Terrorism is just one of many scourges to beset the people of Mali [90% Muslims]for decades:
Blaming al-Qaida or neo-colonialism is too simple in a country where many have been marginalised for too long.
Mali updates >>>>
Mali updates >>>>
There are two versions of recent events in Mali, which have emerged in recent weeks, each suggesting that the explanation for the takeover of the country's north by Islamist groups is terribly simple.
We wouldn't be in this mess, runs the first argument, if it weren't for the huge numbers of weapons that came into Mali after the west brought down the Gaddafi regime in neighbouring Libya; and if the US military advisers had not trained some of those who defected to the Islamist cause; and if the west was not secretly just interested in Mali's resources. In other words, it's the west's neocolonialism that is to blame.
The second argument is simpler still. It blames Mali's problems on the intervention of a resurgent al-Qaida, whatever that appellation means these days. This argument frames Mali as a global security problem on Europe's doorstep. This is the version preferred by some European governments, not least the French, and that led to their military intervention in Mali.
Like so much that has been written recently about Mali – and about the al-Qaida-affiliated groups currently fighting French and Malian forces – both accounts are too ideologically pat to describe what has really taken place.
Instead, Mali's escalating problems, which spilled over into Algeria last week, are better described as the culmination of half a century of tensions between different groups in Mali. These have been exacerbated by a long period of the government playing competing interests off against each other; and also by the sudden availability of weapons in the Tuareg and Arab communities of the country's impoverished north who have long chafed under Bamako's rule.
The reality is that if western governments and institutions have been at fault it has been over their long-running and blithe acceptance and promotion of the "procedural" version of democracy adopted by the country's upper and middle classes in Bamako. That is, more interested in establishing a system than in public participation. This is a democracy that has been neither socially nor regionally inclusive. In that respect, we should not perhaps be terribly surprised. What's more, Mali is hardly the first place where progress towards democracy has been largely overhyped. Think of Rwanda, Iraq or even Afghanistan in the immediate post-Taliban period.
The facts make for depressing reading. Mali's arid north, which accounts for some 70% of the country's territory (although only 10% of its population), has long been one of the poorest regions in Africa. It has been starved of central government investment and international aid, its population marginalised under both the leftwing government that ruled Mali through most of the 1960s and the military regime that followed. Investment, however, did increase during the mid-1990s with the transition to democracy.
In addition to these issues, there has long been resentment among the rural Tuaregs and Arabs over their inclusion in the Malian state. The first Tuareg revolt took place not long after independence in 1960. It was brutally suppressed, with the north placed under military control.
A second Tuareg rebellion, at the start of the 1990s, quickly developed into a far more complex low-level conflict. A sort of competition in rebellion emerged with the more sedentary Songhai community (protected by its own militia) and between different Tuareg and Arab militant groups who fought among each other for supremacy. All this was deliberately exploited by the central government in Bamako. There were also rising tensions between traditional tribal nobles and those lower in the hierarchy. A fractious peace lasted from the mid-1990s until 2006, when another outbreak of violence took place.
In Mali's post-dictatorship history, Bamako's response to these periodic outbreaks of rebellion has, depressingly, remained the same – a "militiatary" policy that meant that different groups armed to neutralise each other. That policy was pursued over a long period even as former peace agreements were largely allowed to slip on their commitments and old grievances allowed to fester.
Indeed, close analysts of developments in Mali have been concerned for almost a decade by the increasing dysfunctional nature of the country's government, as well as by the re-emergence of Tuareg and Islamist armed factions in the north.
The International Crisis Group noted in a report last July that in former president Touré's time in power, "relations between the centre of power in Bamako and the periphery rested on a loose network of personal, clientelistic, even mafia-style alliances". It's a low-cost system of governance that, continued the report, " disintegrated when faced with a rebellion that was quickly transformed into a well-armed group by the effects of the Libyan crisis and the opportunism of Islamist groups".
If the neocolonialist depiction of Mali's problems are lacking, then the second focus on "al-Qaida" as a cause of Mali's difficulties is not much more helpful. There have been regional factors at work in destabilising Mali. Relying on senior Arab tribal figures in the north, who often combined both Islamist political interests with involvement in the smuggling of cigarettes and drugs and people, Touré struggled to resist the Algerian-dominated al-Qaida establishing itself in northern Mali. They had forged relationships with the same tribal figures.
However, the reality is that al-Qaida style groups, where they have established themselves, have been a symptom of existing instability and weak governance. This also applies to Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen, where they have struggled to win any measure of popular support for their extremist ambitions. In the context of Mali and the wider region, many of these groups have also been synonymous with criminality as well as jihad.
Indeed, as Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist who has spent five years in Mali, argued in his blog, Bridges from Bamako, last week, many of the Islamist fighters in the north, including the group led by Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, are viewed with deep suspicion. "Malians," he argues, "widely perceive these groups as foreign invaders, motivated by racism and greed as well as a perverted, even ignorant view of their faith."
While only a fool would predict what may come to pass in Mali and the Sahel in the coming months, one thing is clear. If and when the French and African intervention comes to a conclusion, whatever new democratic government is installed in Bamako needs to talk to those who have so long been held at arm's length, at Mali's margins.
Any new attempt to establish democracy must be one that is genuinely inclusive, not a neoliberal version designed only for the elites. That is the real guarantee of stability, a stability that would leave little room for al-Qaida-affiliated groups.
A Timbuktu Test For Europe: