~Charlie Marlow from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness'
The vision that Conrad's character Marlow describes is of a French frigate firing broadsides into a vast African jungle, in essence, bombarding a continent. That image came to mind this week when French Mirages and helicopter gunships went into action against a motley army of Islamic insurgents in Mali.
That there is a surge of instability in that land-locked and largely desert country should hardly come as a surprise to the French: they and their allies are largely the cause.
And they were warned.
A little history. On Mar. 17, 2011, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 1973 to "protect civilians" in the Libyan civil war. Two days later, French Mirages began bombing runs on Mummar Gaddafi's armored forces and airfields, thus igniting direct intervention by Britain, along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Resolution 1973 did not authorize NATO and its allies to choose sides in the Libyan civil war, just to protect civilians, and many of those who signed on -- including Russia and China -- assumed that Security Council action would follow standard practice and begin by first exploring a political solution. But the only kind of "solution" that anti-Gaddafi alliance was interested in was the kind delivered by 500 lb. laser-guided bombs.
The day after the French attack, the African Union (AU) held an emergency session in Mauritania in an effort to stop the fighting. The AU was deeply worried that, if Libya collapsed without a post-Gaddafi plan in place, it might destabilize other countries in the region. They were particularly concerned that Libya's vast arms storehouse might end up fueling local wars in other parts of Africa.
However, no one in Washington, Paris or London paid the AU any mind, and seven months after France launched its attacks, Libya imploded into its current status as a failed state. Within two months, Tuaregs -- armed with Gaddafi's weapons' cache -- rose up and drove the corrupt and ineffectual Malian Army out of Northern Mali.
The Tuaregs are desert people, related to the Berbers that populate North Africa's Atlas Mountain range. They have fought four wars with the Malian government since the country was freed from France in 1960, and many Tuaregs want to form their own country, "Azawed." But the simmering discontent in northern Mali is not limited to the Tuaregs. Other ethnic groups are angered over the south's studied neglect of all the people in the country's north.
The Tuaregs are also currently fighting the French over uranium mining in Niger.
The Gaddafi government had long supported the Tuareg's demands for greater self-rule, and many Tuareg's served in the Libyan Army. Is anyone surprised that those Tuareg's looted Libyan arms depots when the central government collapsed? And, once they had all that fancy firepower that they would put it to use in an effort to carve out a country of their own?
The Tuareg's are nomads and had little interest in holding on to towns like Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali, and after smashing up the Mali Army, they went back into the desert. Into the vacuum created by the rout of the Malian Army flowed Islamic groups like Ansar-al-Din, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It is these latter organizations that the French are bombing, although reports are that civilians are getting caught in the crossfire.
The U.S. is also involved. According to Democracy Now, the Obama administration is moving French troops and equipment into the area, and deploying surveillance drones. And with the war spreading into Algeria, where almost two-dozen westerners, including several Americans, were kidnapped in retaliation for the French attacks in Mali, the U.S may end up with boots on the ground.
Why are the French once again firing into a continent?
First, France has major investments in Niger and Mali. At bottom, this is about Francs (or Euros, as it may be). Some 75 percent of France's energy needs come from nuclear power, and a cheap source is its old colonial empire in the region (that besides Mali and Niger included Senegal, Mauritania, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Chad, Algeria, and the Central African Republic). Most of its nuclear fuel comes from Niger, but Al Jezeera reports that French uranium, oil and gold companies are lining up to develop northern Mali. Lest one think that this "development" is good for the locals, consider that, according to the UN's Human Development Index, Niger is the third poorest country in the world.
There are other issues as well.