Mali has turned into a warzone since the NATO-led destabilisation of Libya in 2011. The intervention there helped to bolster extremism throughout the region. And Mali has become a key battleground. But now, amid another military coup, the presence of Western soldiers is coming under increasing scrutiny.
The country has very high levels of inequality. This is despite it being the third-biggest producer of gold in Africa and potentially sitting on large amounts of oil. Malian workers hit the streets in a massive general strike just before the latest coup.
Mali was one of the countries that most increased its military spending in 2020; and its arms imports have skyrocketed in recent years. The UK has approved at least £6.3m-worth of arms-export licences to the country since 2011.
Chaos and intervention in northern Africa
As Declassified UK explains, Mali “has been rocked by civil war and terrorism since the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011”. The latter sought to end Muammar Gaddafi’s secular rule of the country with “Africa’s largest proven oil reserves”. As part of this campaign, Declassified‘s Mark Curtis says, Britain forged a “secret alliance with radical Islamist elements”. It also backed its Qatari allies’ massive transfer of money and arms to anti-Gaddafi forces.
As Foreign Policy writes:
The ensuing chaos provided a boost to the region’s insurgents and Islamist extremists, particularly in Mali…
Extremists took power in northern Mali after a coup left a power vaccum. Then, former colonial ruler France got involved. Its intervention soon became ‘Operation Barkhane’, expanding into neighbouring countries and involving thousands of French troops. France would also get support from its allies in both the US and the UK.
Declassified UK claims Mali is one of the numerous covert wars Britain is spending billions of pounds on. In late 2020, the UK sent 300 troops as part of the billion-dollar UN peacekeeping mission there.
Protests and coups in Mali
Different Malian groups signed a peace agreement in 2015. This excluded the extremists with links to al-Qaeda and Daesh (IS/Isis), who continue fighting today. There has reportedly been poor progress since this peace deal.
France, meanwhile, has faced accusations of killing dozens of civilians in Mali. Human rights groups have accused Malian soldiers of numerous abuses too. In 2020 alone, Human Rights Watch said, “over 40,000 civilians fled their homes as a result of violence” and the UN “reported that at least 185 children were killed due to communal violence, crossfire, or improvised explosive devices”. As India’s Frontline notes, “almost a million Malians have been made homeless since 2012 and more than 6,000 killed”.
In 2020, a military coup got rid of a president who had faced opposition due to corruption, failure to end the country’s war, and the murder of protesters. There have since been protests against France’s ongoing presence in Mali. And as workers led a general strike for better pay in May 2021, the military launched another (less popular) coup. The coup leader blamed the interim government for the unrest.
Western presence in Mali in the future
Since the latest coup, France has conditioned future operations with the Malian military on electoral commitments and a pledge to avoid dialogue with extremist forces. The NATO country is also seeking to wind down its war there by attracting greater involvement from its allies. But there seems to be very little hunger for more Western boots on the ground abroad.
Addressing the conflict’s roots should now be front and centre. Exclusion and discrimination, as people in northern Mali have long felt, often push people to violence. Persisting economic injustice and inequality also play a big role. And as extremist conflicts continue to spread in northern Africa, people in the West must demand that their countries’ governments devote less attention to perpetuating war abroad and more to fixing the problems that cause it.