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Last Updated: 01/25/2013
And You thought the War On Terror was over? Not for François Hollande...
Victoria Fontan and Adolphe Kilomba

Victoria Fontan and Adolphe Kilomba discuss the context and motivations behind France's intervention in Mali, as well as some of the legal arguments used to justify it.

They say that there is no such thing as a free lunch… Is there any such thing as a “former colonial master/ benevolent savior”? The French initiated Operation Serval in Mali on January 11th 2013, officially to repel "an assault by terrorist elements coming from the north whose brutality and fanaticism is known across the world".[1] True, Mali has become the latest casualty of a Taliban-like rule that terrorizes the local populations subjected to it, all throughout Northern Mali. Public amputations for alleged thefts, and lapidations, have been conducted to apply Sharia law in the town of Gao.[2] Tombuctu´s cultural and architectural heritage has been destroyed.[3] Women are now forced to wear the Muslim hijab, and local populations are subjected to curfews and an Islamic police to enforce it. This represents the picture of a living hell for any Westerner.

To Peace and Conflict Studies scholars, this can be a frightening reminiscence of pre-2001 Afghanistan. We remember how many French intellectuals thought that Bush´s War on Terror was a grave mistake, how his rhetoric was plain ridiculous and grotesque. We saw his “smoke them out of their holes” narrative as that of a Texan dimwit who stole his way into the White House. Fast-forward a few years later, and dear President Francois Hollande is repeating exactly the same messages to his devoted public. He says he wants to “eradicate terrorism”[4]: good for him!

Talk of terrorism, extremism, and Islamism have permeated the French media over the past few months, culminating in an intervention that is supposed to ‘save Africans from themselves’. How could this be made more palatable to the French public only a few weeks after the repatriation of French troops from the Afghan quagmire? Let us try and ‘save’ a French hostage, intelligence officer Denis Alex, from the hands of evil ‘Islamists’ in Somalia, just a few days before the start of Operation Serval. This surely will show to the French public just how bad those ‘Islamists’ are. Who cares if the spook is sacrificed to the altar of state propaganda in a not-so secret last resort intervention, surely this is what he and his family signed up for all those years ago!

The situation in Mali since early 2012 has been one of the hot topics that drew the attention of the international community. After two decades of political stability and repetitive democratic elections, Mali remains weak with a powerless state apparatus. More than 50 years after their independences, African states still face the same problems as in the 1960s. They have not yet succeeded in freeing themselves from their former colonial empires.[5] Shamefully, former colonial powers continue to guide UN Security Council policy. Thus, the UN Security Council never passes a resolution concerning a given African state without listening first to its colonial sponsor. Since the 1990s, for example, we have seen the case of Francophone Africa with France with the Rwandan Genocide in 1994; the land reform where Zimbabwe succumbed under international economic sanctions leveraged by the UK; the strength trial in Cote d’Ivoire with France pulling strings at the UN Security Council; and now the French intervention in Mali. These few examples evidence how long and sinuous the way to decolonization remains.

If we look closely at the situation in Mali, it is clear that the conflict, which has opposed the Northern nomadic part of Mali to the rest of the country since the 1990s, was significantly exacerbated in March 2012, right after the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Since then, the Malian army has been unable to face the insurrection and has been regularly defeated by ‘Jihadists’.[6] After ten months of conflict and fruitless mediation, jointly led by the UN and the ECOWAS under the chairmanship of Bukinafaso, the situation took a turn for the worst since the beginning of January 2013.

The de facto ceasefire between the Malian government and all Islamic movements represented by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, MNLA, fell apart with the last attack of a splitter group, Ansar Din, in its attempt to take over Konna and Mopti in the South on the way to Bamako. In taking over those cities in the South, the Malian President officially invited France to intervene and protect the Malian Republic in jeopardy. Without any delay, France started deploying troops to confront Ansar Din. While other states in the international community are involved, France has led the intervention, as it did earlier in Libya.

The intervention has been differently interpreted. Some commentators saw it simply as a return to what has been usually called Françafrique.[7] Others saw it as the only way of efficiently addressing the Malian quagmire and preserving the integrity of the Malian state.

If only France was back to the good old Françafrique. If only the forces that are now being fought against were the same as before, easily bought, repelled and politically rewarded. What France does not realize is that it is playing with the big leagues, those of the so-called War on Terror.

Backtracking a few years, and transposing the conflict in Afghanistan, what do we see? We see religious forces, formerly backed and armed by a Western power, taking over a country and imposing an interpretation of Sharia Law to an intimidated population. We see a foreign intervention to ‘free’ this population. (Interestingly, this intervention was not generated by a 911-type of attack, yet did generate an act of terrorism only a few days later in neighboring Algeria, in the In Amenas gas plant.)

We then foresee a quagmire involving guerilla-type fighting, with the western power´s local allies committing war crimes, etc. We also see a potential spillover into neighboring countries, a further radicalization of Islamists worldwide, further use of drones, and state terror. Far fetched? The scenario is so familiar that the world champion of such interventions, the United States of America, is not even interested in taking part in this. That should be an alarm bell right there for any sane strategist. Not the French government, however, whose chutzpah is even greater than that is the world´s self-appointed super power.

Let us remember that only a year ago, the brilliant French strategy in Mali was to empower some nomads to fight against groups close to al-Qaeda. Let us also recall that among those nomads, some were part of Muammar Qaddafi´s army, while others were close to the Libyan insurgency, whose members such as Bengazi Governor Abdelhakim Belhaj were themselves close to al-Qaeda.[8] Throw in a lot of available weapons due to the demise of the formerly tightly controlled Gaddafi regime, and take into account the clan and family ties, and it is rather obvious that few will actually choose to fight their cousins for the sake of their former colonial master.

Let us also remember some very basic principles of insurgency. After the insurgency is formed, it will likely commit acts of terrorism in order to elicit a state response, which will often victimize a local population caught in the crossfire.[9] The acts of terrorism committed by France´s ‘enemies’ in Mali were against the Malian State institutions, as well as foreign interests in the region, particularly in Algeria. The regime in Algeria has been one of the bloodiest against Islamists since the 1990s, responsible for the death of thousands of civilians. For the French to side with this bloody regime in response to the In Amenas hostage crisis was a brilliant move on part of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI). It will only enhance their reach in the region, as well as in Mali.[10] Moreover, the Malian Army troops, also allied to the French, have already started to commit war crimes.[11] Did President Hollande have the impression that on top of having “just wars”, we also had clean wars?

Unsurprisingly, regarding just wars, the legal scholarship limits itself in analyzing the legal framework of such an intervention. The legal mainstream is deservedly considering the French intervention in Mali internationally “legal” vis-à-vis public international law due to the UN Security Council Resolution authorizing the deployment of an international force supporting the state of Mali. The French intervention in Mali also derives international legality from the official invitation of the President of Mali to the French Government to intervene militarily into its territory. Other international legal thinkers looking to justify the intervention may be tempted to refer to the responsibility to protect. (We all know how well that turned out in Libya, since a few months down the line we are discussing its side effects.)

So why is France in Mali today? Look no further than economic interests in the region, specifically Niger with the exploitation of Uranium, as well as the power contest between France and the US since the official launching of AFRICOM over a year ago. More than 10 days into the operation, it is now clearly out in the open: French Special Forces will be protecting Areva´s mining sites in Niger, just as US troops ‘protected’ the Iraqi Ministry of Oil during the looting of Baghdad in April 2003. Same stupidity, different country: history is repeating itself almost 10 years on, albeit with far less criticism from the bastions of Liberal Peace, since after all, this is just ‘Africa’, and on top of this, the enemies are Muslims.

In the wise words of French Professor Michel Galy, the Hollande War on Terror that is unfolding in Mali is no more than part of a longstanding “War on Africa”.[12] It will drag on, and will have devastating consequences for the region and its people. Let us not worry though; this will give us, the peace industry workers, people to ‘save’ for years to come, just like in good old Afghanistan.

[1], accessed on January 25th 2013.

[2], accessed on January 25th 2013.

[3], accessed on January 25th 2013.

[4], accessed on January 2013.

[5] Caplan, Gerald. 2008. The Betrayal of Africa. Groundwood Books.

[6] Jihadists: This is how fellows of MUJWA, AQIM and En sar Edine call themselves. They call the war they started a holy war.

[7] Françafrique: This is the name that explains the fuzzy and usually un-understandable between France and its former colonies. This concept has gained momentum by Mister Jacques Foccart, the former main adviser of Charles De Gaulle. He served as such under François Mitterrand as well. For further details of this magic word of the former Ivoirian President Felix Houphouet-Boigny implemented later by Jacques Foccart, please take a look of Patrick Pesnot. 2011. Les Dessous de la Françafrique, Nouveau Monde Poche, Paris.

[8], accessed on January 25th 2013.

[9] Trinquier, Roger, 2006. Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. Praeger Security International, Westport.

[10], accessed on January 25th 2013.

[11], accessed on January 25th, 2013.

[12], accessed on January 25th 2013.

Victoria Fontan is an Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the UN-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica. Her latest book, Decolonizing Peace, is available from Dignity Press. Adolphe Kilomba is a Senior Fellow at the Law school at Catholic Univrsity of Bukavu, DRCongo.