The African country of Mali suffered a coup d'etat against its elected government on March 21.
Mali, a landlocked former French colony in western Africa with a population of 15 million, was one month away from a national election. The coup was carried out by the country’s armed forces.
Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo says the army is taking over because the government has proven inept at cracking down against the oppressed, semi-nomadic Touareg people in the north of the country.
The Touareg people have held a long-standing rebellion against the government. That conflict is decades long.
Sanogo says the army will return the country to civilian rule once the Touareg-led rebellion is suppressed. He hopes it will take “three to nine months”.
Ousted President Amadou Toumani Toure was unharmed and is residing in the country’s capital city, Bamako. He is a former army officer who led a military coup in 1991 against a reactionary regime.
Soon after, he ceded power to an elected government. He was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2007.
The United States, Canada and Europe have sharply condemned the coup. Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, said on March 23: “Canada utterly condemns this attack on democracy by a faction of Mali’s military.
“We call on those behind this coup to put the needs of the Malian people first and to immediately withdraw so that constitutional order, peace and stability may be restored and aid resumed.”
The foreign powers suspended aid to the Malian government, but continue to fund non-governmental organisations. They will also try to steer funds to NGOs that were otherwise earmarked for government agencies.
A delegation of five leaders of the Economic Community of West African States, including Ivorian President and current ECOWAS chief Alassane Ouattara, travelled to Mali on March 29 to try to mediate the conflict between the army and the ousted government.
They were turned away from the airport at Bamako. Soldiers occupied the runway and prevented a landing.
Condemnations of the coup by the imperial countries are supremely ironic. These countries have been providing weapons and training to the army they now condemn. Sanogo, for example, is a US-trained officer.
These same powers also backed the coup in Haiti in 2004 and all but openly backed the 2009 coup in Honduras.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world. But it is also the third largest producer of gold in Africa. At least two Canadian gold mining companies operate there -- Iamgold Corporation and Avion Gold Corporation. Avion has said its operations are unaffected by the coup.
Mali was selected by Canada in 2009 as one of six African “countries of focus” for Canadian aid. Aid to Mali from Canada leapt to C$117 million for fiscal 2009-10 and was $110 million in 2010-11. That makes it one of the top recipients of Canadian aid, on par with Haiti.
The tragedy of this coup is how Mali, one of the poorest places on Earth, has been drawn militarily into imperialism's designs for Africa. The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership was established by the US in 2005.
It comprises 11 “partner” African countries -- Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. The “partnership” conducts annual military exercises called “Flintlock”.
One of the targets of this “partnership” is the long-standing national rights struggle by the Touareg people in the north of Mali and adjoining countries.
The apparent military and political cooperation of the Touareg with the previous government of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was a source of the lurid tales of “African mercenaries” carrying out atrocities in Libya, which provided justification for the NATO attack on Libya in March last year.
Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler wrote in the Ottawa Citizen on March 25: “The core of Gaddafi's 'African Mercenaries' were Tuareg, a desert people who in the '70s formed the vast bulk of his 'Islamic Legion.'
"These ruthless desert warriors have now returned to northern Mali and Niger -- flush with cash, armed to the teeth and with significant experience and very bloody hands. All this does not augur well for peace and stability in the region.”
Fowler says there is “some sort of collusion” between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”. The MNLA is the national liberation movement of the Touareg people; Azawad is the name of the homeland that the Touareg aspire to.
Canadian special forces have taken part in Flintlock exercises in Mali since at least last year. “Flintlock 2012” has been temporarily suspended.
It is not known if Canadian troops have been directly engaged in fighting in northern Mali; the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command says they have not.
National rights rebellion
The Touareg are an oppressed, semi-nomadic people of the southern Sahara Desert whose historic homeland is divided by the national boundaries of Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso.
Six million people speak the Touareg language. Some population estimates say there are more than half a million Touareg living in Mali; others say there are 1.5 million.
The French-language MNLA website, has daily reports of the political goals of the movement and examples of the kind of national oppression suffered by the Touareg people.
A February 23 communique on its English-language website section, for example, reports on “barbaric” attacks by the Mali army against civilians in the north of the country using helicopter gunships. It said: “We are launching an urgent appeal to all organizations for Human Rights to finally intervene and to stop these barbaric acts against civilians.”
The website reported significant territorial gains of MNLA armed forces in northern Mali in recent months. The secular, liberation front says it is “determined to continue operations until Mali recognises the Azawad population’s right to self-determination”.
The Touareg people were brutally subdued by the French colonisers at the outset of the 20th century. After the independence of Mali and neighbouring countries in 1960, they continued to suffer discrimination. The “First Touareg Rebellion” took place from 1962-64.
A second, large rebellion began in 1990. It won some autonomy from the government that was elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1997.
A third rebellion in Mali and Niger in 2007 won further political and territorial concessions, but these were constantly reneged. A Libya-brokered peace deal ended fighting in 2009.
The coup in Mali is a huge black eye for the big, imperial powers that are meddling in the region. The army they have nurtured and helped has overthrown an elected government. That same army has been helped and encouraged on to fight a criminal war in one of the poorest places in the world.
Millions of people are already threatened by drought conditions in northern Mali and the surrounding countries. Their plight will only worsen as the militarisation of the region continues.
Canadians bear a particular responsibility to concern themselves with events in Mali. As well as Canada’s participation in US-led “counter-insurgency” in the region, last year the Canadian government announced it was establishing permanent military bases in Senegal, a neighbouring country of Mali, and Kenya.
Whose interests are these bases to serve? Who stands to benefit from waging war on the Touareg people?
These are important questions to demand of political leaders and media outlets in Canada, including the new leader of the New Democratic Party. Tom Mulcair was near-silent on foreign affairs issues during the recent NDP leadership contest.
Describing the rise in the favoured aid status of Mali by Canada in the past several years, the Globe and Mail wrote on March 23: “Canadian policy is in tatters today.”
[Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network.]