other time ...

“One unexpected event that brought a brief boost to Hollande was the military intervention in Mali — he described a visit to the capital, Bamako, as the 'most important day of my political life'.

“But Henri Rey, of the Institute of Political Science in Paris, said the slight bounce did not have a lasting impact politically: 'Mali was seen as a success, but it did not fundamentally change the equation.'”

On May 5, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Paris against austerity and the captains of finance.

New colonialism

The national rights struggle of the Tuareg and other minorities in the north of Mali is decades old. It came to the fore again in 2011, prompted by the intransigence of the Mali government and military, and by the upheaval in neighbouring Libya.

A cascade of disastrous political fallouts followed, including the military coup in March last year and the French intervention.

The coup and the intervention have exposed the rotten edifice of neo-colonialism built in west Africa during the past 50-plus years. The peoples of the entire region are suffering deeply as a consequence.

Increasingly, they are being dragged back into new forms of direct, colonial rule.

But the new colonialism will continue to meet deep resistance. The French rulers will find no salvation in west Africa to the decline of their economy at home and the challenges to their mini-empire abroad.

[Abridged from . Roger Annis is a socialist and activist in Vancouver, Canada.]