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Nii Akuetteh: France, US, and African Union push resolution for an African led military force to take northern Mali back from militant Islamic forces

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

On Thursday afternoon, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously for an African-led force that would directly intervene in Mali. Now joining us to discuss this decision is Nii Akuetteh. He’s an independent analyst of African international affairs. He writes in Pambazuka News. He was former director, executive director of Africa Action. He was a professor of African studies at Georgetown University. Thanks for joining us, Nii.

NII AKUETTEH, FORMER DIRECTOR, AFRICA ACTION: It’s a pleasure to be back. Thanks for having me.

JAY: So this resolution was unanimously adopted by the Security Council, but it would seem to me in Mali it’s far from unanimous whether people want such an intervention.

AKUETTEH: Well, my reading is that there definitely are pockets of loud-voiced groups that have spoken out against intervention. But I actually think that they are a small minority. The most important of them is the coup-maker, the April coup-maker, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the U.S.-trained captain who organized the coup that has wrecked Mali’s much-admired democracy.

But I do think he’s in the minority, because the northern 60 percent of Mali has been lost since April, when I was last here, and since then, it’s been taken over by both Tuareg secessionists and Islamist extremist groups. At least 50 percent of the population in the north have been pushed out into neighboring countries and into the south. So the northern two-thirds is lost.

And I think most of the people from there, most of West Africa, the African Union—in fact, practically on the African continent, the only one a little bit skeptical is Algeria, but for reasons we can go into later. So I actually think the strong preponderance of opinion is that intervention needs to be seriously considered and planned. If the occupiers of the north come to their senses and want to talk and seriously engage in discussion, that’s fine. But it seems to me—I mean, I don’t see any way of trusting them.

JAY: But the people that represent the Mali army, I know they engineered a coup. On the other hand, they are the army of Mali. My understanding is they’re saying they want to go wage this fight. They could use some support, arms and financing, but they don’t want foreign soldiers coming in. What’s wrong with that?

AKUETTEH: Well, whether they have asked for and they—their acting president—I mean, I think you are right that we have to focus on the Malian army. But because they have a reconstituted government, the chain of command goes through the president, and they have more or less signed on it.

And the part of it is the Malian army collapsed in April, and therefore they have to be rebuilt, because they were a bigger army, and they still lost to only the Tuaregs. And now for them to go back and retake the north, nobody thinks they can do it unless there is a lot of serious reconstitution and training of the army. And part of that will involve the West African contingent troops, about 35,000 troops, which the Security Council just approved.

So I think the elements in the Malian army who are saying they don’t want it, really I think they have people under the gun. They’ve been brutalizing people. They don’t want a bigger force that can challenge them, because right now they practically do whatever they want around Bamako, and they’ve committed a whole lot of atrocities.

If I might mention quickly, the other important news item today on Mali to me is Human Rights Watch released a story, I mean, a report, their latest report, which talks about a lot of the atrocities committed on the ground, as well as other tensions between different militias and ethnic groups.

So the army in Mali is a big question mark. Definitely there are people there who don’t want the intervention because they don’t want a stronger force more or less put in the corner.

JAY: Nii, why isn’t this simply an internal affair of Mali? What has it got to do with United Nations, or even neighboring African countries, to get involved in this?

AKUETTEH: I think that is such a great question. In fact, the answer is that a good way—and this is my term—I call the Mali problem a contagion. There are many aspects, from democracy to occupation, to environmental disaster in the north. But I think all those you can look at, it’s affecting Mali.

But they cast a huge shadow on the region for three very good reasons. The Tuaregs who started all this back in January in their fourth cycle of secession war, they are—reminds me of the Kurds in the Middle East, because they are in three other countries and they want a country of their own based on ethnicity. So there is the danger that if they do this in Mali, Tuaregs in Algeria and Tuaregs in Niger can also get ideas.

Also, this was triggered by Tuaregs who had fought for Gaddafi and moved in. So this crosses boundaries.

And the most important piece, then, is that besides the Tuaregs, those now, in fact, their former allies, who pushed them aside and are really controlling the north, are three Islamist groups: AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Ansar Dine, and MUJAO. And all of them have made very clear that in northern Mali and neighboring African countries, they don’t recognize borders or sovereignty. They want to set up Islamic rule. But their real goal, then, is to go after France and the United States.

So I actually think that it is important to stress that what we talk about, while it is devastating Mali, it’s actually a big African and international problem.

JAY: That may be the case, but aren’t the Tuaregs—they’re natives of Mali. That’s their territory. I mean, in a sense, don’t they have some right to secede? I guess what I’m getting at is this idea that because there’s Islamists or extreme Islamists, it kind of justifies getting rid of international law or the kind of norms about when people intervene and don’t intervene. Again, my question is, this seems to be mostly amongst Malians, these differences.

AKUETTEH: Actually—and I am saying that yes, the Tuareg community, as—you know, it depends on the term one wants to use. If one wants to call them an ethnic group or even a nation in the European sense, it’s a culture and a community. But they are spread in three countries. In fact, the current prime minister of Niger to the east of Mali is an ethnic Tuareg. So there are Tuaregs in Algeria, there are Tuaregs in Mali, there are Tuaregs in Niger, and they have tried to fight each of those countries to say that they want to secede and form their own country. So it’s not just a Mali problem.

Also, I actually think that the Africans or West Africans are extremely concerned. But the point you raise is a good one, making sure that international law is not violated. And so this is why they’ve gone through the United Nations. This recent war started in January.

Actually, my concern is for 12 months Mali has been devastated. Sixty percent of the territory has been lost. And to me, the UN has really been twiddling its thumb. It hasn’t been moving fast enough.

One last point. In the north it is not just the Tuaregs. The Tuaregs actually happen to be less than 5 percent of the population of Mali. Even in the north, in the desert area, Sahara Desert area, there are about five other ethnic groups—the [pIl], the Arabs, the Songhai. And so, you know, the Tuaregs get a lot of attention, but it’s really a very [mIsk@n’tEnS@l] situation. So simply to go along with the Tuaregs using war to grab most of the territory and when they are a tiny minority is a big problem. I am convinced that it is an international problem.

JAY: Well, I’ll just ask one more time: if that’s the case, then why is—these other populations in the north, isn’t it up to them to expel these forces if they don’t want to live under them, rather than outside intervention?

AKUETTEH: Ah. You know, that’s actually a great question. And I will again mention the human rights report that came out today, as well as others. They show that these other groups actually—the danger is that they are forming ethnic militias and they are keeping lists. I mean, the different ethnic groups are drawing up lists of others from other groups that they will go after.

Moreover, the Tuaregs gained the upper hand. Paul, they’ve been trying to do—this the fourth cycle of them trying to do this. They actually started close to 1960 when Mali got independence. And this time, why did they succeed? Because they brought in heavy weapons from Libya. They have been fighting for Gaddafi, and then brought in heavy weapons from Libya. Moreover, Mali does not share borders with Libya. And therefore, by crossing two borders to get into Mali, taking over northern Mali, also—these are the Tuaregs.

But their allies, the three Islamist groups, a lot of their leadership is not even Malian. They come from as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan, reportedly. So this is in fact—the reason it has reached the level it has reached is because it has become a big international problem in its making. And if it is not dealt with, when it spreads out it’s not going to stay just in Mali.

JAY: And who drove the resolution at the UN? Which countries were the driving force?

AKUETTEH: I think—in fact, I think, number one, you have to name as number one the French. And this is because Algeria is original role-player. And as we know, Hollande, President Hollande, is, as we speak, still in Algeria. Algeria has had testy relations with France, going all the way back, for obvious reasons, the former colonial masters.

But the biggest group in northern Mali, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, actually started out as Algeria Islamists who won elections in the early 1990s, and they were cheated out of it, and they went underground and started fighting.

There is a large Muslim population in France, the biggest in Europe. So France is deadly worried that if they set up a base in northern Mali that they control—and they’ve been kidnapping Frenchmen and other Europeans; they’ve been running drugs. If they are able to use those money, they have said it very clearly that they are going after France. And so France has been pushing very hard. The U.S. was dragged along, and as of maybe two weeks ago they were still disagreeing with the French as the way to go.

A long answer to your very good question, the answer being: the two leading people that pushed the resolution, and once they agree, we move forward, was France first and the United States. Now, France has gotten the Europeans, has convinced the Europeans that the problem in Mali is a big threat to Europe. And so the Europeans have agreed to provide military trainers, 400 of them. Mr. Prodi, a former Italian prime minister, as actually been made the UN’s special rep on Mali. So the Europeans are very involved, led by France, and then, of course, the United States.

JAY: And are there resources in northern Mali that people want?

AKUETTEH: There are resources in Mali. We know very much of gold and uranium. Those two are key. And they are not just—in fact, I think most of the deposits that we know are actually in the south, although, you know, when Gaddafi was in power, especially during the Reagan administration, there was a whole lot of problems between him and the U.S. having to do with uranium deposits across the Sahara Desert. So I’m sure that there is some of it in northern Mali. But yes, gold and uranium are key resources in Mali.

JAY: So, Nii, we know that the soldiers that engineered the coups, many of them were actually trained by the United States.


JAY: But going back another step, why is the Malian state so weak?

AKUETTEH: One factor you have to look at is that the whole U.S. strategy for fighting terrorism in North Africa since 9/11, including the establishment of AFRICOM, including what they call Operation Flintlock, including what they call the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, all of those things, I think, for me, have to be looked at.

But of course there is also the fact that Mali is a young, small—I mean, as states go, an infant state, independent in 1950, among the poorest of the countries in the world, because most of it is desert. And then, of course, it was run by a military dictatorship for a long time, until the overthrown president Amadou Toumani Touré established a democracy 20 years ago and then left. So the democracy in Mali was very admirable, but it has shallow roots. The country is poor.

But I also think the close U.S. embrace of that young democratic country for the past ten years, in which—the first piece I published was criticizing the U.S. embrace of that democracy, because they were encouraging them and arming them to go out and fight terrorists rather than deepening the democracy and working on development. And in fact I also mention that they should be encouraging them to talk peace with the Tuaregs. But this was three years ago—I mean, two and a half years ago when I did that piece.

So I think there are many factors why they collapsed quickly, and it has to be carefully teased out.

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

AKUETTEH: Pleasure.

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


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