French imperialism’s quagmire in Africa

Mali conflict
French forces battle Islamic militants in Gao, Mali, in 2013. (Tanya Bindra / EPA)


This is the first in a series of two articles on imperialism in Africa. See Part 2 here:

France began its most recent neocolonial adventure in West Africa in 2013, shortly after a rebellion of ethnic Tuareg tribesmen tied to the National Movement for the Liberation of Awawad (MNLA) seized control of several cities in northern Mali. Seven years later, France remains in the region and has substantially expanded its counterinsurgency operations as Islamic militant activity has proliferated. Violent encounters between insurgents and French troops have resulted in 10,000 deaths and displaced over one million people, according to a New York Times article in March of this year.

At the time of the Tuareg rebellion in early 2012, France24 reported that, while the goals of the MNLA are to establish a secular republic, militants associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) also joined in the fight. Although the rebellion was quashed by French forces, several Islamic militant factions remained active in the area, two of the most prominent being AQIM and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS). In addition to Mali, the insurgency has expanded into several countries of the Sahel region of Africa, including Burkina Faso, Niger, and, according to the Times, “is threatening coastal states including Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.”

Invited by Mali’s government, French troops, most of which are elite Foreign Legion units, helped to suppress the Tuareg rebellion and maintained a presence in Mali’s northern cities. Unlike some counterinsurgency campaigns, the French do not appear to be trying to win hearts and minds and, in fact, avoid interacting with the local population. While language barriers present a challenge for the French, the Times report notes also that locals fear interacting with them out of fear of reprisal from the Islamists. For France, what ostensibly began as a “humanitarian” mission has evolved into a full-fledged counterinsurgency operation.

In what was officially dubbed “Operation Barkhane,” France has teamed up with the United States and the G5 Sahel joint force to assist them in suppressing Islamic militants in West Africa. While the United States has been disengaging from West Africa, recently threatening to withdraw troops and close a $110 million air base, France has committed 5100 troops that are supported by 14,000 UN peacekeepers in Mali to counter the threat posed by the Islamists. France, however, faces a sophisticated coalition of Islamic groups and has failed to prevent Islamist activity from spreading from Mali into neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Niger. Increasingly, Malians view the French forces with suspicion and are calling for them to leave.

Protests in Mali

Earlier this year, as French workers took to the streets to oppose Macron’s pension reform, Malians living in the capital city of Bamako protested the French occupation of their country. Many Malians view the French presence as neocolonialism under the guise of counterterrorism and resent the fact that they are being supported by the government of President Ibrahim Keïta. In fact, on Friday, July 10, massive protests again erupted in Bamako, and much of the people’s ire was directed against President Keïta’s government, who many say has failed to resolve the civil conflict, an ongoing economic crisis, and disputed parliamentary elections.

According to a BBC report, the intensity of the protests, the third since June, caused Keïta to dissolve the constitutional court, which recently issued a ruling that overturned the provisional results of the March elections. Many in the streets of Bamako are calling on the president to resign, as has the opposition coalition that is challenging the election results. Opposition leader Yeah Samaké told the BBC Newshour program, “We are demanding the president to step down because he has failed the people of Mali. … He has not kept his promises of securing the people of Mali, of fighting corruption, of providing jobs for the youth, and these are the demands today of the people of Mali.”

The Islamic groups active in the region have benefitted from the dire situation of many people living there who have been ravaged by neoliberal austerity and climate change. As The Times reports, the Islamist successes in the Sahel stem from popular anger at “hostile, self-interested and corrupt” governments. In an article in Foreign Policy from April of this year, James Blake argues that there are many adverse conditions that are aiding the expansion of militant activity in the Sahel. Extreme poverty, lack of health care, ethnic tensions, and ongoing land disputes represent just a few examples. While these factors have created a more favorable environment for the militants to recruit and find sympathy among the people, Blake’s analysis is largely one dimensional and fails to place the current conflicts in the broader context of Africa’s role in the global capitalist system and the prevailing neoliberal model of development.

The legacy of colonialism

In order to better understand the presence of the French in the Sahel, it’s important to recognize the legacy of French colonialism in the region and how Western imperialism has extended Africa’s underdevelopment in the post-colonial era. In her recent book, “Extracting Profit: Imperialism and the New Scramble for Africa,” Lee Wengraf notes that the neoliberal era began in the late 1970s during a global recession that led to the collapse of commodity prices. In order to fund their governments, African countries—in addition to many other natural resource-dependent developing countries globally—took on high interest loans and allowed international financial institutions (IFIs) such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank to dictate structural adjustment reforms and trade liberalization. The effect, Wengraf notes, “ultimately aimed to drive down national incomes, both to facilitate the repayment of massive Third World debt and to transform the economies of the Global South into ones based on “export-led” strategies—those set up to best serve the market needs of global capital.”

Although shunned by global capital in favor of emerging markets in Asia during the 1980s and ’90s, by the turn of the new millennium, African nations were benefitting from rising world prices for many metals and minerals and received a greater share of the world’s foreign direct investment (FDI), much of which was committed to resource extraction. According to Wengraf, by the year 2000, “primary commodity exports accounted for an astounding 80 percent of African exports.” However, it is important to point out that not all African nations are equal and most of the FDI has been directed to mineral rich countries like Nigeria and South Africa. And even in those nations, neoliberal policies exacerbated economic inequality and underscored the vast wealth disparity in many African nations. Wengraf notes that in South Africa, which along with Nigeria comprise a majority of the industrial growth in sub-Saharan Africa, “more than 40 percent of the population languishes in extreme poverty while the top quarter of the population earns 85% of the country’s wealth.”

Today, former colonial powers Britain and France—along with the United States and China—are competing for contracts throughout the continent to both extract resources and modernize Africa’s transportation and communication infrastructure. Today, French capitalism relies on Africa for a variety of natural resources, but petroleum and uranium ore loom large. Sub-Saharan countries exported petroleum to France at a value in excess of $4 billion. According to its website, the French corporation Total derives 30 percent of its oil production from Africa and is its top retailer with 4200 service stations. The French corporation Areva (now part of Orano Corp.) had a major interest in uranium ore, and owned mines in Niger, which ranks fifth in the world among uranium exporters.

Part of what’s at stake for French imperialism in Mali and throughout sub-Saharan Africa are its access to resources and the political stability it requires to secure its investments in the region. In his Foreign Policy article, Blake writes that the Islamic militants seek to “access ports, control trade, and benefit from the funds generated.” His prescription for addressing the threats to financial interests by Islamic militants is to encourage “better governance, humanitarian aid, and development programs.” But what he advocates is a fiction. Western imperialism has shown no interest in such pursuits, as evidenced by decades of unfulfilled developmental aid to African countries, support for corrupt and brutal political regimes, and IFI-imposed austerity policies that have gutted investments in health care, education, and related social services.

Another challenge for French capital is that investments from China are supplanting its own in its former colonies. China is now Africa’s single largest trade partner and a significant recipient of its resource exports. In the second part of this article, this author will explore China’s interest in Africa, with the objective of examining the role Africa plays in the increasingly competitive drive for profits by the imperialist metropoles in the United States, Europe, and China.  



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