mali french slavery democracy


The Political Ecology of Mali

by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor, 28 January 2013

As French troops rescue Mali from jihadist supremacists, we can ponder how Mali became a human failure, and how future such failures can be prevented.

There was an empire in western Africa from the years 1230 to 1600 called Mali. It extended beyond present-day Mali to the Atlantic Ocean, and it included the famous city Timbuktu. The economy of Mali flourished with trade and gold mining, but also was afflicted with locally generated slavery. Mined gold was delivered to the treasury in exchange for weighed and bagged gold dust that served as money. The long success of Mali was also due to its decentralized self-governance, but its national defense was inadequate. In its last years, military defeats reduced the territory of Mali, and the empire finally broke up into smaller countries.

During the 1800s, France invaded West Africa and established occupied territories that are referred to as “colonies,” although only a few ethnic French people established colonial residency. France created a colony in the land now held by Mali and called it the French Sudan. (The British also held a territory called “Sudan” in east Africa, as “Sudan” refers to the broad region south of the Sahara desert.)

In 1895 France established a federation of its colonial territories called French West Africa, which lasted until 1958. The native Africans were French subjects rather than citizens. After World War II, the French government introduced limited democracy. The governors, however, were appointed by France. With the French Fifth Republic of 1958, the colonies became protectorates with the French Community. Senegal and French Sudan became independent as the Mali Confederation, which in 1961 split up into the countries of Senegal and the Republic of Mali.

Slavery was nominally abolished in Mali after independence, but continues to persist in practice. The descendants of slaves remain de facto property of their masters, and their children can be taken away for servitude.

The newly independent Mali government tossed aside the limited French colonial democracy and became a one-party socialist state that nationalized its major industries. After suffering economic decline, there was a military coup in 1968. The governing elite took much of the wealth while the people remained poor, and there was another coup in 1991. Lieutenant Colonel Touré then arrested the dictator Traoré. A new constitution was written, and in 1992, a new president was elected. Touré himself was elected president in 2002.

The new mass democracy of Mali was a superficial appearance lacking political substance. Mass democracy works badly even in countries with a long established tradition of representative government, as we can see with the fiscal follies of the USA, the European Union, and Japan. When mass voting is transplanted into new political soil, without a strong base of local democracy, the top officials can be replaced by military chiefs supported by troops. Thus, following the failure of the elected government to stop the jihadist-supremacist insurrection in the northern region, there were two military coups in 2012.

The capture of Mali’s northern region by jihadist supremacists has roots in the rebellion in Lybia. Most of the people in Mali’s southern region are racially black African, while in the Subsaharan north, there are Berbers, including the Tuareg people, and Arabs. The Tuaregs have been nomads living in the Sahara and Subsahara, without a country of their own, a situation similar to that of the Kurds in the Middle East.

Tuaregs had been recruited as mercenary soldiers by the Libyan dictator Gadhafi. As Gadhafi’s troops defected during the rebellion of 2011, Gadhafi hired more Tuareg mercenaries. Now faced with a hostile Arab population, the armed Tuaregs fled south, many going to Mali. Frustrated by the lack of political autonomy, the Tuaregs in Mali had rebelled in the 1960s, and were defeated. There was another failed uprising in 1990. In October 2011, the Tuaregs founded the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The Tuareg militia captured territory in northern Mali and declared independence. In April 2012, the MNLA declared the independence of Azawad from Mali, comprising 60 percent of Mali’s land.

Having seceded from Mali, the Tuaregs now ruled other unwilling nationalities, and this inconsistency in seeking autonomy led to further conflict. The MNLA became allied with supremacist jihadists, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, to maintain control and provide a stronger defense against Malian government forces. The jihadist supremacists had been suppressed under Gadhafi, and after the rebellion killed him, the new regime let loose the muhajedin jihadists, who looted the arsenals.

Following the fall of Gadhafi, the jihadists were also able to buy weapons previously held by the Libyan army. The money for the arms came from kidnaping Western tourists for ransom. The strengthened jihadists then ended their alliance with the MNLA and took control of the north. The supremacists imposed their version of Shariah law, including executions, whippings, and amputations.

Fearing an assault on the capital city Bamako, the president of Mali asked the French to help regain control over the north. French president Hollande initiated Operation Serval and sent in troops, which are to be joined by troops from African countries. Like the cat the operation is named after, the French troops are leaping onto their prey, capturing jihadist-held towns. The U.S. military is helping to refuel the French air craft. As this article is being written, French and Mali troops are heading towards Timbuktu.

The human failure in Mali has three deep roots. First is an ethical failure, the failure of both the supremacists and the Mali governmental chiefs to recognize the equal moral worth and self-ownership of all human beings. Second is the political failure of attempting to graft the European model of mass democracy into newly independent countries, a model that is inherently corruptible and unstable. Third is the economic failure to share the natural resources equally while respecting entrepreneurial freedom.

The French and African troops may achieve a military victory, but so long as the Mali government refuses to decentralize political power, and so long as the government chiefs refuse to make the people equal owners of the rents of the country’s resources, and refuse to enact economic freedom, the political and economic troubles will inflame the ethnic and religious tensions. The country will sink to being yet again a French protectorate, rather than rising towards a new Mali Empire of peace, liberty, and prosperity.

-- Fred Foldvary


Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.

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