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Mali and the collapse of nation-states

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

You may have missed this in the news but over the last several months the West African nation of Mali has been unraveling. There is very little attention in the mainstream media and the situation seems to move from bad to worse.

The gist of the situation is that a revolt broke out in the northern part of Mali among the ethnic group known as the Touareg or Azawad. They are a Berber people who live in the Saharan region of Africa. There has been a long-standing ethnic tension in Mali (going back to when Mali became independent of France) and in the aftermath of the overthrow of Col. Qaddafi in Libya, guns began flowing very freely into northern Mali. The government of Mali attempted to stop the rebellion, but suffered a series of military defeats. This ultimately led to a military coup against the government of Mali. As a result, the country has in effect become a divided land with the northern part in the hands of various rebel groups and the southern part under a military dictatorship.

The fact that the rebellion has resulted in various rebel groups operating in the northern part of Mali set the stage for chaos and a retreat into Muslim fundamentalist irrationalism on the part of some of the forces. For instance, the historic city of Timbuktu has been occupied by fundamentalists who have proceeded to destroy historic sites.

While some people will focus on the problem of Muslim fundamentalism in Mali, the major problems revolve around 1) the inability of states created as a result of European colonialism to survive in the current era without an economy that they control and that serves the needs of their people; 2) the lack of popular democracy, and 3) an inability and/or unwillingness to resolve long-standing ethnic issues. With regard to ethnic conflict, there is the specific problem faced by the Touareg. They are found not only in Mali, but in several countries in that region. They have raised demands for national equality and national sovereignty. But these demands have largely been ignored by the dominant forces in the respective countries leading to slippage into ethnic strife and civil war.

These forces did not pop out of nowhere. The Libyan revolution and the NATO intervention helped to unleash unintended consequences. It is also the case that some of these same forces have been created or backed by various governments in the region in order to serve as proxy armies to carry out their own objectives.

Mali must be saved through negotiations and the active role of its neighbors. It cannot be allowed to sink to the level of another Somalia, a country broken and all but forgotten until yet another disaster unfolds.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies. He can be reached at

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