This is a guest post by Eric Silla. Eric has PhD in African history from Northwestern University and is the author of "People are not the Same: Leprosy and Identity in Twentieth Century Mali" (Heinemann, 1998).
The recent crises in Mali have sparked discussions that are, unfortunately, often riddled with misinformation and misrepresentation of the country’s history and current predicament. A recent example is The New Yorker’s “Letter From Timbuktu.” As a scholar of Mali who has lived and worked there, I read it with disappointment.
This article, and others like it, give readers a false understanding of the factors that led to the conflict in northern Mali. The statement that slavery has dominated Mali’s history with “lighter skinned Arab descended peoples of the north” in control of “darker skinned Arab descended peoples of the south” is entirely wrong. Modern Mali encompasses a geographic area about the size of Texas and California combined. North of Timbuktu lies the Sahara desert where nomadic Tuareg and Arab tribes have circulated for centuries. Tuaregs are not Arabs; they are linguistically and culturally related to North African Berbers. Neither they nor Arab tribes have ever controlled southern Mali, though they occasionally encroached into the border areas.
Mali south of Timbuktu is more ethnically diverse; parts have been controlled by a succession of polities, none of which were Tuareg or Arab. Mali’s present borders correlate with none of those polities. At its peak in the 14th century, the tributary state commonly called the “Mali Empire” dominated an area encompassing parts of present day Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, and Guinea. Its power never extended far into the desert much beyond Timbuktu. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, the Songhay Empire controlled parts of present day Mali and Niger. Its capital was Gao, situated at the northern bend of the Niger River. Between the late 17th and mid-19th centuries, a state known as the “Bambara Empire” controlled the areas around the Niger River roughly between Bamako and Mopti.
In the mid-19th century, a religiously inspired figure named Umar Tall launched a jihad from present day Senegal and established a polity that, at its peak, encompassed parts of present day Guinea, Mauritania, and Senegal in addition to parts of Mali extending to Timbuktu. Another figure from southeastern Guinea, Samori Toure, led a military campaign that gained control of Mali’s southeast, in addition to northern Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
Mali’s “northern problem” originated at independence in 1960 when the inhabitants of the Sahara feared subjugation under a postcolonial government that would be dominated by southerners, who far outnumbered the northerners and dominated the civil service and military. Some Tuareg claimed that France had promised them their own state, which also would have included parts of Algeria and Niger. Though there had been millennia of interaction between Saharan and sub-Saharan peoples, there was no historical or cultural basis for unity other than a few decades of shared colonial subjugation for their amalgamation into a modern nation state.
Post-independence Mali has seen numerous rebellions beginning with the first in 1962-64, which was crushed. Another rebellion in 1990 was precipitated in large part by the droughts and famines of the 1970s and 1980s that had decimated Saharan livelihoods and dislocated its people. Throughout, the corrupt, southern-dominated military government in Bamako neglected northern development and concentrated international assistance in the south. Libyan leader Qaddafi was simultaneously recruiting and training Saharan Tuareg and Arab militants as part of his larger effort to foment revolution across Africa.
Mali’s military government began to weaken under pro-democracy activism in the south and finally collapsed in 1991. Saharan militants took advantage of the instability to launch attacks on government installations in the north, invoking northern economic and political grievances as justification. After a succession of short-lived peace agreements with the newly elected civilian government, militants signed a more durable deal in 1995. This agreement formally lasted until 2006 but gradually became irrelevant as the political and security environment in the Sahara changed. Mali’s government lacked the capacity to provide the development and security needed for long-term stability in such a vast and desolate region. Some militants, most likely in connivance with corrupt government officials, took to smuggling, particularly in cigarettes, weapons, and illicit drugs. Remnants of Algeria’s failed jihadi movement also found refuge in the Sahara, joining in the smuggling, providing training to aspiring jihadis from the region, and earning multimillion dollar ransoms from European tourists who had disregarded travel warnings and became their hostages.
Periodic militant raids against military patrols and government installations gradually escalated into a full fledged “third” rebellion that lasted from 2006 to 2009. A combination of military pressure, factional splits among militants, and diplomatic involvement of Libya and Algeria led to still another peace agreement in 2009. Like its predecessors, this agreement failed to undo the underlying sources of conflict and insecurity, and the Malian government lacked any capacity to enforce it. The escalation in fighting that began in late 2011 and precipitated the present crises resulted in large part from the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. For three decades, Qaddafi’s patronage of militants and vast financial resources enabled him to play power broker across the Sahara. His demise created a power vacuum and unleashed weapons and militants across the region. The results are now seen not only in Mali’s instability, but Niger’s, Northern Nigeria’s, and the Central African Republic’s as well. The strains of renewed conflict also exacerbated tensions within Mali’s military and led to the coup in the capital Bamako in March 2012.
The current conflict and the ones that preceded it are largely about Saharan peoples fighting each other and their governments for dominance over Saharan trade (licit and illicit) routes and the towns and communities that dot the region, not conquering “dark skinned” sub-Saharan African peoples and states. The lines of conflict have correlated with tribal affiliation and social hierarchy, not race in the American sense, and even these lines are often blurry. External actors such as Qaddafi and now Algerian and other international jihadis have also exploited these conflicts to project their own influence, but their agenda has never been racial subjugation.
The reductionist interpretation, using Western notions of racial politics and slavery, misleads analysis on the situation in Mali. It dates to the 19th century when the phenomenon of Arab slave raiding was hyped to justify European colonization and rally support for Christian missionaries. However, slavery was rampant across southern Mali well into the French colonial period, and “black” Africans held slaves. In fact, the “Bambara Empire” mentioned above was built largely on a slave economy. Moreover, for Saharan peoples, the American notion of skin color is not a determinant of social status or identity. One can have “noble” status with black skin, or "inferior" social rank with light skin. Using misplaced racial divisions to explain Africa’s problems can misguide activism and policymaking. I recommend readers consult “Mali: Beyond Counterterrorism” by two thoughtful experts with extensive research experience in the region and deeper connections to its people.