By HANNAH ARMSTRONG
The French-led military intervention in Mali in January has turned out to be an unlikely unifier. First, it rallied proponents for action: Russia helped fly in French troops, and China has committed its largest peacekeeping force yet to the U.N. mission that will soon be dispatched. Now, it is uniting the critics.
Earlier this month a meeting in Algiers of civil society groups from around the Sahel region brought together bearded Islamic leaders, turbaned Tuareg ex-rebels and African human rights activists. At one gathering, roughly 100 of them listened in rapture as the Malian globalization critic Aminata Traore, a former minister of culture and tourism, railed against French neocolonialism.
Traore warned that France was supporting a plan to create in northern Mali — which Tuareg rebels seized last year before losing most of the ground to Al Qaeda offshoots — an area with a separate legal status, a kind of Tuareg buffer state against jihadists. This, she argued, would enhance ethnic tensions, dividing and destabilizing Mali.
“The West is manipulating us in the shadows,” she said, claiming that a $4.2 billion package international donors committed for Mali last month was actually aimed at the country’s “subjugation.”
“I had no idea there were women like that in Africa,” said Kemal Chekkat, an Algerian theologian who anchors TV and radio programs on Islam that are broadcast in Algeria as well as several West African and European countries. Chekkat is a member of the League of the Ulemas of the Sahel — an association of sheikhs from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria — that hopes to consolidate regional links among local Muslim leaders and rescue Islam from the bad reputation jihadist groups are giving it.
“What pleased me was that at one point, a barbu sitting next to me said it would be great to have a woman like her in the League,” Chekkat said of a colleague, using the French word for “bearded” in a jokingly derisive way.
Some participants, like Traore, said peace would come through an “African solution”; others called for turning to Allah. Yet all agreed that grassroots initiatives, rather than top-down foreign intervention, are the key to fighting radicalization. Wary of the West’s blemished record in Islamic and African countries, they seemed equally suspicious of the French government’s motives for indefinitely keeping 1,000 troops in Mali.
This convergence of views seemed to suggest the emergence of a kind of regional civil society, with increasing cohesion among various groups — Arab and African, Islamic and secular, patriarchal and feminist — that have had difficulty finding common ground. Despite longstanding tribal and commercial links and a shared history of emancipation against colonialism, the countries of the Sahel — which spans the entire width of Africa — are divided by multiple ethnic, cultural and linguistic fractures.
But how much can this nascent coalition accomplish? Algeria’s own position on intervention in the Sahel illustrates the complexity of protecting local forms of agency from the encroachments of the global war on terrorism.
Algeria, widely known for its legendary fight against colonialism and its commitment to self-determination, was a sound, symbolic choice for hosting a gathering of populist anti-interventionists. Yet the Algerian government has been remarkably placid about the action in Mali.
Memories of its own struggle against extremists — which killed 200,000 people — and fears of rising radicalism partly explain this attitude. But the result is no less problematic.
A government spokesman justified Algeria’s support by saying that Mali had requested the assistance. What he didn’t say was that the government asking for outside help was brand new, the product of a coup last year that toppled a deeply corrupt regime propped up by Western states.
Donors merely create façade democracies, skeptics like Traore argue, masking structural flaws in the countries they claim to be helping. Perpetuating the same problems invites the same responses. During the meeting in Algiers, the Malian journalist Chahana Takiou reminded participants that back in January ordinary Malians had largely supported the French intervention. “African solutions are not viable right now,” he said. “We have no other option but to turn toward the colonizer. And this hurts.”
Hannah Armstrong is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs in the Sahel.