The Myth of "Africanistan"

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Le Mali entame le dialogue avec les Touaregs (6972875286)
The Myth of "Africanistan" - Evan Fowler

On April 6, 2012, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) proclaimed “irrevocably the independent state of Azawad” in northern Mali, a territory that comprised about two-thirds of the Malian state.1 The declaration of independence underscored a commitment to existing international borders, an adherence to the United Nations Charter and a dedication to fostering lasting peace within a democratic, constitutional Azawad.2 Azawadi independence was the culmination of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, in which the Tuareg revolted against Bamako and Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted for his counter-insurgency strategy.

The forces that had taken control in the north were a patchwork coalition of Tuareg nationalists and Islamist guerrillas. The alliance eventually fell to infighting, with Islamist factions such as Ansar Dine, Movement for the Oneness of Jihad in West Africa, and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hijacking the rebellion in pursuit of a Sharia-governed Islamic state. These Islamists overwhelmed the MLNA and gained control of the chief northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. In response to this Islamic ascendency, northern Mali became the poster-child for ‘Africanistan,’ with African and foreign diplomats referring to it as the “Afghanistan of West Africa.”3 The events in Mali, buoyed by Islamists in Somalia and northern Nigeria, all contributed to this underlying fear of “Africanistan.”4 The approbation of this dubious moniker is unsettling. Not only does it fail to reflect the realities on the ground, but use of the term is a cultural misappropriation both sensationalist and ignorant.

The two most important factors that draw a link between the two cases are organized crime, particularly the drug trade, and the role of internationalist political Islam. Firstly, Mali, along with other West African countries like Guinea Bissau and Guinea, has been transformed into a conduit in the “smuggling networks” that transport cocaine into Europe.5 But any comparison with Afghanistan is hollow. Cocaine trafficking in Mali resembles more of a rebirth of the Trans-Saharan trade than an Afghan-style narco-state. Mali is crucial in the transportation network for this Latin American cocaine, rather than its source. The drug trade does not provide tangible benefits to average Malians, and unlike Afghanistan, the lack of poppy farmers translates into “no popular support” for the drug trade.6 The drug trade, alongside other forms of organized crime including kidnapping, is a far cry from the examples of Central Asia.

More important is the relationship between Islamism, Mali and Afghanistan. Out of a population of sixteen million, more than ninety percent of Malians are Muslims. But the Malians practice “a peaceful interpretation of Islam that is an amalgam of local culture and traditions.”7 This tolerant form extends into the matrilineal Tuareg society, where women are unveiled and property rights are not restricted by gender. The injection of foreign, radical and internationalist Islamist ideology is seen as “an affront to an entire way of life” that has existed among African Muslims, which blends Islamic and African traditions.8 Before being ousted by the French intervention into Mali, Islamists were condemned for their destruction of artifacts and shrines in Timbuktu. As Gregory Mann of Columbia University points out, this destruction is not akin to the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. As Mann describes it, “those were Buddhas without Buddhists”, criticism being voiced primarily by the international community. Timbuktu’s legacy is central to that of its inhabitants, its people, and a larger Afro-Islamic identity.9

There are other considerations that should be made. Unlike Afghanistan, where the institutional tradition has been weak and decentralized, Mali has “a longer history of at least some centralized rule.”10 France’s colonial history and its post-colonial experience with Africa has also meant that, in some ways, it is better equipped to deal with Mali than Americans were in the unfamiliar Hindu Kush. Mali is a francophone country, and this linguistic compatibility is a factor that allows the French to “build friendships with key local leaders.”11 There is also the aspect of ethnicity. Unlike in Afghanistan, cross-border ethnicity is more muted. It is telling that in the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, Tuareg did not stream in from neighboring countries like Niger. Finally, it should be mentioned that the “Malian government asked [France] to come assist in repelling the Islamists.”12 This was not an invasion against the established government. France has also stated clearly its straightforward objective of ridding northern Mali of Islamists and pledged to work with both the United Nations and ECOWAS, to establish long-term peace building efforts. To this end, the United Nations has agreed to send a “12,000-strong peacekeeping force” to Mali as the French mission comes to a close.13 This force will likely face the “asymmetrical” warfare of Islamist organizations as it attempts to bring stability and security to the country.14 

The use of ‘Africanistan’ as an all-encompassing appellation is wrong. It stirs up images of an unwinnable, quagmire of a conflict, that will consume those who are combating the rise of virulent, international terror networks. By using this term, it renders any solution impossible, conjuring up feelings of hopelessness and disparity. This can only lead policymakers to resign themselves to an inevitability that is not inevitable. As the world has witnessed since 2010 with the African Union Mission to Somalia and Al-Shabaab, there are solutions that can foster positive developments. With a new government in Mogadishu and a flourishing of international support for President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, Somalia has been able to regain ground against the chorus of naysayers. But through the continued application of Africanistan, the world threatens to squander an opportunity for new solutions by confining itself to ones that have failed a world away from the African continent. Instead, one must seek indigenous solutions that will address root causes, empower local populations and overcome the plethora of challenges that make these conflicts unique.