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Emira Woods: The French have violated the UN resolution as they defend their resource interests; Africans want a comprehensive aid and political package for Northern Mali

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

France is sending more forces to Mali as the anticolonial forces (as many of them describe themselves) are pushing further south. The forces are made up of the Tuareg people and various extremists, some people say. Others call them militant Islamists or Jihadists. But one way or another, there are many outside forces either intervening in Mali or poised to do so.

Now joining us to talk about how we got here is Emira Woods. She’s codirector of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Ms. Woods is chair of the board of Africa Action and serves on the board of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. She’s also a member of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, Africa Council. And between 1992 and ’99 she worked for Oxfam, where she traveled around Africa extensively and spent a lot of time in Mali.

Thanks for joining us.

EMIRA WOODS, CODIRECTOR, FOREIGN POLICY IN FOCUS, IPS: A pleasure to be with you. Thanks for having me.

JAY: So give us a little bit of context, first of all. I know you can’t do the whole history of Mali in two minutes. But as quickly as you can, how did we get here?

WOODS: Well, the history for me begins centuries back. So the quick version is, you know, Mali has been the center of Islamic thought, of learning. It was the site of one of the oldest universities, Timbuktu, one of the oldest libraries in the world. You know, these centers of learning predated Harvard and Cambridge and Oxford. You know, Mali has been at the center not only of African life, but really of the world, in many ways, for centuries.

I think we have to understand, though, that Mali is—what’s happening in Mali is the direct result of an international intervention in Libya. The ousting of Muammar Gaddafi essentially unleashed these unintended consequences, where you had weapons flowing from Libya, weapons that—some of which were part of Gaddafi’s caches. Others were weapons brought by NATO and the NATO forces. But these weapons flowed from Libya across boarders, from Algeria into Mali, creating a real crisis situation, where longtime challenges in terms of the political process, the internal political process in Mali, where the northern part of the country, from the days of colonialism, the northern part was seen as marginalized economically, not enough development, marginalized politically, without sufficient political access. The north had been clamoring for greater rights, greater sovereignty, really, for decades, since the ’60s, or some say since the turn of the 20th century.

So I think in the midst of this ongoing conflict for self-determination and greater rights of the north, you enter these weapons, the heavy flow of weapons from Libya. And it’s just been a recipe for disaster.

So what happened? March 2012, you had a coup, essentially, launched by a U.S.-trained military officer, you know, Sanogo, who had come to the U.S. reportedly seven times in the last eight years, essentially launching a military coup one month before the elections in Mali, supposedly because there was a sense that the Malian government was not handling well the crisis in the north with this inflow of weapons coming forward. So the army launched a coup, and launched then a series of coups and countercoups that have gone on, really, since March, as recent as this past December. So what you have is a political crisis in Mali that’s now exacerbated by this heavy flow of weapons into the region.

JAY: Is there any suggestion that this coup, there was some American interest to have this coup? ‘Cause I thought the president that was overthrown by the coup was very friendly to the United States.

WOODS: Well, yes, the president did have relations, friendly relations with the U.S. But also you have a military that’s been armed and trained by the U.S. now for quite some time. And so that military takes the weapons and the training from U.S. taxpayer dollars and decides that they can do it better, and essentially skirts the democratic process and takes over power. So I think you have a political crisis that has now been exacerbated by a deteriorating security crisis in the north because of the massive inflow of weapons.

And so enter this situation now the French essentially deciding that the UN, which passed a Security Council resolution, you know, 20-85 back in December authorizing an African-led military intervention, coupled with political intervention to get at the root causes of the crisis—but the French essentially decided that the UN process, the UN sanction process was not happening in a fast enough clip and that they could take more direct action more quickly. So the French back a week ago or so, back on Friday, launched a military intervention, airstrikes in Northern Mali, and that has been followed by ground forces there from the French moving steadily throughout Northern Mali.

I think what we have to recognize is that, you know, often military intervention breeds greater challenges, unintended consequences. And so what we have created now is a situation where, you know, all the challenges internal to Mali have been exacerbated by people, extremists, coming—many foreign fighters coming from other countries into Mali to unseat the French, to offset Western colonial powers, and to assert their own image of what Mali should look like for the future. I think it is not only dangerous for Mali, but also for the neighboring countries, countries like Algeria that has now seen hostages taken at oil installations because of this, now, desire to combat the French and to stop the interventionists from the West.

JAY: Now, France has essentially violated the UN resolution, right? The UN resolution was quite specific: this needed to be an African force led by Africans. And that’s not what’s happening.

WOODS: Well, this is the thing. France essentially went to the UN to try to brief the UN, but there has been no new Security Council resolution. So what stands is the resolution passed, which calls for an Africa-led force. I think it is really important to underscore that the regional body the Economic Community of West African States echo us, as well as the African Union, have been calling for a comprehensive package.

Let’s not look to the military solution as the answer here. What will be needed for long-term peace and stability in Mali is a comprehensive package that pays attention to the underlying political crisis that created the situation that has unfolded in Mali.

But we also have a humanitarian crisis. Over 200,000 people have been forced out of their homes because of the conflicts in the northern part of Mali. And in addition to that, you have reports that just since Friday, in less than a week, 30,000 more people have been forced out of their homes, out of their communities. So you have a real humanitarian crisis that also needs attention from the international community.

So the regional bodies were essentially calling for a comprehensive package, and yet the focus of the international—particularly the French action now, is on sort of this military intervention.

JAY: Now, France is saying that the government of Mali is—be it what it is, asked them to come in. I mean, is that what we understand?

WOODS: Well, this is what France has said. I think we have to understand that this is a government that came to power by a coup, and, you know, the U.S. in particular has said explicitly that they cannot support particularly the government in Mali officially, because it is a government that came to power by coup.

So I think we have to question, really, the legitimacy of the government and understand that a government that comes to power through a coup that has—and led a series of coups and countercoups and ousted a civilian prime minister just as recent as December, that government is really lacking credibility in quite a number of ways. And so whether or not they have the credibility to call in the French, I think, is still up for discussion.

JAY: Okay. So the other argument we’re hearing from France and in the mass media is that the troops from the north, the insurgents from the north, were heading south and, you know, getting towards the capital, and that there was a lot of foreigners there, including French citizens and others, and that if the French didn’t move in quickly, you know, people’s lives would be in jeopardy, and that the African countries that were supposed to be putting together this force hadn’t acted quickly enough. What do you make of all of that?

WOODS: Well, I think, you know, there is always justification to push the military option as the first response, as opposed to a last resort. And I think what you have here is really a French justification for their actions. I think it is important to underscore that military actions will not bring resolution to the crisis in Mali.

I think there needs to be comprehensive efforts to address the root cause of this crisis, which is the marginalization of the North, people of the North feeling completely isolated politically and economically. I think we have to underscore that, you know, this is a region that is rich in gold, in oil, with oil exploration very actively underway throughout the region. It is also a region where land has been expropriated in what many call land grabs, you know, with land being taken by international investors for biofuels production.

So there are many underlying issues that have to be addressed to be able to get at the root causes of this conflict. And the military intervention, instead of addressing these multiple layers of challenges, the military intervention is actually going to exacerbate tensions, creating, really, a space where extremists from many different countries now, not only from Mali but from throughout the region, and even outside the region, are now anxious to get to Mali, to pick up arms to fight the colonial power, to fight the French. [snip] to continue to see the situation deteriorate because of this action.

JAY: Some people might call the French extremist. But there’s a question I have is: why is France willing or interested to do this? Where does this interest lie? I mean, there’s every reason to think that this is going to be a quagmire for them.

WOODS: Without a doubt. And I think, you know, many are really surprised to see a socialist government in France taking this action. You know? And there was a hope that the change in leadership in France would bring a different foreign policy. But unfortunately, you know, there is still this push towards foreign policy that’s set by more short-term, very narrowly defined strategic, quote-unquote, interests without looking at the longer-term relationships that need to develop to build a mutually beneficial set of policies that not only will benefit Mali and Africa but will bring benefit to the global economy [crosstalk]

JAY: Do you think this has to do with French interest in Libya? I mean, France led the charge to overthrow Gaddafi in Libya. There was a big conflict over oil issues. And especially we’ve done quite a few stories about the conflict or contradiction between the French and the Russians over who was going to control, through Gazprom versus Total and the Italian company Eni. I mean, are they worried that this Northern Mali, if it doesn’t get checked by the French, becomes a kind of base that they’re going to wind up having to deal with in Libya?

WOODS: Well, I think we cannot underestimate the role of oil and other vital natural resources. I think it is important to recognize that these are resource-rich countries, and so it isn’t by chance that, you know, there’s militarism, oil and militarism, whether it’s Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria, or Mali, you know, that has this now very rich potential in exploration already underway in terms of its oil. You know. So I think the economic interests of countries, whether it’s France or the United States, particularly interests that are often directed, dictated by big oil companies, I think we cannot underestimate the role of those types of considerations in determining foreign policy.

I think clearly there is this notion of responsibility to protect that was invoked both in Libya and, you know, is also being invoked—to a lesser extent, but also being invoked in Mali, this notion of protecting civilians. But I think what we have to understand is that when there is aerial bombardment, it is often civilians that are paying the heaviest price [crosstalk]

JAY: But what do you say to the people of the South who do not want to be ruled by the people of the North, and if the army in the South is in such disarray, it may not be able to prevent that without some kind of intervention or support?

WOODS: I think we have to—you know, we cannot underestimate the power of political negotiations for longer-lasting peace. And in this instance in Mali what we have seen is that the political process, the negotiations process, has actually brought results. The Tuaregs who initially started with their quest for a separate homeland, a separate state, you know, that would bring all the Tuaregs together from all the neighboring countries, that demand has been dropped largely because of political negotiations where traditional leaders, faith-based leaders, peace activists, are actively trying to bring about a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

And so I think we have to continue to amplify the actions of those that are the true warriors for peace, those that are fighting for a political process that will address the root causes of the conflict and will bring longer-term stability. I think we have to recognize what gains have been made through those processes and continue to demand that those processes be a part of a comprehensive approach by the international community, as well as by the regional actors.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us, Emira.

WOODS: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Emira Woods is a co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Ms. Woods is chair of the Board of Africa Action and serves on the Board of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars. She is also a member of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative Africa Council.