Reconciliation in Mali Part 1
This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday June 13 2013
On July 28 2013, citizens of the West African nation of Mali will vote for a president. Legislative elections are scheduled to go ahead on July 21. Mining engineer Dramane Dembele runs as presidential candidate for the country’s largest political party.
Elections were initially scheduled to take place in April 2012, but a military coup ousted President Touré shortly before his term was due to end. An alliance of Tuareg separatist and Islamist rebel groups took advantage of the ensuing chaos and seized control of the whole of northern Mali – an area larger than France.
Mali is a land-locked nation, three and a half times the size of Germany, bordered by Algeria to the north, Niger to the east, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast to the south, Guinea to the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania to the west. Its size is just over 1,240,000 square kilometres (480,000 sq mi) with a population of 14.5 million. Its capital is Bamako.
Mali is the third largest producer of gold in Africa, but half the population lives below the international poverty line of US$1.25 a day.
At its peak in 1300, Mali covered an area about twice the size of modern-day France, and stretched to the west coast of Africa. Present-day Mali was once part of three West African empires (Ghana, Malinké and Songhai) which controlled trade in commodities such as gold, salt and slaves. West Africa has a favourable geology dominated by the Birimian Trend, a large area that runs through many West African countries and through the heart of South-western Mali. This is currently the base for the fastest growing gold production and exploration in the world. According to the former Malian minister of mining, Mamadou Igor Diarra, Malian soil contains copper, uranium, phosphate, bauxite, gems. More recently, uranium has been discovered and lots of oil. Two thirds of France’s electricity is from nuclear power and sources of new uranium are essential. Presently, France draws significant uranium imports from neighbouring Niger.
Under the Mali Empire, the ancient cities of Djenné and Timbuktu were centres of trade and Islamic learning and were in touch with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern centres of civilization. The decline of these empires coincided with the eagerness of European states to extend their presence and influence across the globe and to take advantage of free labour and natural resources.
During the 19th Century Scramble for Africa, France seized control of Mali, after its first incursion in 1880, making it a part of French Sudan. French imperialists called colonization their mission civilisatrice. French is now the dominant language in Mali and across West Africa, while Christianity pervades the region. In 1886, Jules Ferry said: “The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.”
The present boundaries of Mali are the legacy of 70 years of French colonial rule, from 1890-1960. Resistance to French control did not end until 1898, when the Malinké warrior Samory Touré was defeated after seven years of war. The French attempted to rule indirectly, through appointed chiefs. Mali was administered with other French colonial territories as the Federation of French West Africa and supplied labour to France’s colonies on the coast of West Africa. The French authorities forced African laborers to produce goods such as peanuts and cotton, which were transported to the coast by railways and roads. Just before the abolition of slavery (as late as 1905 for the French empire), 3.5 million people, about one-third of the region’s population, were slaves. Ten-thousand Malians died in the trenches for France in WWI. According to the Anti-Slavery Society, some of them were freed slaves.
In the 1930s, in an effort to build up the local cotton industry to feed French textiles, France established an irrigation programme that flooded areas (thereby displacing Malian villages) of the Niger River Valley, using labor that amounted to plantation slavery.
In 1956, with the passing of France’s Fundamental Law (Loi Cadre), the Territorial Assembly obtained extensive powers over internal affairs and was permitted to form a cabinet with executive authority over matters within the Assembly’s competence. After the 1958 French constitutional referendum, the Republique Soudanaise became a member of the French Community and enjoyed complete internal autonomy. At least 120,000 Malians now live in France.
The July 2013 elections are a key step towards stabilising Mali, which had struggled to fend off Islamist fighters before intervention by French forces to oust the rebels from the north of the country. Thousands of troops from France and African nations are currently in Mali. “We will organize the elections throughout the national territory in order to reunite the minds of Malians, reunite their hearts, and to enable Mali to remain one and indivisible,” announced territorial Administration Minister Moussa Sinko Coulibaly.