Imperialists tighten grip on Sahara-Sahel

By CHRISTINE MARIE

The two-month period of April-May 2013 will be remembered as marking a significant advance in the imperialist project in the Sahara-Sahel region of Northern Africa. On April 29, the UN authorized the deployment of 11, 200 troops to Mali. Beginning on July 1, this large international force will function alongside the French troops remaining from the European intervention begun in January and from the U.S. operations and drone bases in neighboring Niger.

On May 24, French Special Forces joined troops from Niger in attacking Islamist fighters who had claimed credit for suicide bombings in the part of Niger that is home to the French Areva uranium-mining compound.

On May 15, a new U.S.-backed Nigerian military offensive against the indigenous Islamic rebel group Boko Haram, in the north of Nigeria, resulted in horrific civilian casualties. Military officials, whose operations in the northern areas of Nigeria that border Niger are conducted without media scrutiny, also sensationally announced the discovery of a Hezbollah arms cache and cell in the urban center of Kano.

Finally, France announced its “willingness” to provide troops to “secure” the border between Niger and Libya. Altogether, these initiatives are elements of the growing militarization of the Sahara-Sahel region, a militarization that has long been a goal of the imperialist powers competing with China over the rich resources of Africa.

In Mali, according to the Guardian newspaper, the military intervention has been accompanied by promises of $4.4 billion in aid “with strings attached.” The strings include demands that the Malian government “manage public resources” according to an economic roadmap developed by the European Union.

The details are not yet clear, but historically, European aid to Mali has been tied to acquiescence to neoliberal privatization schemes that displaced small farmers and leased important agricultural lands to export-oriented agribusiness. In fact, before the French intervention, Malian peasants had been at the center of organizing efforts by the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, against imperialist land grabs.

Malian agriculture was once productive enough to be eyed as the breadbasket for oil-rich but soil-poor Libya. But in recent years, hunger has become widespread in the north of Mali, largely due to drought and desertification. France has done nothing to alleviate the food crisis. Unexploded mines and fighting are preventing farmers from working their fields. Seventy thousand residents of Gao are facing a cholera epidemic because broken pumps and electricity are not a priority for France or the United States.

The Nigerian military offensive against Boko Haram is exacerbating food shortages for the entire Sahel. The northern Nigerian grain trade typically supplies half of all the cereals consumed in the region. Sixty-five percent of the farmers of the war-torn north of Nigeria have reportedly fled from their fields.

According to a UN humanitarian affairs news report, in the week following the May 13 declaration of a state of emergency and the accompanying attack by Nigerian fighter jets on suspected Boko Haram camps, tens of thousands of the residents of the state of Borno quickly fled to Niger or Cameroon. The same agency reports that the Nigerian government has imposed a “food blockade” on the whole north of the state where the insurgency is rooted.

A USAID report says that security measures in the north have raised costs for farmers, and these, combined with flooding and a rise in the market price for more profitable export crops like cotton, have come together to create a regional shortage of staples.

The food blockade, like the military conflict in general, has seemingly affected civilians more dramatically than the relatively small force of Islamic insurgents. While Boko Haram has never grown larger than 4000 fighters, Human Rights Watch estimates that the conflict so far has resulted in the deaths of about 3200 Nigerians, not a small number of whom were killed in extrajudicial killings by the Nigerian army.

Like the Tuareg rebellion that touched off the crisis giving France the pretext for its invasion of Mali, the insurgency in northern Nigeria was born of the scarcity mandated by the international financial community and the corruption of local elites unwilling to spread the wealth. Anthropologist Caroline Ifeka states in the Concerned Africa Scholars Bulletin: “The principal cause of growing youth militancy mobilising around ethnicity and Islamic reformism is the ruling class’s failure to ‘share’ the ‘dividends of democracy’—e.g. rental incomes from ‘traditional’ community owned strategic resources as oil, gas, gold, bauxite, uranium, water.”

Unfortunately for Nigerians and the rest of the region, Europe, the U.S., and local elites have been able to use the emergence of Boko Haram  and other Islamic forces to fortify the claim that trans-Saharan-Sahel military operations anchored with French, U.S., and UN troops will somehow bring security and democracy to the farmers and poor of the region.

In fact, both France and the U.S. are really concerned about being in the best competitive position vis-a-vis their imperialist rivals. Anyone paying attention to the January invasion of Mali learned about Malian gold and Nigérien uranium. Nigeria, until its recent displacement by Angola, was number three on the U.S. list of countries supplying petroleum imports.

Antiwar activists eager to push back U.S. government aggression around the world can learn more about the stakes and background of these recent outrages by attending the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) panel at the Left Forum in New York City at noon on June 8 in room W619. The speakers will include Patrick Bond, professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Margaret Kimberly of the Black Agenda Report,  Abayomi Azikiwe of the Pan-African Newswire, and Virginia Defender’s leader Ana Edwards, who visited Mali at the time of the invasion.

UNAC hopes that the panel will be one of many 2013 efforts to focus the attention of activists against drones and U.S. military interventions abroad on the increasing war being waged for profit on African peoples.

Photo: French armored vehicle guards Timbuktu airport. By Arnaud Roine / AP