The armed Islamists who fled to Mali after the fall of Qaddafi’s government are significant, but they do not represent a complete rationale for French intervention. The Tuareg rose up in revolt partly due to Islamist influence, but also through nationalist impulse due to the general patterns of land and water grabs that marked what was considered by the North Atlantic countries to be the “stable democracy” of Amadou Toumani Touré.
The government of Touré fell due to the military’s frustration over the wildfire advance of Tuareg militancy, but the coup government’s failure to stem the tide of revolt brought in foreign powers. The tipping point of French intervention came not on Sunday, January 13, but as early as April 5 of last year, as Tuareg forces swept further along the Niger River to Douentza. At that point, the fifteen West African countries began planning a military intervention against the rebels with the logistical aid of France. The plan was OKed by the UN Security Council in December.
On Monday, January 14, the day after the French air strikes commenced, Tuareg rebels took over the town of Diabaly (the site of the summary execution of 16 unarmed preachers by the Malian army in September of last year), advancing the border of territory claimed by the rebels even closer south towards the capital.
As air strikes continued in Mali, President Hollande of France lectured the World Future Energy Summit about investing in renewable energy to avoid ‘catastrophe’. The immediate contradiction between the expenditure of fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses to fuel the global military industrial complex is merely the beginning of a tangled web of modern colonial relationships being established in Africa today.
The Malibya Canal
Mali is not known for being a nation with many natural resources, so Hollande’s insistence that the invasion comes at the insistence of the international community to remove militant Islamists from the country’s north seems to hold up. But tilting lances at Islamists is not quite enough: the de facto leader of Libya today, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, has declared that Shari Law will now define Libya’s juridical order, yet French corporations have paid regular visits to his government. The fight in Mali is not about only about Islam, but about the relationship between Islam and investment, land, and particularly, water.
In 2009, Patrik Lukas, the head of the Africa Division of France’s main body of transnational corporate interests, Medef International, called for help from the French government. Complaining of competition from the Chinese government during a visit to Mali and Senegal, Lukas insisted that “there is a real issue that goes beyond the issue of the private sector… The French government should definitely help the private sector working in Africa”.
At the time, Libya was endeavoring in a full-scale land and water grab in Mali, choosing to work with Chinese contractors instead of French. In the years leading up to his ouster, Qaddafi was seeking to diversify the Libyan economy in keeping with a neoliberal restructuring that included developing domestic agriculture as well as importing agricultural produce from his neighbors to the south. Building up a proxy corporation called Malibya Agriculture with money from Libya-Africa Portfolio Fund for Investment, Qadaffi secretly purchased 100,000 acres (roughly 156 square miles) along the Niger River region of Boky Wéré in 2008 for cultivation of rice and biofuels. To irrigate the massive tract of agricultural land, Malibya endeavored with the help of Chinese contractors to dig a 25-mile canal that holds dire ecological prospects, not just for biodiversity but also for local fisherfolk and farmers.
In an article published by Yale environmental rag, Environment 360 in February 2011, freelance journalist Fred Pearce states the canal “will enhance Libyan food security at the expense of Malian food security by sucking dry the river that feeds the inland delta, diminishing the seasonal floods that support rich biodiversity—and thriving agriculture and fisheries vital to a million of Mali’s poorest citizens—on the edge of the Sahara desert.” Geopolitically, the canal is almost at the point of distinction between the North and South.
Pearce went on to prophetically note, “(w)ith Al Qaeda busy recruiting disaffected people such as the Tuareg nomads around Mali’s borders, any disruption to the traditional way of life could feed its violent agenda.” As the French flew into Mali on January 13, the rebels were advancing to Diabaly, drawing the border of claimed territory over the Malibya canal like a blanket.
The volatile combination of Al Qaeda and the Tuareg is more important to France now than ever. While France holds the primary position in international development assistance to Mali (quite convenient for rebuilding purposes after air strikes), Libya has also become a heavy investor in Malian infrastructure and construction. With the French intervention in Libya, the agricultural situation of that desert nation, which imports ¾ of its grains, shows up on France’s own balance sheet.
In November 2011, an agricultural delegation from France spoke to members of the Libyan government about encouraging the agricultural sector—particularly livestock, which eat rice bran and hulls, among other grains. Thus, projects like the land and water grabs in Mali take on an utmost importance for the Libyans as well as the French. Keeping Mali out of the hands of the Taureg dissidents is imperative to maintaining the “soft imperialism” of North Atlantic hegemony in Africa by increasing the amount of land under control of the West for investment in “renewables”, for instance biofuel cultivation which currently takes up about 60% of all agricultural lands recently purchased in Africa.
Sasha Ross lives in Portland, Oregon where he directs the Cascadia Field Office of the Earth First! Journal, and works at local bio-diversity group, Bark. He is currently editing an anthology about the Global Land Grab.
This article is also being published at Counterpunch.