In digging through my notes today, I stumbled upon this bit of an email exchange I had with a reporter on 20 April 2012 — more than a year ago — regarding the pitfalls of foreign coverage of the Mali conflict. In reading through it in search of bits I could re-purpose for the large project I’m working on (and finding none) I decided I would post it now.
It seems strange. There are bits that were somewhat wrong, evidence of too little accurate information reaching those of us outside northern Mali. But I’m surprised how much was right, especially on the uses and abuses of the Malian crisis by foreign commentators.
The same mis-reporting and barely concealed propaganda is still out there. AlJazeera English’s Mohammed Vall recent work in Northern Mali which does little more than repeat MNLA talking points is sadly not unique. Worse, it actively conflates all Tamasheq speakers with a small political group, marginal even in their own communities. It feeds the creation of communitarian and racial divides.
One appalling recent example is the re-appearance of a “Ganda Koy” militia group — in all likelihood funded by certain rival local politicians — now accused of killing a local Tuareg who had been arrested but released by Gendarmes and Togolese troops. That local Tuareg are mostly of communities whose leaders had been the staunchest opponents of the rebels (see this piece by Hannah Armstrong) has not in the past protected them. At the same time, Arab communities — accused by MNLA and government supporters alike — have found themselves victims of attacks from all sides.
In March, sometime MNLA commanders who are well known from previous rebellions and extensive “business” interests in Algeria, attacked the Arab dominated trading post of Al-Khalil, with each side accusing the others of being allied to “terrorists”. Similar murky attacks swirled around Ber, a town long politically contested amongst men who have slipped between sides and acronyms throughout the last year. The decisive blow in favor of one armed Tuareg group against an armed Arab group was apparently struck through French missiles, temporary solving that long time conflict between rival elites. Some amazing press reporting by Malians and others and careful analysis by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have uncovered crimes by military, rebels and local civilians against innocents. But these are dwarfed by a steady stream of unverifiable accusations continue on Facebook and elsewhere by foreign based Tuareg nationalist activists. Their supporters accept these reports unquestioningly, just as their opponents dismiss them. It is all the more worrisome as this sort of activist reporting since April 2012 and before do not stand up to the serious scrutiny they deserve, but rarely get.
What is at risk is just what I feared when I wrote this letter: that “the gates of hell would open”, creating just the polarized racially and ethnically split northern Mali which ethnic nationalist intellectuals had been imagining. Two histories are now being written, each a litany of crimes and humiliations suffered, neither accepted as even having occurred by the other. Reporters like AlJazeera’s Vall are actively participating in this when they deploy the authority of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch to list the crimes suffered by one Tamasheq speaking communities, without ever acknowledging that the same reports detail systematic violence, looting, and rape perpetrated by the MNLA flagged rebels who claim to speak for all northern communities.
I warn Western progressives: speak to Malian leftists before ‘explaining’ Mali. There has been a string of uninformed assumptions gleaned from having read something about Libya and ethnocentric piety which casts even Malians fighting against occupation and humiliation as dupes in an Imperialist program, and the spokespeople of rebel groups as principled resistants of neo-colonialsm. (That these same rebel spokespeople, based in Paris, were invited to high level meetings with the French government just prior to their rebellion, is mysteriously absent. As is the visit of MNLA commander Mohammed Ag Najim to Washington D.C. in late 2012. As was the wide involvement of French hostage negotiators, spies, and private security contractors in the area during the months prior to the rebellion.) These writers share one thing: they are convinced they don’t need to ask Malians what is going on. Mali is — conveniently — about our concerns.
Malians — including and perhaps especially those on the left — see with some evidence imperial designs in the rebel program. The semi-autonomous Malian units which first defected to the rebels in 2011 and 2012 were precisely those “trained” and supplied by the Americans and others as a counter to Algerian and Mauritanian dominated AQIM. The MNLA, whose fighters largely defected to more wealthy Islamist groups in 2012, were in 2013 plucked from obscurity by the French intervention and placed in charge of Kidal region. Again, the rationale is that “only the Tuareg” can fight AQIM. This is despite any real evidence of this having happened, and much evidence that AQIM money (sourced from Western ransoms) bought off these same ex-rebels in the past, be they Tuareg, Arab, or whatever ethnicity. Today, Malians protested in Gao, accusing the French of creating a protectorate in Kidal. While in Kidal, the same old elites who adopted Malian, MNLA, and Islamist flags when needed, are in the process of sidelining the Tuareg nationalists once again, standing up with French support to craft another of the deals which have made “managing” instability profitable since the late 1990s.
Below is what I wrote on 20 April 2012, edited only for spelling and grammar.
On Western analysts and the Mali Conflict
One of the least important outcomes of the insurgency that plowed into Mali on 17 January this year has been my utter inability to get a decent night’s sleep. On that day, an insurgent group estimated at a few hundred to three thousand fighters launched a series of attacks on northern Malian towns. At the time I said that I thought it would either subside to random raids and political horse trading within a month, or the gates of hell would open, plunging Mali into the sort of communal conflict it faced — mercifully briefly — in the mid 1990s. I did not imagine that the Malian state itself would collapse, and that Malians would face the sort of existential threat we now see hanging over them. While my own thoughts of how this was able to happen is the source of pages and pages of drafts, we abroad just watch, helplessly.
Times then are trying — though nowhere near so for me as for Malians — and sadly analytical accuracy seems much more a literal matter of life or death, and the only one which we outside individuals have any control over. Getting things “right” is usually very hard, and with increasingly polarized versions of “right”, it is becoming impossible. Failing to do so know seems from the outside to be a betrayal of my most basic obligation to my Malian friends.
One of the bright spots in Anglophone discussion of what is happening in Mali, has been the writing of academics like Baz Lecocq, Bruce Whitehouse, and Gregory Mann. Mann in particular has worn both his heart — and his considerable insight of a spent life learning about Malian society — on his sleeve. He has stepped on toes in the process, and his recent “Why is so much outside coverage of the Mali crisis so bad?” both exemplifies his fearlessness and my own fearfulness.
One acquaintance whose opinions I pay close attention to reacted to Mann’s latest shot by asking why there seemed more complaints about coverage of Mali than alternatives being offered. Of this I am particularly guilty. It is axiomatic that the critic’s job is easier than the creator’s.
I think it is important to start by clearing the decks, jettisoning the think tank platitudes and romantic nonsense that threatens to confuse anyone outside this conflict This is important because westerners (Americans and Western Europeans of former colonial powers and others) have no right to dictate how Mali will look at the end of this conflict.
But these outsiders, and Mali’s neighbors who have a history of interference in the north, WILL dictate how Mali will look at the end of this. It’s criminal, but it is true. Westerners have an obligation not to use Mali for their own ends, especially progressive, educated westerners. Despite this, from all sides of the political spectrum — as we saw recently in Cote d’Ivoire — westerners are convinced their experiences and their politics are identical to that facing Mali right now. The narrative goes that fallout from the Libyan popular revolution/NATO imperialism has given “the Tuareg” their long sought ability to free themselves from the yoke of Malian tyranny.
And I believe it is not just wrong, it is dangerous.
I’ve spent much of the last two months writing the equivalent of poison pen letters about how so many of the American and European narratives of this crisis are wrong that I can repeat them in my sleep. I think it is useful to explain myself, and go a bit deeper into why so many are getting the causes of the insurgency which has dealt the Malian people such a body blow.
The source of much of these problems is not maliciousness. It is that we really don’t know what is going on in the north, but we do have a very convenient source of information in the MNLA Paris / Nouakchott press office. They have since January at least seen themselves as crucial in the public relations war, and they have a number of vocal admirers in the wast who see their words in the same way. They also have a very poor track record of making accurate statements — or truthful statements if we believe they have reliable contacts with rebel commanders on the ground, which is a point of contention.
Research on this topic is difficult, in part because the few non-academic English language sources are closely tied to a particular faction among educated young men from Kidal and the diaspora who are themselves close to a particular Kidalois former rebel factions. Note that most of the north of Mali is not Kidal, and that most Tamasheq speaking (“Tuareg”) populations in Mali are not in Kidal. Yet this is from where almost all the “rebel” leaders are drawn. Our western writing on the conflict is also skewed by a long standing propaganda war between rival regional powers, actively blaming one foreign government and not another, and actively recruiting westerners to take their sides.
Harder to root out is the reward of playing to a particular European image of the Tuareg as romantic lords of the desert. Long both fascinating and remunerative to its European exponents, it does not just effect foreigners. Constant contact with this European mythology also reinforces particular self images amongst many young men whose governments have left without jobs or hope. It has met with huge changes in the community in northern Mali, most especially among those displaced by the brutal collective punishment handed out during the 1962-63 insurgency and the drought induced famines of the early 70s and early 80s. These upendings tossed communities around the sub-region, and in places reformed identities. While to many this meant that northerners in general and Tuareg in particular identifies with the nation in which they settled, for others it meant the invention of Tuareg nationalism, or religious self definition, or the greater identification with clan, tribe or confederation. Even ‘return’ to older identities, as is the case with most people, has resulted in a re-imagining of these structures.
The most viable of these — though not necessarily the most widespread — is the creation for the first time a collective Tuareg ‘national’ identity. This process is most discussed by Europeans and Americans in part because it fits into the European creation of uni-ethnic nation states in the 19th century. As in Europe, it is a process based on collective re-imagination of a diverse language mixed among other communities into a geographically discrete body. As problematic, many of the outlines of this ‘Tuareg-ness’ are modeled on the French fantasy of the free and noble Tuareg warrior elite they met (and subsequently killed) in the late 19th century. That mythology of a ‘free’ Tuareg elite had an economic basis in a system of class and ethnic domination ending only in the last 60 years. That their neighbors and children of ‘unfree’ Tamasheq speaker have not forgotten this explains some of the great anger these rebellions face from the sedentary majority of the three northern Regions. They interpret the rhetoric of this rebellion as an attempt to reassert domination on other communities. While this view has its own historical fallacies, it is the way many — perhaps even most — Malians see the conflict.
Violence has not so much come from a desire for national liberation, as has the conception of ethnic or racial separateness has been encouraged by political violence since 1990. While in the Anglophone press we hear almost entirely about Tuareg distinctiveness and Libyan weapons, serious observers need to look at concrete political and economic forces. Both the failed system of Malian decentralization through corruption and the rivalries of northern elites are drivers here.
Importantly, the foreign based MNLA make frequent protestations that they are fighting for an ethnically diverse community. But they cannot point to non-Tuareg participants in this struggle. Its participants come mostly from the 2006-2009 rebellions, where no pretense of ethnic diversity was made. The Paris based talk of both national liberation and ethnic inclusiveness only speaks to the necessity of selling this to a European audience. As dishonest is the pretense that this rebellion is even pan-Tuareg, drawn as it is from very specific groups of Kidal former rebel commanders and their families.
The parallel rhetoric of Tuareg national identity with an irreconcilable north-south conflict is crucial. The “southerners” here include the majority of the population of the north, who have lived in these areas as long as any identifiable Tuareg have existed. A complex history of ethnic and class relations in the north into a binary of “free” noble men of the desert and dishonorable, cringing, corrupt, southerners whose foreignness is in the process of being created.
Again, the west has a heavy burden here. As one example, for at least a decade Europeans have been helping to promote the Tuareg as an “indigenous people”, in the model of Native Americans, or the indigenous peoples of Australasia. Several of the younger spokespeople of the MNLA cut their teeth on the European political stage taking part in the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Saying pastoralist communities are somehow “native” to northern Mali while other communities are not does violence to history, and provides encouragement to ethnic nationalism.
More functionally, it confers concrete benefits. The cultural interplay between some educated young Kidalois Tuareg and dreamy eyed (or business focused, or politically connected) Europeans is an untold part of this story. This is not just victimology. Both sides are agents of this construction, although obviously western governments and corporations are playing for astronomically more profitable stakes. Both have their motives for constructing a view of northern Mali as home to a self-conceived and geographically discrete “Tuaregland”. Regardless of the shifting definition of the “Azawad” national program launched only in the last year, scratch it and you find Tuareg nationalism.
A false equation of ‘Tuareg-ness’ with a tiny warrior elite who find dishonor in manual labor is a common trope pointed to — and exaggerated — by other ethnic groups. That there is no such labor on offer to young men in northern Mali– but plenty of payoff for use of weapons — goes some way to make real this cartoonish image of “Tuareg-ness”, even (especially?) in young men whose family background might not have allowed them such a self-image a hundred years ago. This is the imagined community preceding the actual.
I would assume most of the many Tamasheq speaking communities living in Mali — many now displaced — do not spend much time discussing such questions. Sure, “race” as a function of lineage and family allegiance, exists to them. But there are many other ways in which they see their place in society that have much more bearing on their lives.
The great fear is that the chaos unleashed by this small group on 17 January 2012, along with the blind foreign acceptance of its putative spokespeople, will help to reorient these self-definitions, as some believe the chaotic multi-sided civil war in the 1990s pushed communities to more strongly define themselves by clan or ethnicity.
Unfortunately the history of this conflict is replete with (as most places on earth) internal faction fights, personal rivalry, and corruption. This is as true for Kidal elites — who periodically style themselves rebel commanders — as any other in Mali. The difference is there is a history of successful rent seeking through short demonstrations of military force, and the ability to use this process to catapult rebel commanders into lucrative political office. There has been almost 20 years of rewards given by Presidents Konaré and ATT to such behavior, which helped bring us to today. It is absolutely crucial to recognize that this is a problem with Malian causes which does not neatly fit into western narratives, even as western and other foreign involvement has dramatically exacerbated it.
Factions within Malian, local, and foreign governments (and not just two, but many) add to the social upending as they benefit by keeping a variety of authorities contesting over northern Mali. May I point you to the former French intelligence agents regularly employed by private security firms and the government’s AREVA mining firm, who have been revealed prowling about the area with larges sums of cash over the last year? Or the MNLA’s meeting at the French Foreign ministry in the month prior to the 17 January 2012 start of this war? And for every shady French activity, there are likely as many from Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Morocco and likely the United States.
(And to be very careful, we cannot know quite who does what, as every local authority blames another, and many outside authorities have only seem to have proxies. Like Jeremy Keenan, we cannot simply repeat one local faction’s conspiracy theory about another local faction and name it truth because it shares our enemies. Seeing others’ political struggles as just small offshoots of global struggles between western actors and western critics reeks of the colonial thinking we’re trying to break from.)
There are other somewhat glaring specifics which should raise eyebrows, but are repeated in the standard Anglophone analysis of this conflict.
Since February, there is no little evidence of sustained fighting in the north, and no evidence of any weapons unseen in previous conflicts. When it has come to siege and combat, this has mostly been between tiny garrisons of southern soldiers and northern groups, to whom the northern leaders do not offer the political niceties they extend to other northerners or North Africans. These incidents also seem to (in Aguelhoc and Tessalit’s military base) seem to have been led by one or an other Islamist group, but not the MNLA, whose army command by Libyan returnees is much discussed.
Since Aguelhoc, “conquest/liberation” of towns have been decided by the garrison fleeing — or if manned by northern soldiers — joining the rebellion, then either fleeing the rebellion or dissolving into other armed groups. We have little evidence of where these armed men will settle, but smart money is on either protection of their own communities or banditry.
Such “battles” have, as is the long tradition, apparently been solved with minimum force and maximum of negotiations. Loyalties amongst the big men who lead each of these armed bodies are fluid, and the evidence of them as making up an “army” pulling in one direction is far outweighed by evidence of a series of allied bands under the command of influential former rebels or local political leaders with ties to smuggling gangs. But the image of one (or even two) “rebel armies” is rather useful both to the MNLA spokespeople abroad, as their influence over fighters is a commodity they are selling. It was thus in the last two rebellions, where being seen by the government and mediators as crucial to peace — by having your men continue to cause damage — was the key to the biggest payoff when peace was made. The 2012 insurgency is both the greatest refinement of this mechanism, and the moment when the entire system unexpectedly collapsed, as a bank does when there is a run on withdrawals.
As a purely legalistic footnote, coups not recognized by the international community cannot abrogate a democratically ratified constitution. And saying this offers a million residents of the north into the hands of a tiny minority of foreign based blow-hards (who are even tiny minorities of the single Tuareg confederation from which they are drawn) as their “legitimate rulers”. That is both bad constitutional law and pretty offensive.
The notion that this is organic national liberation struggle — though seemingly entirely bereft of any prior political activism — feeds western blindness to the roles we have played in this conflict, just as excludes the moral right of Malians to their own nation. As does the notion that the only relevant history is that “the Tuareg have been continually in revolt against Mali.” (Which Tuareg? Who did they actually fight? Aren’t there other ethnicities involved? Hasn’t most of the time been peaceful? What happened in the centuries prior to 1960? Were the aspirations of previous armed actors political independence or many other things?)
It also leads us to believe Malians must now proceed politically from a “liberated” northern Mali. On the contrary, all evidence is northern Mali is now of a depopulated, fractured, terrified, chaos in the hands of many rival armed bands with as many goals. We are already hearing calls from politically connected Mauritanians (via a United States army funded website), French, and Algerians that foreigners should “aid” the MNLA against their Islamist rivals. If the MNLA have no military dominance, it is their role as vanguard of a national liberation struggle that offers their only legitimacy. And that is being supplied — in part — by western commentators whose only knowledge of the situation comes from the MNLA.
So when western reporters repeat this “submerged nation” nonsense it is both trying — and much more importantly — helps determine the outcome of this conflict, as any peace will be arranged by Mali’s neighbors under pressure from Western governments. That it has little reflection in reality would make that criminal.
Again, I while no personal offense is implied, speaking to Malians prior to writing an opinion piece about their country should be a prerequisite. No one is asking you to be a scholar, and god knows I don’t have any more right than you or anyone else to speak for Malians or dictate terms to any side of this conflict. But if privileged western analysts — however innocently — repeat propaganda of one side as “the background” to this conflict, they help determine the outcome.