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Militarized by the West, Mali suffers a coup d'etat

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Map of historic homeland of Touareg people

Army takeover follows big increases in aid and military equipment from U.S., Canada and Europe

The African country of Mali has suffered a coup d'etat against its elected government. It was carried out by the country's armed forces on March 21. The country was one month away from a national election.

Coup leader Captain Amadou Sanogo says the army is taking over because the government has proven inept at cracking down on the oppressed, semi-nomadic Touareg people in the north of the country. The Touareg have been struggling for decades for their national and cultural rights.

Sanogo says the army will return the country to civilian rule once the Touareg-led rebellion is suppressed. He hopes it will take "three to nine months."

Ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré is unharmed and residing in the country's capital city, Bamako. He is a former army officer who led a military coup in 1991 against a reactionary regime. Soon after, he ceded power to an elected government. He was elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2007.

Mali is a landlocked, former French colony in western Africa that won independence in 1960. Its population is 15 million.

Hypocritical West

The U.S., Canada and Europe have sharply condemned the coup. Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird said on March 23, "Canada utterly condemns this attack on democracy by a faction of Mali's military."

"We call on those behind this coup to put the needs of the Malian people first and to immediately withdraw so that constitutional order, peace and stability may be restored and aid resumed."

The foreign powers have suspended aid to the Mali government but continue to fund non-governmental organizations. They will also try to steer funds to NGOs that were otherwise earmarked for government agencies.

A delegation of five leaders of the Economic Community of West African States, including Ivorian President and current ECOWAS chief Alassane Ouattara, flew to Mali on March 29 to try and mediate the conflict between the army and the ousted government. They were turned away from the airport at Bamako. Soldiers occupied the runway and prevented a landing.

Condemnations of the coup by the imperial countries are supremely ironic. These countries have been providing weapons and training to the army they now condemn. Sanogo is a U.S.-trained officer. These same powers backed the coup in Haiti in 2004 and all but openly backed the 2009 coup in Honduras.

Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, but it is also the third largest producer of gold in Africa. At least two Canadian gold mining companies operate there -- Iamgold Corporation and Avion Gold Corporation. Avion says its operations are unaffected by the coup.

Mali was selected by Canada in 2009 as one of six African "countries of focus" of Canadian aid. Aid to Mali from Canada leaped to $117 million for fiscal 2009-10 and was $110 in 2010-11. That makes it one of the top recipients of Canadian aid, on par with Haiti. The U.S. is providing $140 million annually to Mali, according to the Washington Post.

Mali drawn into ‘counter-insurgency' wars in Africa

The tragedy of this coup is how Mali, one of the poorest places on earth, has been drawn militarily into imperialism's designs for Africa. The Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership was established by the U.S. in 2005. It comprises eleven ‘partner' African countries-Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. The ‘partnership' conducts annual military exercises termed ‘Flintlock.'

One of the targets of this ‘partnership' is now the long-standing national rights struggle by the Touareg people in the north of Mali and adjoining countries. The apparent military and political cooperation of the Touareg with the previous government of Libya under Muammar Gaddafi was one of the sources of the lurid tales of ‘African mercenaries' conducting atrocities in Libya that provided justification for the NATO attack on that country beginning in March 2011.

Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler wrote in the Ottawa Citizen of March 25, "The core of (Muammar) Gaddafi's 'African Mercenaries' were Tuareg, a desert people who in the '70s formed the vast bulk of his 'Islamic Legion.'"

"These ruthless desert warriors have now returned to northern Mali and Niger -- flush with cash, armed to the teeth and with significant experience and very bloody hands. All this does not augur well for peace and stability in the region."

Fowler says there is "some sort of collusion" between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and 'al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.' The MNLA is the national liberation movement of the Touareg people; Azawad is the name of the homeland that the Touareg aspire to.

Canadian special forces have participated in Flintlock exercises in Mali since at least 2011. ‘Flintlock 2012' exercises have been temporarily suspended. It is not known if Canadian troops have been directly engaged in fighting in northern Mali; the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command says they have not.

National rights rebellion

The Touaregs' historic homeland is located in the southern Sahara Desert and is divided by the national boundaries of Mali, Algeria, Libya and Burkina Faso. Six million people speak the Touareg language. Some estimates say there are more than half a million Touareg living in Mali; others say there are 1.5 million.

The French-language MNLA website contains daily reports of the political goals of the movement and examples of the kind of national oppression suffered by the Touareg people. A February 23, 2012 communiqué on its English language website section, for example, reports on "barbaric" attacks by the Mali army against civilians in the north of the country using helicopter gunships. It states, "We are launching an urgent appeal to all organizations for Human Rights to finally intervene and to stop these barbaric acts against civilians."

The website reports significant territorial gains of MNLA armed forces in northern Mali in recent months. The secular, liberation front says it is "determined to continue operations until Mali recognises the Azawad population's right to self-determination."

The Tuareg people were brutally subdued by colonial France at the outset of the 20th century. Following the independence of Mali and neighbouring countries in 1960, they continued to suffer discrimination. A First Touareg Rebellion took place in 1962-64.

A second, larger rebellion began in 1990. It won some autonomy from the government that was elected in 1992 and re-elected in 1997.

A third rebellion in Mali and Niger in 2007 won further political and territorial concessions, but these were constantly reneged. A Libya-brokered peace deal ended fighting in 2009.

One of the voices of Touareg self-determination is the musical super-group Tinariwen.

Thomas K. Seligman, director of Stanford University's Cantor Arts Center and co-curator of a  2007-08 exposition at the Smithsonian Institute titled, 'The Art of Being Tuareg: Sahara Nomads in a Modern World', explained that year, "They (the Touareg) are getting caught in this war on terror."

"The Tuareg are concerned about self-determination and maintaining values they think are important. As a minority population, they're doing pretty well at that, but it's fragile and always being challenged."

The coup in Mali is a huge black eye for the big, imperial powers that are meddling in the region. The army they have nurtured and assisted has overthrown an elected government. It has been encouraged and assisted to fight a criminal war in one of the poorest places in the world.

Millions of people are already threatened by drought conditions in northern Mali and the surrounding countries. Their plight will only worsen as the militarization of the region continues.

Canadians have a particular responsibility to concern themselves with events in Mali. In addition to Canada's participation in U.S.-led ‘counter-insurgency' in the region, last year the federal government announced that it is establishing permanent military bases in Senegal, a neighbouring country of Mali, and Kenya. Whose interests are these bases to serve? Who stands to benefit from waging war on the Touareg people?

These are important questions to demand of political leaders and media outlets in Canada, including the new leader of the New Democratic Party. The recent NDP leadership contest hardly talked about foreign affairs.

Describing the rise in the favoured aid status of Mali by Canada in the past several years, the Globe and Mail wrote on March 23, "... Canadian policy is in tatters today."

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network. This article is slightly edited from a version that appears in the Australian Green Left Weekly.

April 3, 2012:

An informative article on the history and goals of the liberation movement of the Touareg people has just appeared on New Internationalist magazine website.

April 7, 2012:
The Globe and Mail reports several significant developments in Mali/western Africa in an article published on April 7, 2012, including:
* The National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) issued a declaration of independence of the Touareg territory in the north of Mali on April 6, 2012. The declaration is here, in French.
* Canada, the United States, Europe and the countries that neighbour Mali are rejecting the Touareg declaration. Military leaders of thirteen of those countries, many of which are members of the Economic Community Of West African States, met on April 6 to sketch out a military intervention to suppress the Touareg rebellion.
* The military leaders of Mali who carried out a coup d'etat on March 21, 2012 have added their voices to calls for imperialist intervention. The military officials signed a statement on April 6 pledging to return Mali to constitutional rule.

The Globe and Mail article is here.

The Montreal daily La Presse is also reporting on the declaration of independence in a more substantive AFP article (in French). Interestingly, the article reports that the Islamists with whom the MNLA has been reported in league are denouncing the independence declaration with the same vigor as the imperialists and the Mali military junta. Until now, mainstream news reports, including the Globe and Mail, have stressed that the Touareg rebellion is led by Islamist, 'al Quaeda'-linked military forces or that the Islamists have the upper hand over the admitted secular MNLA-led forces.

A commentary item on Al Jazeera on March 20 by Professor Jeremy Keenan of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) argued that the true weight and role of the Islamists in northern Mali is greatly exagerated in the bourgeois press. That article is here. There are 32 comments on the article, many of which hotly contest its content.

April 9, 2012
Democracy Now's broadcast on this date includes an informed interview with Firoze Manji, editor-in-chief of the prize-winning Pambazuka News, a pan-African social justice website. He was formerly the Africa director for Amnesty International. Manji recently co-edited a book called 'African Awakening: The Emerging Revolutions.' He was interviewed from Montreal.

The officers who seized power in Mali say they will soon turn power over to a civilian authority. In exchange, they have obtained amnesty for their coup as well as the immediate resignation of the elected president Amadou Toumani Touré. They are calling for foreign intervention to prosecute a war in the north of the country against the Touareg people.

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