What is the role of imperialism in Mali’s crisis?
On March 22, a month prior to the scheduled presidential election and following an offensive by separatist Tuareg rebels in the north, a military coup in Mali toppled the government of President Amadou Toumani Touré. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States immediately demanded that coup leaders restore civilian rule and threatened diplomatic and trade sanctions. On March 26, the United States cut off all military aid to Mali.
In examining the current political crisis in Mali, it is important to consider the rising opposition of the Malian people to the selling off of their lands, resources and public enterprises to multinational corporations.
Oumar Mariko, the secretary general of the left-wing party African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence, 2012 presidential candidate and rural Kolondieba’s parliamentary representative, is among those praising the coup. Over the past decade, he has opposed neoliberal reforms—particularly the privatization of public companies—in the name of Malian workers, students and peasants. And the peasants’ Syndicate, with its motto of “Land, Work, Dignity,” has asked the junta to pursue four goals: restore the ideals of 1991’s pro-democracy movement, manage the crisis in the country’s north, fight corruption, and work to restore expropriated lands.
Other Malians who have been steadfast supporters of democracy have tolerated the military junta, some even supporting it. On March 28, demonstrators came out in Bamako, Mali’s capital city, in support of the National Committee for Recovering Democracy and Restoring the State (the name chosen by the junta). Demonstrators expressed a range of socio-economic and political messages.
Malians oppose neoliberalism
On March 30, Muslim and Christian religious leaders called Malians to the central stadium of Bamako, for a “meeting on peace,” in order to “put aside differences and save Mali.” The basis of the call to unity was opposition to neoliberalism, which has ravaged democratic institutions in Mali.
Neoliberalism, characterized by the rule of the market, emphasizes the unfettered movement of capital, champions government deregulation and erodes workers’ rights, environmental protections and social safety nets. Neoliberalism promotes the selling of state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors.
Mali’s economy is driven by subsistence farming and the export of cotton. The second-largest producer in Africa after Egypt, Mali depends on cotton for its survival. Half of its export revenues come from cotton. More than 3.2 million Malians, 40 percent of the country’s rural population, depend on the crop for their livelihoods. The Malian Company for the Development of Textiles (CMDT) buys cotton from subsistence farmers and sells it abroad. Cotton prices are running at a 15-year high partly due to floods earlier this year, but global profits override the needs of the people.
Mali ranks 160 out of 169 on the United Nations Development Index. Life expectancy is only 49 years. Mali is one of Africa’s largest but least populated countries. Despite the country being rich in deposits of gold, phosphates, kaolin and salt, its people have an average annual per capita purchasing power of just $1,300.
Less than 4 percent of Mali’s land is capable of growing irrigated crops. It has the world’s third highest birth rate and the third highest infant mortality rate. Just 56 percent of its people have access to decent drinking water, and the whole population faces a high risk of contracting malaria and waterborne diseases. Less than half the population can read and write, with few receiving more than an elementary school education. One particular legacy of colonialism is the desperately poor condition of the people of the Tuareg nation, who along with Moors make up about 10 percent of the population.
In August 2008, Mali’s legislature voted to sell off the state’s 60 percent share in the CMDT. In 2010, the Malian government divided the company into four subsidiaries to pave the way for privatization. In November 2011, Malian peasants met in the southern village of Nyéléni at an international conference to protest land sales to foreign interests. Other participants came from 30 countries, reflecting the international scope of the land grabs.
At the conference, Ibrahim Coulibaly, of the National Confederation of Peasant Organizations, stated: “We have seen an increase in land grabbing. Just in Mali alone the government has committed to give 800,000 hectares to business investors. But these lands are not empty! People may not have legal titles, but they have been there for generations, even centuries.”
By December 2010, the government in Bamako had negotiated the lease of more than half a million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47 acres) of Malian land to foreign investors, with nearly half of the land targeted for the production of biofuels. Shifting land away from food production threatens the country’s goal of agricultural self-sufficiency and threatens the urban food markets that rely on the countryside.
Runaway privatization has hit other sectors of the economy, including the railroad, telecommunications, utilities, gold mines and vegetable oil factories. The result has been cost-cutting, stagnant wages, layoffs and growing discontent and protests. But the government has ignored workers’ voices, and labor leaders have been fired and sometimes imprisoned.
Tuareg separatist rebellion in north
The United States and the European Union condemned the March 22 coup, and the ECOWAS imposed economic and diplomatic sanctions as Tuareg rebels seized control of northern Mali declaring the independence of the Azawad region.
The Tuareg separatist rebellion began in the early 1990s. Tuaregs are a nomadic people numbering about 2 million and are the historic inhabitants of the Sahel region in an area stretching across Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
A key interest of the United States and the European Union is uranium, which is of strategic importance as documented in the 2010 “Critical Raw Materials for the EU” and the U.S. Department of Energy 2010 paper entitled “Critical Mineral Strategy.”
Since colonial times, the West has exploited ethnic differences in Africa for political gain. The United States and the European Union use their influence to weaken African states and often nurture the emergence of breakaway states like South Sudan. Even when they do not openly support breakaway states, like the newly declared Azawad, they use the conflict as a pretext for intervention.
For example, the activities of Somalia’s al Shabaab and Nigeria’s Boko Haram offered a pretext for further U.S. involvement in regional affairs. At an AFRICOM conference held at Fort McNair on Feb. 18, 2008, U.S. Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller openly declared the guiding principle of AFRICOM was to protect “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market.”
The Obama administration seeks to expand U.S. military activities on the continent even further. In its 2011 Fiscal Year budget request for security assistance programs for Africa, the administration sought $38 million for the Foreign Military Financing program to pay for U.S. arms sales to African countries. The administration also sought $21 million for the International Military Education and Training Program to bring African military officers to the United States and $24.4 million for Anti-Terrorism Assistance programs in Africa.
Mali, like most nations on the continent of Africa, is facing three interlocking crises: a crisis of development, a crisis of nationality and a crisis in the realm of sovereignty. To understand these issues, we need not just to examine the facts but to firmly grasp the underlying causes of these crises. They can be boiled down to one word: imperialism. Africa is at a vital crossroads. The question looming is whether a new wave of foreign exploitation aided by comprador capitalism—domestic capitalism structured in the interests of imperialism—will cripple the continent for another century.
The United States and European powers are responsible for the genocidal slave trade that decimated Africa, the genocide of the Indigenous population of the Americas, and the colonial wars and occupations that looted three-quarters of the globe. But the devastation Africa suffers today is not solely the legacy of colonialism in the past.
The current political situation in Mali is the direct consequence of a systematic global mandate that dispenses its political, economic and military power through numerous bodies, including the United Nations and its Security Council, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other imperialist-dominated institutions. These leading bodies effectively preside over the entire world and make unilateral decisions solely for the preservation of finance capital and the furtherance of profit at the expense of humanity.
But as history demonstrates, the Malian people, like other oppressed peoples, continue to wage a struggle for independence against the plunder of their resources and the domination of their political system by the imperialists.