Many years ago my traveler’s checks were stolen in Tangier by some English guy who later cashed them in Timbuktu, which happens to be in Mali. Other than that I had paid virtually no attention to the place until the French government’s recent military intervention. Here’s what I’ve pieced together:
Mali has undergone numerous political upheavals since France cut it loose in 1960. From 1992 a publicly elected government held office. Just before the scheduled 2012 elections the military seized power via a coup. The military say they took charge because the elected government was not maintaining a hard enough line against the Tuaregs of the north, who wanted to establish an Islamist state. I infer that the military was concerned about Islamist candidates doing well in the upcoming elections, as well as the possibility that the Tuaregs would be permitted to secede from Mali in order to form their own nation. Not surprisingly, a sizable proportion of the Malian populace is incensed that a stable, popularly-elected government has been deposed by military strongmen. Again not surprisingly, the resistance is being led by the Tuaregs.
So when France unleashes bombing sorties against the so-called Islamist extremist terrorists, it’s siding with the leaders of the military coup that only last year overthrew the democratically elected government. The Malian government has also called on neighboring Algeria to aid in suppressing the resistance. Algeria’s history is similar to Mali’s. In 1991 an Islamist coalition won the popular elections. In response a military coup ensued, deposing the elected government and triggering a civil war in which something like 200 thousand people were killed. A democratic republic has subsequently been installed, but it’s clear that the military still controls the Algerian government.
Again not surprisingly, not a few Algerians take exception to the Algerian military strongmen going to the aid of the Malian military strongmen. And so in protest an armed Islamist faction took control of a natural gas field, holding local and foreign energy workers as hostages. The Algerian military came charging in, guns blazing, mowing down captors and captives alike.
Is this largely an ethnic skirmish, limited to an uprising among the minority Tuaregs who also happen to be supporters of sharia law? Or are the Tuaregs standing on the front lines of a more widespread popular resistance against the military dictators that have seized power in the country? I don’t know. An estimated 90% of Malians are Islamic, but that doesn’t mean most of them support the establishment of an Islamic state. But I’d be surprised if most of them prefer a military dictatorship to the elected government which it overthrew just last year.