A few days ago, French president Hollande declared French intervention in Mali had begun in an attempt to push back Islamist rebels far away from the Malian capital, Bamako, after months of quick and bloody advance towards the heart of the Mali government. The French started with air strikes to destabilize the Islamists, now thousands of French troops are in the country in a major ground assault. Less than 48 hours after this operation (Operation Serval) began, Armed Islamists seized a gas facility in the deserts of Southern Algeria, In Amenas, and held many foreign workers as well as Algerians hostage in what is turning out to be one of the worst international hostage crises in decades.
Many people are asking the question why is France taking on Islamists in far-away northern Mali thousands of miles from Paris? Some are wondering whether this will be another long, bloody war like Iraq or Afghanistan? Is this bullying on the side of France, some have even asked? The answer to these lies in the history of Mali itself and the plight of the Tuareg people in the north, and of course the political landscape of Algeria between 1991 - 2002, when Islamists waged a bloody war against the central government in Algiers. Everything is inter-connected.
This war is about the the Tuareg rebels taking advantage of a weak government in Bamako, to rapidly push back the largely under-equipped Malian forces in the north in an attempt to create a separate state. Tuaregs are nomadic-pastoralists occupying a large part of central north-west Africa stretching all the way through the Sahara desert to southern parts of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia. They have long clamored for independence and a separate state of their own but have been brutally suppressed for nearly a century . Going back as far as 1916, during French colonial times, the Tuaregs have staged 5 major rebellions till 2012, all ending in failure with thousands of Tuaregs losing their lives to brutal repression from the French colonial forces and subsequently the central government in Bamako.
Mali is a poor West-African country, with crippling levels of corruption and a largely underfunded military force. The Touareg rebellion in the north presented a serious challenge to the government which struggled to combat the insurgence in the north. In 2012, a miltary coup toppled the 10 year reign of President Ahmadou Toure, when a section of the army, who cited the government's inability to equip the military well enough, took over government of the country. In a series of talks and negotiations, power has now been restored to an acting, interim President, Dioncounda Traore. But in the meantime, the Tuareg insurgency has made rapid gains on the ground to take over major northern cities including the historical Timbuktu and more recently the garrison towns of Diabaly in a major push towards the south, where Bamako, the capital lies.
It is this aggression that has triggered the recent French intervention, in an attempt to halt the advance of the Tuareg rebels. But from well documented sources, the Tuareg rebels are not what they appear to be. It has been revealed that actually, the rapid advance is the work of AQIM (Al- Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb), the north African arm of al-Qaeda. These fighters have taken advantage of a legitimate Tuareg rebellion to achieve their own aims, which is to have a safe haven for Al-Qaeda in Africa. Why is Al-Qaeda interested in Mali though, you may ask.
Northern Mali, due to its lack of full government control over the years, have served as a safe area for Islamists ejected from the "dirty war" in Algeria in the early 1990s where they fought a brutal war with the government to establish Islamic rule in Algeria. Many of those fighters are well trained and well armed. They have lived in northern Mali now for many years, mixing with local Tuaregs (who are Animists by tradition), and establishing forms of Islamic codes in the areas of their settlement. During the Tuareg uprising of 2012, what was not immediately apparent was that, the rapid advance was a joint effort by the rebels and well-armed Islamists, who rapidly gained contriol of vast areas in the north, including Timbuktu. The population of Timbuktu have been under the rule of Islamists for around 10 months now since the taking-over by Islamists. Severe forms of Sharia have been reportedly established in these areas, against the wish of the Tuareg populations. An example of a culture clash is that, in Tuareg culture, its the man that covers his face with a turban, the women don't, but in Islam, it is women that have to cover their face.
France and the government of Mali are worried that the north of Mali is fast becoming a safe haven for al-Qaeda militants taking advantage of a largely uncontrolled area and pushing to establish an Islamic state, not only in the north, but throughout Mali. There are French interests in Mali, mainly in the form of thousands of French expatriates, working inside the country and the fact that a haven for Islamists in Mali could be dangerous to France (and the rest of Europe), which is just a few thousands of miles from the heart of France.
As much as I believe that the Tuaregs are a brutally oppressed people and need to be heard by the world, their mixing with Islamists for temporary gains is cultural suicide to say the least. The situation of the Tuaregs as a people is a humanitarian issue that Western governments are not keen to explore. But help from Islamists will not help their cause either.
In the light of these circumstances, the French are not wrong to try to push back this advance by Islamists (masquerading as Tuaregs), form taking over Mali. There is a major problem breeding in Africa in my opinion, with Islamic extremists taking root in a number of countries like Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and Mali. Mali in my opinion is what could happen when weak and unstable governments cannot control sections of their own countries, opening the doors to fundamentalists with an agenda, which is to put as many parts of Africa as possible under strict Sharia law. These fundamentalists are well trained, well funded and well equipped to bring down most African governments, so maybe outside help is not that bad an option. But we shall see how the Mali situation unfolds in the coming weeks.