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Nii Akuetteh: Why did US trained officers organize the coup in Mali?

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

If in Africa, the conflict in Mali is one of the most intense and perhaps most dangerous. Now joining us to talk about what’s going on in Mali is Nii Akuetteh. He’s an independent analyst of African international affairs. He writes often in Pambazuka News. He was former executive director of Africa Action, was a professor of African studies at Georgetown University. Thanks for joining us again, Nii.


JAY: So give us the basic, again, historical context of Mali, and then get into what the current conflict is.

AKUETTEH: Certainly. Mali is a big country in West Africa. It’s 15 million people. Most of them are in the south of the country, but the larger territorial portion of Mali is the northern part. But it extends into the heart of the Sahara, the biggest desert in the world, and therefore, because it’s a desert terrain, there isn’t—few of the people live there. It borders several African countries, but the key ones would be Algeria and Niger and Burkina Faso, because it shares the Sahara Desert with those countries.

The big issue—there are a couple of big issues that have led to the recent problems. The people who live in the northern segment, one of the ethnic groups there are the Tuaregs. They had been fighting against the central government, which is where the capitalists were in the south, in Bamako. And, of course, like practically all African countries, you’ve got many different ethnic groups.

So the Tuaregs, who are a desert people, light-skinned, they have been pushing to—initially, to autonomy, going all the way back. Now, Mali was a colony of the French, and they got independence in 1960. In 1958, before independence, the Tuaregs had been lobbying the French, saying that they did not want to live under a government of the darker peoples in the south. Ever since then they have been pushing and fighting sporadically. It has flared into wars maybe three or four times. And then last January—fast forward to three months ago, January 17—the Tuaregs started their most serious war. And this time they said they weren’t going for autonomy, they wanted independence. And they started fighting greatly against the government in the south.

Now, one of the most interesting reasons why this time the fight is so intense and has been harder to contend for the government is that Bamako, the—. Mali borders Algeria, but right after the Algeria border is the border with Libya. And every analyst says that the Tuaregs had gone into Libya, fought for Gaddafi. When Gaddafi fell, about 2,000 of them trooped back into Mali hardened fighters with big, sophisticated weapons. And so what happened was that they were winning the war in northern Mali, and then the other big event that happened was that the soldiers of the national government in Mali were very unhappy with their president, a president called Amadou Toumani Touré, who had a good reputation because he had pushed democracy—and I had actually had the fortune of meeting, and I have good opinion of him. But his soldiers were very unhappy because, they said, he wasn’t fighting the war effectively. So last month, March 22, they overthrew him because they said he was weak.

JAY: And what did that really mean when they say he was weak and not effective? I mean, did the army wanted to be more brutal against the north? Or what does that mean?

AKUETTEH: Well, yes, they wanted the war prosecuted more effectively, basically because in the face-to-face confrontation, the army, the Malian army, lost to the Tuaregs. In several battles they lost a few small settlements and towns. But also the word got back that the Malian soldiers, who were complaining that they didn’t have equipment—and apparently a number of them were captured and their throats were slit. So it became a big issue in the capital, in Bamako. Many women marched, saying that the president was allowing their husbands to be killed defenselessly. So there was animosity in the general populace. But I’ll emphasize again that my own opinion of the president is pretty good. And this was in March.

Now, he had scheduled elections for this month. It would have been April 29 when there will be elections. And he was not standing, because being a good democratic president, he was not standing; he was handing over. But these soldiers, junior soldiers, overthrew him.

And here is the worst part from my point of view. Within ten days of overthrowing him, the Tuaregs won the entire north. Now, so people who are saying that they didn’t—the war was being fought badly and they wanted to take over and fight the war better, they actually lost very quickly. And therefore the Tuaregs actually declared the north of Mali as an independent state. They call it Azawad. So now Mali has been split.

From my point of view, the good thing is that no country internationally likes this declaration of independence. Nobody has recognized—not the U.S., not the Security Council, not the Europeans, and certainly not the Africans. So the African Union, which is the continental body, as well as ECOWAS, a regional body in West Africa, they pushed back very hard against both the Tuaregs declaring a new state and against the junior soldiers in Bamako who are taking over. They are led by a captain called Captain Amadou Sanogo.

Now, the interesting thing about him are two things. Number one, he was trained by the United States. Since 2004, he had been to the U.S. for four cycles of training. He took over. And one of the things that dismays me is that if you look at the State Department spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, over and over he has made statements that seem to say that, well, we understand the soldiers; they had grievances. And to me this is very shocking, because the U.S. [incompr.] the language of democracy. The Africans and the West Africans have all said that the era of coups is over, no soldier should take over. If a soldier is unhappy with his president, he can complain through channels, and if the worst comes to the worst, he can run for office. So the two—you’ve got junior soldiers who have taken over and therefore lost the north of the country. The West Africans try hard to push them back.

JAY: Explain a bit about the elites in control in each place. Like, start with the north. What kind—they call Awaz—if I saying it correctly—Azawad. What kind of society do they want to build? Who’s running that show?

AKUETTEH: I think that’s a great question, because right now, over the decades, when the Tuaregs have been fighting, they seem to—the face of the rebellion. But since they took over and on April 6 declared their new state of Azawad, it’s clear that they are not in control. The few journalists who have made it there—and Al Jazeera has been one of them, and they have had people talking on camera—it turns out that you have got the Tuareg group who declared Azawad, sort of the political leadership, and their group is called the MNLA. But in addition you’ve got a jihadist group, AQIM, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, who actually likely came from Algeria. But the two countries share their border, and this is the middle of the desert, so it’s not clear where the border is. They have shown up. And, in fact, that is America’s great concern. So they are worried about those. But now another group broke out from the Islamic group, and they said, rather than attacking the West, what they want to do is impose sharia in the north.

So the Tuaregs who took over, it’s clear they are not in full control. They’ve made alliances with Ansar Dine, the group that wants to impose sharia. But there also the jihadists who basically just want to fight the West and fight the United States. So what they have done, even though they’ve declared a country, you’ve got—it’s not clear who is in control. There is no real control. And it’s a huge area, and it is desert.

The other thing is that three, four years ago, the U.S. had made Mali a major partner. AFRICOM, the United States Africa Command, they had targeted Mali, and they had actually made Mali a very close partner, so—because of the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to help them fight. And so one of the most interesting thing is that when the Tuaregs started attacking Mali again in January, AFRICOM sat on its hands. And this was very intriguing and very disturbing that they sort of turned their backs on the government in Bamako.

And the other criticism that people have thrown out is that, you know, the U.S. got involved in Libya. Everybody knew that weapons were flowing everywhere. And the fact that thousands of—at least hundreds of—I mean, fighters from Libya who get all the way into Mali, and the U.S. would not see them, it is—it raises questions. And when you add to the fact the soldiers who took over were trained in the U.S. and that some State Department officials have been saying, well, they have grievances—all of which makes it extremely suspicious when you look at it. And at the end of the day, it’s not even in U.S. interests that the Tuaregs have taken over, because, as we said, the Islamic groups who are anti-American and make no bones about it, they are now showing their faces. We can see them clearly, and they have taken over. They are showing their flags. And some of them are telling women to put on a hijab and headscarves and all the kinds of sharia and Islamic law things. So what has happened in Mali is so dangerous for Mali itself. But because of its border—.

And finally, Paul, if I might add this, one way to look at the Tuaregs: to think of the Tuaregs in Mali like the Kurds in the Middle East. They are a desert people who move around, and so they are in several countries. And so the neighboring countries are very worried that if the Tuaregs in Mali can take over and declare their own country, it will give ideas to the Tuaregs in Algeria, and especially the Tuaregs in Niger.

JAY: Okay. When you say it’s very suspicious, I mean, it sounds like you’re suggesting that in terms of establishing AFRICOM in Mali, the U.S. kind of wanted to get rid of this president and maybe didn’t mind if the north was taken over, at least for a while, in order to create a situation—is that what you’re suggesting?—where the military, what, takes control. And, like, when you say “suspicious”, what are you suspicious of?

AKUETTEH: Yes, here is what I’m suspicious of. First of all, I mean, all of it doesn’t make good sense to me, because it seems to me U.S. interests, what has happened, on the one hand, you see them doing things both by omission and commission that do make me suspicious. And one is that how is it that they didn’t keep better eyes on the weapons and fighters flowing into the north? Secondly, how can officials in the State Department be talking about what they’ve called grievances, that the soldiers who took over had grievances?

And then here is a man who was trained here in the United States. And when we look at the U.S. record in Latin America, the School of the Americas had a habit of training soldiers. They go back and they overthrew their governments. In terms of this president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who was overthrown and then was forced to sign over the few remaining weeks of his presidency—. And now, by the way, I’m relieved that he has left Mali and is now—the last we heard, he’s safe in Senegal. He was a close friend of the United States. But in recent months, it looks like some something might happened, and the United States were not too happy with him, because you haven’t seen the kind of support that you would expect a strong American ally to get if he was under attack. This is what makes me suspicious that they did not support somebody who had been a close ally of theirs in fighting al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

JAY: Just finally, what is the overall interest here in Mali in terms of resources or geopolitics? What’s at stake?

AKUETTEH: I think it is, number one, security, because it’s a border area shared by many countries. And, of course, security from the U.S. point of view is dealing with al-Qaeda. And you do have an al-Qaeda group in that area called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. So those security [incompr.] have been important to the U.S., and not just the U.S., but Western Europe, too, because the groups have been kidnapping Westerners and holding them to ransom. And, of course, the U.S. would like to contain them before they plan anything that arrives in the United States. So security is important.

There is also a question of drug-running, because recently we know that drug runners from Latin America have gone through West Africa, through the Sahara Desert, to get to Europe. And Mali’s right in the middle of that path. There have been such instances. Now, of course, some people have also said there’s prospecting for oil and gold in the area. So those are also issues. But from my reading, I think that security issue is number one.

JAY: But the U.S. does have an objective to strengthen AFRICOM’s presence in Mali.

AKUETTEH: Absolutely they do, although that is something that some of us objected to, saying that the best way to fight even, quote, “terrorists” and the war on terror was not to arm African countries to go after the terrorists, but to deal with local grievances. You have the breakup of Mali, you have the coup in Bamako, and then you have the issues of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and sharia in the north, and you have the bordering countries very worried about it. So I think it’s a very dangerous situation.

JAY: Thank you very much for joining us, Nii.

AKUETTEH: Pleasure.

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


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Nii Akuetteh is an independent analyst of African & international affairs, seen regularly on Al Jazeera and many other global TV outlets and published frequently, especially by Pambazuka News. He is the former Executive Director of Africa Action, and he was a professor of African Studies at Georgetown University.