The official website of Mohammed Ansar
The studies of a somewhat unknown and insignificant desk researcher for the British Army, was so successful in charting the differences of the Arab peoples, their languages, their customs, the subtle and major differences in creed; that it was used a template for engagement – ostensibly for division and conquering – during the first and second world wars. So good in fact was Thomas Edward Lawrence’s book, that it was still being used as an operations manual in the US and UK Iraqi invasion of 2003, which lead to the loss of some two million lives[i].
With political influence comes land. And with land, come assets. In 1878, at the Berlin Congress, Western powers met to divide up the Muslim world and Africa, between them. At the Congress, Britain and France made agreements and mutual concessions for dividing Muslim lands between them. The French beat Italy to taking control of Tunisia with the support of Bismark and the British. The British would focus on Egypt and Palestine. Germany, and Bismarck particularly, encouraged French expansion into Tunisia despite complaints from the Italians. In April 1881, under the pretext of a provoked border incident, a 30,000 man French Army invaded Tunisia. Within a month of invading, the French were at the capital and had forced the signing of the Treaty of Qasr Said. During the summer of 1881, the French forced the Bey to effectively sign away all Tunisian sovereignty. The Tunisian people resisted French occupation (arguably they never stopped) but by November 1881, the French had gained control over all of Tunisia.
By the late 1880s, French fiscal reforms included a new Tunisian national debt of Fr125m and guaranteed payments for French monopolies. For their trouble, the Tunisian Bey and his family received just over Fr1,000,000 per annum. However, the last, most lucrative and hardest to reach assets, were those held under the Islamic system of ‘waqf’ which were kept for the public good and charitable causes, and were exempt from the land grab. But not for long.
Eventually, the French ‘protectorate’ of Tunisia opened the floodgates to not only French but other European nations; the open pillaging of Tunisian resources, mining and legal land seizures continued as an economic bonanza for European nations. By the early 1900s, Tunisians who had owned their own land since antiquity had suddenly become tenants paying French owners. In 1881, the paltry 100,000 hectares of Tunisia claimed by the French had within 20 years, become almost 1,000,000 hectares. By 1913, Tunisia, which had previously been considered to be a jewel of the Islamic Empire, run peacefully and harmoniously under Islamic law, was now producing 300,000 gallons of wine for France.
And so we might say, the French, have form.
Tunisia remained in French control until 1955. Bourguiba, installed by the West as a dictator for life, was replaced by Ben Ali. Tunisia was the first of the North African-Arab nations to fall to European conquest and in a straight line to Bouazizi and the Arab Spring; it was the first to come out from under the yolk of oppression.
Tunisia formed the northern tip of ‘French West Africa’ which also included what is now Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali – which gained its independence from France in September 1960. West Africa has dense reserves of high-grade gold ore and so Mali now finds itself at the centre of a new global gold rush[ii] as the third largest gold producing country in Africa, behind South Africa and Ghana[iii]. When it comes to these matters, fortune literally, favours the brave. Brock Sailer, a mining analyst with GMP Securities Europe says his preferred destinations for gold are “Mali, the Kénieba inlier in Senegal and Burkina Faso” [iv]. Based on a GDP per capita of $691, Mali is one of the ten poorest nations in the world. Gold makes up a greater percentage of Mali’s GDP than for any other top 20 gold producing nation (19% of the GDP) and accounts for 75% of the country’s foreign exchange earnings[v].
2012 was a phenomenal year for gold mining and discovery in Mali. An incredible 12km long trail of Birimian gold was discovered, home to some of the most easily accessed reserves known. In Solona, easy access surface gold was discovered which sits less than 2m deep at a yielding 2.17g of gold per tonne. The Compass Gold Corporation which accounts for half of all Mali’s gold exploration and discoveries considers Yanfolila to have “soft, easy-to-mine and to process, material”[vi]. In August 2012, in light of these burgeoning resources, Compass raised a further $1.7m for exploration, backed notably by Australian, British and Canadian investors.
In 2003, Mali gold exports were worth approximately $672 million[vii] and whilst production is due to sky rocket, it has for the majority of the last decade been relatively steady[viii] although the last three years has seen a small decline[ix]. Notwithstanding that, over the last decade gold prices have tripled which means that quite reasonably, Mali’s gold output, at current levels without further production and subject to market prices, could be worth as much as $2bn a year[x]. Considering her vast gold wealth, Mali has a meagre military budget of $68 million. Compare this to, let’s say France, one of the world’s great gold superpowers with an ‘official’ gold holding of 2,435 tonnes and 71% of its foreign reserves in gold, surpassed only marginally by Italy, then Germany and the USA[xi]; who spends $62 billion on her military each year.
The US decided that West Africa was a place of strategic importance as part of its global war on terror, and it recognised that there was an increasing threat of extremism, albeit little on the ground evidence. To combat this potential threat, the US invested $500m into a five-year partnership between the State and Defense Departments and various nations – including Mali[xii]. In 2006, USAID ran the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) as part of this program. In 2011, the evaluation of the progress of the work was carried out by QED (a subcontractor to Amex International). The results were striking. Populations in Mali “exhibited attitudes and views less conducive to violent extremism than comparison populations in areas where less TSCTP programming had been present”; the counter terror programs and sponsored radio with messages of peace were had been successful particularly with the youth[xiii]. Mali could not be considered a threat.
Mali’s 10,000 strong US trained military needs to be compared to the radical extremist insurgency which had been estimated at no more than 200-300, poorly equipped, poorly funded people and unsurprisingly so considering Mali is the fifth poorest nation on the planet. In 2008, it was recognised that they had not attacked Malian forces and so the US and Mali government had adopted a “live-and-let-live” approach[xiv]. In 2011, the Mali government minister N’Diaye Bah stated that rumours of a security threat were false and the numbers of extremists were still considered to be at previous levels dispersed over the whole of Western Africa and the Maghreb. He said “France spread such rumours. They want to create this security issue that does not exist. When you come to Mali, there is no aggression against tourists. How can you say there is insecurity in this country?”[xv]
As French troops place boots on the ground in Mali supported by the British, it is time we looked deeper at the context, history and record of European intervention in West Africa. It is a long and ignoble record of exploitation, oppression, killing and profit. When it comes to war, the people are always sold a narrative by their governments – how else could such horrors be carried out, and how else could such cheques be written and how else could such orders be given let alone carried out. Yes, there is always a narrative but rarely is this narrative the complete truth.
In this age of austerity, the solution to growthlessness cannot be a return to colonial exceptionalism and intervention. It cannot a return to the rape and pillage of nations. It cannot be a return to exploitation and oppression. Mali has blossomed and she wears her finery in the open. Oscar Wilde quipped that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Well, it seems that Mali may well be a temptation too far for some. I can only hope and pray that this is not the case. Time will tell.