The bloodshed at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria has brought into focus the deteriorating situation in north and west Africa and the role of France in the region. The rhetoric of the “long war” against terrorism is back. So is Western military involvement in yet another region. About fifty of the more than eighty people killed in the Algerian siege were foreign and local Arab hostages, captured in the country’s vast southeastern desert.
On the surface, it was difficult to agree with the Algerian government’s assertion, greeted by reluctant nods in Western capitals, that the military operation by Algeria’s special forces was a success. All except a few militants were also killed, but almost certainly they had gone there to die, and kill as many of their hostages as they could to gain worldwide publicity.
Escape across open desert when the Algerian military and others had their eyes on the besieged gas facility was a forlorn hope. The Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sallal, said that among the hostage-takers were Canadian citizens, and the militant group had help of inside knowledge. Canadian passports were found on two charred bodies, and Britain’s Channel 4 News reported there being gunmen also from Algeria, as well as Mali, Niger, and Libya, from where they drove to the remote facility some fifty miles away. These emerging facts contradicted the British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s denial that Western intervention in Libya had fuelled the spread of extremism in north and west Africa.
William Hague, indeed the British and French governments, are in a difficult position. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan rejected the notion that events in Algeria had nothing to do with Mali to the South and Libya to the east. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya led to the collapse of his armed forces, and made large numbers of soldiers of Tuareg tribes, who had fought for Gaddafi, leave for neighboring countries including Mali, where a Tuareg rebellion was under way. We have seen this phenomenon before, in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. Now it is unfolding in North Africa and the Sahel region, dry and barren, with increasing ferocity.
Just as Afghanistan was a United States-led venture from the beginning, Britain and France were particularly aggressive Western players in Libya, ultimately pushing President Barack Obama to join the campaign with U.S. military power to overthrow Col. Gaddafi. We saw France under Nicolas Sarkozy, and Britain under David Cameron, take the lead in political terms in Libya, with Obama “leading from behind.” Arrangements of this kind suit Obama, for he can create the illusion that America is not a unilateralist superpower like it was under George W. Bush. In fact no military venture can possibly succeed without U.S. approval, indeed participation in some form. The distinction is academic.
The leaders of France and Britain have an uncanny resemblance in their passion for war. When they were not in power, Hollande and Cameron appeared reluctant supporters at best, and at times critical of their leaders’ enthusiasm for foreign military expeditions. Now, as they struggle with acute economic difficulties and mass discontent at home, Hollande and Cameron have been quick to assume the status of war leaders.
The French-led intervention, with growing British involvement, in Mali, and possibly in other failing states, risks a scenario similar to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Both France and Britain seek to entice the United States to take on an increasingly bigger military role. Awareness of history and present interests in the region are important to avoid naïve acceptance of official rhetoric. France is the ex-colonial power of Mali, and Britain’s young prime minister shows the old imperial temperament long after the British Empire was lost.
France and Britain connive with Mali’s military junta, which is barely in control of events following two coups in 2012 that destroyed an imperfect democratic system in that impoverished country. It would have been far more preferable to intervene to strengthen the political institutions, and thus prevent the insubordinate military officers. Are such follies a symptom of a pathological instinct in great powers of the past and present to leave it till it is too late, and then go with all guns blazing? Or is their aim to control territory and resources of others through client regimes lacking legitimacy?
Chinese investment in Africa over the years also must be checked for the West’s access to energy and raw materials. France had made a strategic decision to go for nuclear power in the wake of the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Four decades on, more than three-fourths of electricity needed is generated in about sixty nuclear plants spread all over France. Mali’s confirmed and potential deposits of uranium amount to seventeen thousand tons or more; then there is gold; and Mali, Niger, Libya as well as Nigeria together have vast oil wealth. There is a lot to fight for, but there could be a heavy price to pay.