For 10 months the collapse of Mali was largely ignored by the west. A country seen as a model democracy imploded, with an army coup in the south and an Islamist takeover of the vast desert regions in the north – but few cared outside France. Now everything has changed, and people who could barely place the country on a map are pontificating about its problems.
As ever, misconceptions become set in stone. Since the coup leader had trained briefly in the United States, conspiracy theorists see the Great Satan in the shadows. Others view France’s intervention as some kind of neocolonialist adventure, or argue absurdly that its actions were driven by the desire for minerals – in this case gold rather than oil.
The charge heard most often is that the struggle in the Sahel is the legacy of western intervention in Libya. This is ill-informed. People forget that Libyans themselves rose up against Muammar Gaddafi. If the west had not intervened, Benghazi would most likely have been recaptured and the uprising quashed, probably amid hideous carnage. Alternatively, the conflict could have dragged on and, as in Syria, become increasingly nasty and sectarian, with implications for the wider region.
Neither option was desirable – and either way, arms would have seeped across the porous Saharan borders, as they have after the western intervention. The Tuaregs had long been supported by Gaddafi, although he also controlled them, fearing the consequence of insurrection among his own nomads. But when the revolt broke out, it was inevitable many Tuaregs backed him, gaining access to greater weaponry as well as funds.
Following Gaddafi’s fall, well-armed Tuareg groups returned to northern Mali and reignited their uprising for the fourth time. Yes, this was a key factor in the subsequent collapse of the country. Western involvement, however, is irrelevant in this context, except possibly in the failure to take firmer action to disarm Libyan militias. But as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, the worst the west can do is think it can impose a new order on occupied countries.
The Sahel’s struggles go back decades. They may be a legacy of colonial borders, the cause of so much conflict on the continent. The first Tuareg uprising began just two years after Mali’s independence, and was brutally quashed. Then the desert regions’ grievances were intensified by corruption, drought, repression, poverty, climate change and poor governance. Attempts to assuage them with aid flopped.
In recent years this toxic stew was stirred by Islamist groups, often from outside Mali, who grew strong exploiting traditional Saharan smuggling routes as cocaine began to carve its way through west Africa; then came the kidnapping of tourists which earned millions when western governments caved in to their demands. Their rise was almost certainly fanned by governments in Algiers and Bamako to counter secessionist Tuareg groups.
The implosion of Mali is far from simple. The Tuareg are not the only people in this desert region; in fact, they are a minority in northern Mali, although many from other ethnic groups have fled the Islamist gangs. And while some turned to the new Islamists, many still support the MNLA, the main separatist group that this week declared its intention to join the Franco-African forces fighting its former Islamist allies.
The politics of the desert are fiendishly complex, interwoven with scores of historic, tribal, regional, social and personal strands. If the west is guilty of anything, it is of misreading events in countries such as Mali. Britain ignored the country, wrongly seeing the Sahel as an irrelevant backwater, while the US and France invested too much faith in an ineffective democracy riddled with corruption. Now that we are finally waking up, we would do well not to inflate our own importance.
Ian Birrell is a former deputy editor of the Independent and worked as a speechwriter for David Cameron during the 2010 election campaign.