Behind Mali’s conflict: myths, realities & unknowns
Since the French military intervention in Mali, known as Operation Serval, began last week, the internet has been buzzing with talk about its motives. Is France really only trying to contain a terrorist threat, as it claims? Or do major world powers have other, more sinister interests at stake? At its root, what is the conflict in Mali about?
This discourse, generated largely by journalists, analysts and activists unfamiliar with Mali, has been far too speculative for my tastes. Let’s consider what we do and don’t know about the causes and effects of international interest in Mali.
1. Mineral rights
Many sources say that the main reason France, and Western countries more broadly, are getting involved in Mali is that these major world powers covet the country’s mineral resources. The website globalresearch.ca expresses this view bluntly: “the goal of this new war is no other than stripping yet another country of its natural resources by securing the access of international corporations to do it.” Mali’s subsoil has been reported to contain abundant precious metals, oil and gas. But the truth of Mali’s “mineral riches” is rather murky.
Where oil and gas are concerned, talk of Mali’s “oil wealth” is premature: while Mali has potential reserves, it has zero proven reserves, and despite its government allocating 700,000 square kilometers for drilling since 2005, no wells have been drilled yet (see Jeune Afrique). No major multinational energy companies have even bought drilling rights in Mali: the only companies who have are Italy’s ENI, Algeria’s SONATRACH, Canada’s Selier Energy, and a few other minor players with high risk tolerance. Even before the present conflict began a year ago, the Malian Sahara’s remoteness and chronic insecurity made it a no-go zone for most investors. Military intervention will not change that for the better.
As for uranium in Mali, the only current mining operation of which I’m aware is in Falea, close to the country’s southwestern border with Guinea, carried out by the Canadian company Rockland. This operation has had its own social and environmental problems, but it’s nowhere near the conflict zone. Despite rumors of uranium in northern Mali, no evidence has been made public, so we cannot take it as a given that the area is “uranium rich.”
Mali is among Africa’s top gold producers, exporting between 36 and 60 metric tons annually over the last decade; gold is a key source of revenue for the Malian government. Mining operations are carried out in southern and western Mali by a handful of multinational companies (Randgold, AngloGold Ashanti, and Iamgold among others).
Given what we don’t know about what lies beneath Malian soil, we can’t rule out the possibility that natural resources are a factor behind foreign intervention. But starting a war is hardly necessary to get cheap access to Mali’s gold or other minerals. Successive Malian governments, aware that they lack the capital and human resources to develop these deposits themselves, have cut very generous deals with mining companies and imposed minimal regulations on their activities. What’s the point of carrying out a risky jewelry store heist when the owners are practically giving away their merchandise?
2. Blowback from US military training
A primary reason for the defeat of Malian government forces at the hands of northern rebels last year, writes Barry Lando in the Huffington Post, was “the defection to the rebels of several key Malian officers, who had been trained by the Americans.” This unintended consequence of the US military’s ill-advised training program in the Sahel region helped turn the tide in the rebels’ favor, this argument goes.
This would make sense if most of the US-trained officers in Mali’s armed forces had defected to the rebels. But that’s not the case: Pentagon-sponsored training was provided to a broad cross-section of officers and NCOs in the Malian military, of which the defectors (most of them Tuareg) made up a minority. US-trained personnel fought on both sides of the conflict: at best the effects of their training were canceled out, at worst they were negligible. The problem with the US military’s training program wasn’t that it benefited the wrong people, it’s that it didn’t work. Following exercises in 2009, detailed in Wikileaks, even one of the Malian army’s most elite units got poor evaluations despite lengthy collaboration with US trainers. Whatever “advantage” such collaboration may have provided, it was the last thing the Tuareg — experienced desert fighters — needed to defeat Malian government forces.
Read the rest of Bruce’s article on his blog, Bridges to Bamako.