Where on earth is Mali?


AFRICAN MESS: A tolerant country overtaken by jihadists welcomes outside interference

MOST readers knew where Afghanistan was and at least roughly why it was important, when the United States invasion began in late 2001. Sept 11 was reason enough, but that was only the proximate reason. It was important because of the concept of state, of sovereignty. With the Taliban in effective control, there was an otherwise inviolable huge strategic entity for which the world was its oyster -- that it could poison at will. That had to go.

Not very many readers have ever heard of vast Mali, though now its in the daily news, and for the same reason that Afghanistan was critical in 2001.

But first, something about Mali itself. In my Africa days, I visited about 20 states on the continent; I lost count, but the one that impressed me the most was Mali. Malians never left that aftertaste of wanting something from you -- or stealing it.

Their music is the most beautiful in Africa; I play Mande ballads from hours of it on my iPod almost every day after I'm satiated with Bach. They have always been tolerant, especially with regard to religion, and have persistently fought for democracy.

The coup last year after 20 years of democracy (admittedly shaky but admirable) opened a Pandora's box to ethnic separatists in the vast desert north and jihad-minded groups affiliated with al-Qaeda. It wasn't long before they were burning books in the greatest historical African library, in legendary Timbuktu, whose whole standing came under threat while under rebel control. Not for long.

When I was a doctoral student at Oxford, I spent lots of time in Africa and Paris, where the Malians were the only scholarship students of any seriousness. At dinners, where they insisted on paying their share -- an astonishment since even government ministers in Africa usually wait for the American (student that he was) to pay -- they talked of their own progress in gaining knowledge for Mali's development.

It reminds me now of circles of Grameen loan recipients in Bangladesh giving their weekly reports. Group leaders would press the slackers that funds were limited and were they not to perform at their best, there were others to take their place. No one talked of his sexual prowess in getting a French gal, as neighbouring Senegalese routinely did. In Mali there is a sense of dignity.

Mali is almost the size of France. Its fluid borders with Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso make it strategically significant, especially so thanks to the civil wars or lesser conflicts pervasive in the last 20 years. Half the population is under 15. The specific rule of African interstate relations -- thou shalt not intervene in thy neighbours' affairs -- has been rendered useless by the fluid "transnationalism" of jihad forces. Rest assured that if the rebels gained control, Mali would be a safe haven internationally for jihadists, and in a ripe position to do its work in all the neighbouring countries.

Now there are fortuitous factors at work. The ready availability of nearby Libyan leftover Gaddafi guns did not help. But suddenly in the north syariah was being imposed with a harshness that frightened. Child armies were being recruited forcibly; schools were closed, women routinely raped, and arms cut off for a variety of offences. Malians have always been a people of moderation, whence the universal revulsion across the country of the insurgents' methods.

It does not surprise that Mali has welcomed French forces with open arms -- as American neo-cons so foolishly expected in Baghdad in March 2003. France has maintained an African expeditionary force since the "independence" of most of these countries around 1960. The Tuareg northern nomads have always been restive, but they are a small number -- less than 10 per cent -- compared with the dominant Mande groups that have governed since independence. Jihadists from all over gave them their shot.

It is small wonder that not just nervous neighbours are assembling to help restore stability to Mali. Strategists all over the world have seen how critical it is. For once, a foreign intervention is welcomed heartily by a majority of Mali's people.

The French have never been so popular. Isn't it nice to be on the right side of history with the intended beneficiaries cheering the loudest? And don't forget what Bishop Talleyrand said. Non-intervention "is a metaphysical and political expression which means about the same as intervention." It's never been more true.

W Scott Thompson is emeritus professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, United States

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