May 21, 2013
Blue Man Coup, Part 2: War for God, Country and Cocaine
Posted on May 16, 2012
By Susan Zakin
Harmon’s analysis will sound familiar to anyone who has followed U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, where for decades the U.S. propped up repressive dictatorships to buttress its “sphere of influence.” In Mali, and in Africa generally, U.S. counterterrorism efforts have bolstered the arsenals of unpopular, corrupt and repressive regimes, inadvertently creating even more support for “terrorist” organizations.
The real problem for the U.S. may be that there are no white hats in the desert. But if anyone is sympathetic in this scenario, it’s the Tuareg. Alliances between the Tuareg resistance and radical Islamists in northern Mali appear to be tactical and easily broken, and tensions between these groups outweigh their commonalities. The overarching goal of most Tuareg is simply to survive, while preserving their culture. And the biggest threat to the Tuareg’s survival is not Mali’s current political predicament, but oil, gold and uranium.
It’s hard to dismiss the nagging suspicion that at the crossroads of the Sahara, symbolizing the flux of globalization itself, it’s all about the Benjamins for Islamic freedom fighters and Great Satan Americans alike. The economic stakes in northern Mali are potentially enormous. It may be one of the world’s poorest countries, but Mali is also the third-largest producer of gold in Africa. Canada is the major player, with at least two corporations, Iamgold and Avion Gold, engaged in mining operations in the south. With gold reserves waiting to be tapped in the north, Mali was selected by Canada in 2009 as one of six African “countries of focus” fpr Canadian aid.
There are likely to be even bigger stakes in oil, uranium and bauxite. Exploratory drilling showed promise in the north’s Taoudeni basin, at Mali’s border with Mauritania and Algeria, as early as the 1970s. Algeria’s national oil company, Sonatrach, and Canadian owned Selier Energy bought significant stakes in the region in 2007, but those projects are on hold because of the recent instability.
“Niger is to the nuclear industry what Saudi Arabia is to the oil industry,” said Okey Iheduru, a professor at Arizona State University who consults on risk assessment. It certainly hasn’t been lost on the MNLA fighters that in Niger, uranium mining takes place on traditional Tuareg land, and Tuareg miners, some of whom begin working as young as 11, are exposed to high levels of radiation.
It sounds like a graffiti by Banksy, or perhaps a line from “1984,” but with massive, potentially unregulated mining and oil drilling on the horizon, the motto for the Tuareg insurgents should be: “Fear Peace.”
Instability may keep the oil and uranium companies at bay but at a price. Successive droughts over the past decade—Niger saw a 70 percent drop in average precipitation in 2009 – had made life in the Sahara increasingly difficult even before the events of this spring.
Baz Lecocq, a lecturer at Belgium’s Ghent University and a well-regarded commentator on the Sahara, recently wrote of an impending crisis. “This year, there is no food surplus and no pasture left to sustain people and herds through the heat in northern Mali,” he wrote on the website African Arguments on March 30. “Those who have not already fled the fighting in early January will have a very hard time getting out now. ... [T]he drought of recent years is building up to a hunger season that could well become a famine on a disastrous scale.”
If you think Bamako is hot in April, Lecocq warned, try Kidal in a shady noon at around 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
If we have learned anything, it is that these crises are neither natural nor inevitable, but the product of egregious mistakes repeated so consistently that starvation in Africa has become our era’s ritualized tragedy, a performance of suffering that offers those in the West an emotional rush but no challenge to understand how the debacle occurred or to face their own countries’ roles in it.
In the face of an uncertain future, the persistence of Tuareg spirit is both comforting and disturbing, a harbinger of an increasingly borderless world that is not ungoverned, but whose rules and boundaries may be determined by varieties of free trade that Milton Friedman never imagined.
“We are military artists!” Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, one of Grammy Award-winning Tuareg band Tinariwen’s guitarists and singers, told a journalist from Algérie News in the spring. “Today, if we see that our brothers need fighters rather than musicians, we will go to the front, because we are always ready to answer the call of the preservation of our land, our values and our culture. This is what we do through music, and we will do it again with arms!”
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