The four day-long hostage crisis at the major ‘In Amenas’ gas facility in South East Algeria and its bloody outcome have sent shockwaves internationally. In this raid and the response to it from the Algerian military, at least one Algerian worker, 37 hostages and 29 attackers were killed.
The group responsible for the attack, named “Al Mulathameen Brigade” (“the Brigade of the Masked ones”), warned it would carry out further attacks on foreign interests unless the foreign military offensive in Northern Mali stopped. In the aftermath, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, warned that the fight against terrorism in North Africa could go on “for decades”.
Many people are legitimately repulsed by the actions of reactionary jihadist groups such as the one which carried out the operation on the Algerian complex. This has added to the numerous reports giving evidence of the gruesome methods of rule imposed by Islamist fighters in Northern Mali, with summary executions, beatings, amputations, torture, stonings, the banning of music and destruction of holy shrines.
This barbarism provides the main reserve of ideological ammunition to the defenders of the military intervention by the French army in this region, which currently seems to have significant approval ratings in public opinion. Latest polls indicate that support for “Operation Serval” among the French population is currently over 60%. Nevertheless, the recent developments in Algeria indicate that this ground military offensive, contrary to official arguments, is likely to generate further meltdown and violence in the region.
For the moment, most media reports imply that Malians, particularly in the South, in their great majority welcome the French intervention. Aside from the propaganda which inevitably accompanies such war episodes, at this stage many Malians might genuinely think and hope that foreign intervention by the French government could protect them from some of the horrendous armed bands which terrorize the Northern population.
The mood among the population in different parts of the country, is though difficult to independently gauge, especially in the North, where both Mali’s ‘transitional government’ - essentially the political facade of a military regime - and the French military are restricting journalists from access to the combat zones. In most of the fighting areas, soldiers have received orders not to let reporters through, while some journalists even had their cameras and other material taken away by the authorities.
The fact that efforts are being made to avoid free reporting is in itself enough to raise serious suspicions about the real agenda of the Malian military rulers and of the French power. Could this have some sort of relation with the accumulation of reports revealing atrocities committed by the Malian army? Only days into the start of the military operations, the International Federation for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International already document cases of summary executions by the Malian army and pro-governmental militias.
For long in Mali, a diverse set of ethnic groups have been forced to coexist in an artificially-created State, exclusively set up to respond to the colonial masters’ wishes and divide-and-rule tactics. The mainly Northern-based and Nomadic Tuaregs, in particular, have long been subdued, and have seen their demands for self-determination and cultural rights systematically denied by Mali’s central State.
They have been scapegoated by successive Malian regimes in attempts to draw attention away from their inability to solve the problems facing the population. Following past Tuareg rebellions, violent racist reprisals, including massacres and forced displacements of population, have been imposed on Tuareg people.
The downfall of Gaddafi’s dictatorship in Libya, which had been part of the political landscape for 43 years, and which used to rely upon a number of ethnic and tribal allegiances, opened a sort of ‘Pandora’s box’ within and beyond its borders, as a Libyan weak workers movement was unable to impose its own solution in the face of regionalist and tribal tensions, as well as a growing patchwork of rival armed militias.
These events, combined with the NATO military intervention in that country, unleashed an important amount of weaponry, as well as thousands of Tuaregs -some armed and trained in the past by the Gaddafi regime - down to the Saharan south.
A new armed Tuareg revolt, precipitated by the Libyan crisis, exploded in the North of Mali at the beginning of 2012. This was not a mass movement democratically organised from below however, but rather an armed rebellion by a few thousand fighters, whose level of popularity among Tuaregs themselves is disputed.
This rebellion was rapidly derailed, pushed away, or defeated by better-armed and equipped fundamentalist groups, themselves divided into different formations. Part of these groups, such as the so-called AQMI, “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (an offshoot of armed jihadist groups dating back from the 1990s Algerian civil war), were active in the region for quite some time.
The unresolved Tuareg question is one of the underlying reason explaining why, when this Tuareg rebellion erupted early last year, entire Malian army units of Tuareg commanders and soldiers in the North seized the occasion to defect and join with their weapons and equipment their rebel counterparts.
The latter were mostly organised in the secular-leaning pro-independence movement, the MNLA (‘National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad’). However, the Tuaregs can hardly rely on the existing MNLA to fight for their rights. Recently, an MNLA spokesperson called, on behalf of this organisation, to rally support for the French army’s intervention. This followed the conclusion of a temporary agreement with right-wing Islamist groups early last year.
This shows the impasse in which the MNLA has found itself, because of its inability to build mass support. Its leaders have been prepared to make opportunist twists-and-turns in order to preserve their own power and influence, on the back of the Tuareg people they claim to represent.
In an article written last October, a Guardian reporter told of when an MNLA emissary delivered a political speech talking of “Us, the people of Azawad”, then later left the refugee camp in his Mercedes, while the rest of the “people of Azawad” had to line up to get humanitarian aid!
Ethnic retaliations and human rights abuses by the Malian army
As the Malian army, backed up by the French and ECOWAS forces, retakes control of towns and cities it had lost, collective punishments of the local population, and a bloody settling of accounts with the Tuareg and Arab minorities in particular, are feared to escalate. Some credible reports already point in this direction.
In the towns of Sévaré and Niono in central Mali, evidence of revengeful massacres and “man-hunting” operations, corpses being thrown in shafts by the army, soldiers preventing outside witnesses to leave the city, and other serious abuses have been collected in the last few days. Two local young people interviewed by a French journalist explained that “Being Arab, Tuareg or dressed in the traditional way for someone who is not from Sévaré, is enough to make you disappear. Wearing a beard is a suicide”.
The Malian ‘model’
These examples unveil a dark side of a war promoted through the usual banner of “human rights” and “democracy”. They undermine the “Good versus Evil” version of the war portrayed by Western capitalist politicians. A report by Amnesty International has for example brought to light, even before the military offensive began, that the use of child-soldiers was not the exclusive practise of jihadist fighters, but was also adopted by Malian officers and pro-governmental militias.
The reality is that the much praised “exemplary” beacon of “democracy” and “stability” that Mali was supposed to represent, never was. The regime of Amadou Toumani Touré (“ATT”), during the last two-decades, was nothing but a corrupt, clientelistic and authoritarian power. Many of its own senior officials were directly involved in the narcotics trade and took their share of the profits of trafficking and kidnapping operations of all sorts, with the help of some of those gangsters in the North and the Sahara desert who are now designated as ‘terrorists’, against whom the present war is being waged.
Indeed, an inconvenient truth is that the activities of groups such as AQMI and other armed gangs were tolerated for years by the regime in Bamako. They were seen an essential vector for criminal circuits providing personal enrichment for corrupt high-ranking officials in the government and the army (according to the UN Office of Drugs Control, 60% of Europe’s cocaine transits through Mali), but could also be used as a counterbalance to the influence and demands of the Tuaregs.
In the army, Generals would sit in lavishly decorated offices while soldiers were sometimes sent to the battlefield without proper boots. The resentment and anger of rank-and-file soldiers against the corruption at the top, and against the unwillingness of ATT’s regime to lead a serious fight against the armed groups in the North, was a key element in the process that led to last March’s military coup by Junior officers. The coup was ironically led by a US-trained captain, Amadou Sanogo, and led to the demise of the Malian ‘democratic regime’ of ATT.
Suspicious that the new ruling junta would escape their control, western powers initially rejected this new power. They even decided, after the coup, to suspend aid to Mali, leading the whole society into even greater poverty as a result. They subsequently shifted their attitude, realising that Sanogo, who initially leant on anti-elite and populist rhetoric to gain support, was wavering and was ultimately ready to collaborate with imperialism.
Northern Mali: an ongoing social and humanitarian disaster
The devastating effects provoked by the neo-liberal policies of the Western-backed regime of ATT, which allowed French capital to take major stakes in the Malian economy, have ruined the lives of many, dramatically increasing poverty, precariousness and mass unemployment.
Mali is today one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 175 out of 187 countries in the UN Development Programme’s 2011 human development index. The country has higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, disease, and malnutrition than most countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and an illiteracy rate of 75%.
The long-standing social marginalisation of the Northern part of the territory in particular, and the lack of investment and infrastructure in these areas have created an ocean of dire misery and a strong level of resentment and despair.
Also, all experts say that droughts in the Sahel are set to deepen and become more frequent, as rainfalls dry up and global warming takes its toll – an environmental disaster for all the people of the region, almost entirely dependent on farming and animal herding.
The sharp fall in the tourism industry due to the increasing level of violence has been an aggravating factor, with a disastrous impact on some areas and cities completely dependent on tourist activities to survive.
This cocktail has created a terrible ongoing social catastrophe, and a fertile ground for the development of a quasi-lawless land, made up of a complex interplay of drug-smuggling mafia and armed militias, alongside al-Qaeda type fighters, kidnappers and bandits of all sorts.
A war for domination and profit
Despite a series of turbulent political episodes since Sanogo’s coup, reflecting the organic political crisis in the country, this coup is still the ‘birth-act’ of the current interim government. Formally speaking, this reduces the democratic legitimacy of those who hold power in Bamako to zero.
Yet this does not prevent the French government exploiting the fact that this very same military regime supposedly ‘requested’ France to intervene, as a tool of propaganda to nourish the idea that intervention was decided upon because the Malian people “asked” the French army to come at their rescue!
But how long are we supposed to believe that this war has nothing to do with the fact that Mali overflows with gold, uranium, bauxite, iron, manganese, tin and copper? Or with the fact that neighbouring Niger is the source of over a third of the uranium used in French nuclear power plants?
The crude reality is that the military escalation in the Sahel, defended under the banner of a “war on terror”, is aimed at nothing else than pursuing France’s imperialist goals: guaranteeing the continuation of the looting of the region’s vast resources, all for the benefits of its multinationals and financial institutions.
French companies are not the only ones with a growing appetite for this region of the world. For instance, Chinese direct investments in Mali increased 300-fold from 1995 to 2008. Mali actually ranks with Zambia, South Africa and Egypt among African countries where China has made its largest investments.
Also, a joint report from the German foreign office and ministry of defence shows that a budget of more than three million euros was allocated for German activities in Mali since the beginning of 2009. An additional expenditure of 3.3 million euros is planned for the years 2013 to 2016. Clearly, this war fits into a wider, competing struggle between the different powers for regional influence and access to important resources and markets.
Towards a ‘Sahelistan’?
Politicians and commentators have warned against the development of a so-called ‘Sahelistan’, i.e. a safe heaven for terrorist groups in the Sahel region.
Of course, no socialist or progressive-minded people could share the slightest sympathy for jihadist and Al Qaeda-type groups, whose poisonous ideology and methods are a deadly danger for the workers’ movement and the poor masses generally. A place where teenage couples risk death by stoning if they hold hands in public is a repellent prospect for the overwhelming majority of workers and youth.
These groups pretend to apply God’s will but are not without their own contradictions. This involves carrying out practices such as the amputation or whipping of people who smoke cigarettes while being themselves involved in cigarettes and drugs smuggling. For some of these groups, the religious ideology might be of a secondary concern, and sometimes just a cover for mafia-style activities and more vested interests.
These reactionary groups mushroom out of a rotten organism, incapable to provide a way out and a decent life for vast segments of the population, especially the youth. Fear, desperation for means of survival, access to money, guns or protection, or simply the lack of an attractive alternative to fight against corrupt local elites and foreign invaders, motivate people to join these groups. In the absence of a strong and independent movement by the working class, united along with the urban and rural poor, to deliver a perspective and programme for social and political change, these armed groups can continue to exist.
But all this does not make the military intervention more justifiable. Nor does it relieve the warmongering imperialist powers and their ruling puppets in Bamako from their own primary responsibility for the situation which has developed.
Initial reports of French air strikes against the cities of Gao and Konna last week estimated there were between 60 and 100 people killed respectively in those two cities, including children torn to pieces by the bombs. French military officials themselves warn that scores of civilian deaths are almost ‘unavoidable’ as the rebels are living among the population and using guerrilla-type tactics for hiding and supplies.
Military intervention: a quick fix?
All this shed serious doubts on the proclaimed aim of a short military campaign of “a few weeks”. Once again, it is one thing to invade a country and to have a few initial military successes, but it is another to pull out and to rely on a weak, unpopular, fragmented and corrupt army to regain control over an immense territory, without addressing any of the root social causes of the explosive situation that exist. The comparison with the Afghan quagmire legitimately comes to mind: according to the Pentagon’s latest report on the progress of Afghan forces, only one out of 23 brigades is “capable of operating without any outside help”.
Also, as Peter Chilson, from Foreign Policy, writes:
“Mali’s vast northern desert is a hard place to live, not to mention wage war. For eight months a year, the daytime temperature exceeds 120 degrees Fahrenheit (48 degrees Celsius) in a vast and unpopulated land that is easy to hide in, especially for the jihadist forces who know the territory well. Any army, no matter how large and well equipped, will have a tough time driving them out.”
France may be unable to avoid a long engagement with its own military forces right out front. As the civilian casualties rises, and the Western occupation and its abuses arouse bitter colonial memories, one of the side-effects of this intervention might precisely be to fertilize the ground for jihadist and other reactionary groups, and to attract new candidates to participate in the “crusade against the colonial master”.
As the conflict goes on, and the dramatic consequences of this intervention will be exposed, a mood of relative acceptance will inevitably be replaced by questioning, reluctance and hostility. Opposition will grow and become more vocal. In France, the illusions that the foreign policy of the so-called ‘socialist’ government is fundamentally different with Sarkozy’s will be dashed, and the ideas of Hollande’s reign marking “the end of Françafrique” will be increasingly taken as what they are, i.e. a cynical joke.
Furthermore, what happened in Algeria in the last few days might only be the first example of a long series of boomerang-type effects, as the consequences of the intervention backfire in imperialism’s face, the chaos spills over and problems in the wider region accumulate.
Socialism or barbarism
An organised class-based movement that would link up the necessary struggle against fundamentalist reaction with a bold economic programme aimed at expropriating the big companies and large land estates, and at tackling social problems and corruption, could rapidly gather sweeping support among ordinary Malians.
Such a movement for implementing social equality would have to take up the genuine demands for the respect of the rights of all ethnic and cultural minorities in the region, to gain in resonance and sympathy, including internationally.
The building of such a mass movement might appear as a distant solution to many. However, it is the only way out of the growing nightmare in the making. The capitalist system has shown repeatedly, everywhere on the African continent and beyond, that the only future it has on offer is to plunge the majority of the population into a cycle of barbarism, economic crisis, wars and abject poverty.
- No to imperialist intervention in Northern Mali! Withdrawal of foreign troops from Mali - withdrawal of French troops from Senegal, Cote-d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Tchad,…
- For the building of multi-ethnic and democratically-organised defence committees by the Malian population, in order to drive out all reactionary militias, but also to resist any attempt at neo-colonial military occupation of the North
- No to the state of emergency, for the reinstatement of all democratic freedoms in Mali
- Self-determination for the Tuaregs! All peoples of the Sahel and of the Sahara, as well as all the peoples within each country, must have equality of rights, and must independently decide their own future!
- The wealth of Mali belongs to the Malian people! For the nationalisation of the big land properties, the mines and other strategic sectors of the Malian economy. For the financing of a real economic development plan based on the needs of, and democratically controlled by, the Malian masses.
- Down with the regime in Bamako! For a government of the workers and the poor farmers, to begin the implementation of socialist policies to develop the country. Such a government should be built on the basis of a mass struggle democratically organised from below.
The bloody show of force of the Algerian army: a reminder of the ‘dirty war’ of the 1990’s
Last week’s bloody hostage taking in Algeria, besides the fact that it contradicts the official celebratory claims by the Algerian power which have been repeatedly heard over the past 10 years that “victory over terrorism has been achieved”, has also reawakened the spectrum of the horrendous civil war which took place in this country during the 1990’s.
This does not only relate to the barbaric methods of criminal jihadist groups such as the one who led the hostage taking, but also to the expeditive methods used by the Algerian military, in which innocent civilian lives are considered, at best, as “collateral damage” not worth of serious consideration. Algerian army helicopters indeed opened fire on a fleet of 4x4s speeding through the Tingatourine gas facility, killing terrorists and hostages indiscriminately.
Generally, assaults of that type are considered as a last resort, because they put the hostages’ lives at extreme risk. But, as Lazare Beullac, from the news website Maghreb Confidential, put it, “in any case the Algerians never negotiate in these situations. They regard hostages as people condemned to death.”
General Arthman “Bachir” Tartag, the deputy head of the security service who led the operation at the plant, has a reputation for brutality which goes back to the “black decade” of the 1990’s. He is part of these Algerian officers nicknamed “the eradicators”, the logic of which is simple: the combat to “eradicate the terrorists” becomes the justification for bloody State violence; by extension, for dictatorship, repression, generalised torture and systematic violation of human rights.
The 1990’s “war against terrorism” led by the Algerian generals was used as a means to silence any critical expression, block any form of independent organization and to deny the right to protest and assembly for workers and young people.
The military junta, the real backbone of the Algerian regime since independence, initiated the terrible cycle of violence through a military coup in 1992, cancelling the second round of the first pluralistic elections, in order to avoid an expected victory by the main fundamentalist formation, the FIS (‘Islamic Salvation Front’).
The surge in right-wing political Islam in Algeria had taken place in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and took root among important sectors of the urban poor and the middle-classes especially, against the background of a profound social crisis, of the massive discrediting of the army-backed FLN rule (‘National Liberation Front’, the ruling party who came into power after the war of independence), and of a weakening of the left internationally with the crisis and fall of Stalinism.
As in many countries of North Africa and the Middle East, right-wing Islamist currents had been initially promoted and encouraged by the ruling elite as a counterweight against the left. In Algeria, the FIS “crossed the rubicon” when it became a challenging menace to the existing regime.
The war propaganda of the regime was to hammer down that the Algerian population had no other option than rallying behind the army’s exceptional rules and behind what was, de facto, a mass campaign of State terror, conveniently used to neutralise any sort of opposition and to atomise the workers’ movement for a whole historical period.
Well-documented evidence and witnesses, including from ex-officers, have since demonstrated that some of the massacres of civilians attributed to “Islamist Commandos” were perpetrated with the direct complicity or participation of the army, or by armed groups infiltrated by the Algerian security services.
While many former jihadist warlords and fighters have been cleared of their atrocities through amnesty laws in exchange for giving up their arms, and are today running free, many of the generals and other high-ranking officers responsible for thousands of deaths and acts of torture are still occupying central positions in the State machine. Others have died since without ever having been held responsible for their crimes.
This ‘dirty war’ , of which a fully-researched and serious history has yet to be written, was responsible for a death toll estimated at anything between 100,000 and 200,000, for tens of thousands of people missing, hundreds of thousands displaced. It still weighs heavily in the collective consciousness of Algerian people, and is one the reason explaining why the idea of ‘regime change’ has not matured in Algeria in the same way than elsewhere, despite the fact that strikes, community protests and riots take place virtually every day.
When it comes to the sequence of last week’s bloodbath, a number of important elements surrounding this episode remain obscure: why a strong and heavily armed security apparatus was put in default; why there was virtually no communication by the Algerian authorities during the whole course of the operations; and, above all, why no serious attempt was made to avoid the sacrifice of many innocent lives.
The Algerian population and the families of the workers and hostages killed should demand accountability on the way this crisis has been managed. A workers-led commission of inquiry should be set up to investigate fully into these events, to have a full and transparent picture of what happened, and have the people in charge responsible for their acts.