The media narrative about Mali today is that of just the ‘typical’ African conflict—heavily armed dark-skinned men in dusty Jeeps, warring tribes destroying ancient cities, terroristic violence in the desert. Yet another over-simplistic version of Black-on-Black violence with an international twist and a dash of al-Qaeda. While this narrative provides the media with easy sound bites and conveniently reinforces stereotypes, it is also patently untrue.
Instead, what’s going on today in Mali is a complex tapestry of local issues, minority grievances, Islam in Africa, and the far-reaching effects of colonialism.
This chapter of Mali’s history begins with the Tuaregs, not the sleek Volkswagen, but a nomadic group of Berbers in Northern Mali. With their ancestral lands hopelessly divided during the post-colonial creation of northwest African states, the Tuaregs mounted several rebellions since 1963 due to their ongoing political and economic marginalization.
For decades, Mali’s southern capital of Bamako squandered the country’s riches, while the Tuareg-inhabited north remained poor and heavily underdeveloped. With few other options to feed their families, young Tuareg men joined Muammar Qaddafi’s army in Libya, fighting in a series of wars that culminated in the civil war of 2011. When Qaddafi was killed, thousands of seasoned, heavily-armed Tuareg soldiers returned to Mali. These soldiers soon found that little had changed for the Tuareg people and that the government in Bamako had no serious plans to reintegrate them back into society. Needless to say, there was no Tuareg G.I. Bill.
Like so many other minority groups, the Tuaregs felt that the majority-run government hadn’t addressed their grievances. The Tuareg soldiers formed a group known as the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) and began mounting attacks on Malian forces, capturing several key cities in their push for an independent Tuareg state in the north. The ill-equipped Malian army was easily overwhelmed and embarrassed by the MNLA. Like the Tuaregs, the Malian army soon began to feel as if Bamako didn’t have their backs. As a result, in March 2012 angry Malian soldiers staged a coup in Bamako, overthrowing President Amadou Touré. By April, Mali’s government was in the hands of the same military commanders that had caused its collapse.
What initially began as a separatist movement by an aggrieved minority group quickly spiraled into a conflict in the North and a military coup in the South. With the Malian army now distracted by the crisis in Bamako, the Tuaregs used the opportunity to move even deeper into Northern Mali. Almost overnight, Mali—once a shining example of African democracy and stability— spiraled into chaos.
Enter fundamentalist Islam. While virtually all Tuaregs are Muslim, deep rifts began to occur in the MNLA between secularists primarily concerned with establishing a Tuareg state and Ansar Dine, a fundamentalist faction with ties to al-Qaeda that wanted to enforce strict Sharia law throughout Northern Mali. “The MNLA didn’t have enough leverage,” explains Cleophus Thomas, III, a doctoral candidate at George Mason University focusing on African rebel movements. “Islamist Tuaregs and [al-Qaeda] had a mutual interest in imposing conservative Sharia law, forming an alliance that easily pushed MNLA out of its own separatist movement.”
When Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algerian group, entered the conflict, Mali’s former colonial power, France, took notice. The opportunistic AQIM turned this from just another “African conflict” to one where the West feels that its interests are threatened. However, as France continues to push AQIM out of cities in Northern Mali, a military intervention alone doesn’t address the deep-rooted issues that lead to this conflict. France’s interest in protecting its access to Africa’s natural resources and keeping Al-Qaeda at bay don’t extend to addressing inherent inequalities in Malian society.
Already, the BBC and other media outlets are using a simplistic “reprisal ethnic violence” label to explain away Mali. In truth, this multidimensional conflict involves the grievances of ethnic minorities, access to resources, a disenchanted military, the fate of Islam in Africa, and now colonial powers. Any solution that doesn’t take all of these factors into consideration only leaves the door open for another conflict, allowing global powers and the media alike to perpetuate the stereotype that Africans—and Black people in general—are predisposed to war and violence, and that only through violence can our issues be resolved. By not challenging this simplistic narrative, we relieve ourselves of the need to address the underlying injustices that lead Black people to conflict.