Senegalese novelist and intellectual Boubacar Boris Diop offers an incisive and complex critique of the French intervention in Mali in this interview with journalist Souleymane Ndiaye. The interview was originally published in Le Pays au Quotidien on February 2nd, 2013.

Translation into English by Bhakti Shringarpure

Souleymane Ndiaye: Can the situation in northern Mali be viewed as French neocolonialism in Africa in action?

Boubacar Boris Diop: Yes and no. With Mali, France is certainly in its comfort zone and, with the exception of Nigeria, the countries involved on the ground are part of its former colonial empire. In the end, though, it should be viewed through the logic of global war. The model is really based on the US invasion of Iraq. In addition, the French interventions in Africa have always happened somewhat casually, almost without thinking, while this is one marked by councils of war at Elysée Palace and has been designed as a big media spectacle. French politicians are watching the polls, and the Ministers of Defense and Foreign Affairs have never been this forthcoming. 

SN: How do you explain this change in attitude?

BBD: A few days after the fighting started, all the French weeklies ran similar headlines: "Hollande, the War Chief.” Northern Mali offered the perfect and rather easy opportunity for a president deemed dull and soft to re-create his image as a leader willing and able to preserve France’s rank among the countries in the world. The contrast is striking given the less-than-heroic haste with which Paris withdrew soldiers from Afghanistan after the deadly Taliban attack. 

SN: But it cannot just be Hollande’s image behind this costly intervention...

BBD: That’s true, but he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. The stated purpose of this war is to help Mali recover its territorial integrity, but if Konna had not been captured by the Islamists, I expect nothing would have happened. It is with the fall of Konna that Paris, which never loses sight of the French hostages still held in the region and Areva’s uranium deposits, grasped that its economic interests and regional standing were seriously at risk. Other actors are now involved. The war is being closely followed by countries like Algeria, Mauritania and Nigeria, not to mention other Western powers and Qatar, the Gulf monarchy that is playing the same strange game here as it is in Syria. Also, since the attack in Amenas [the gas field in Algeria], the Americans and English have been compelled to be more involved. And Japan, an important economic partner of Mali’s, lost ten of its citizens in the hostage crisis and made a contribution of $120 million in support of MISMA [International Mission in Support of Mali] at the donors' conference recently organized by the African Union in Addis Ababa. 

SN: Do you agree with the Ambassador of France to Senegal when he says that if France had not intervened, no one else would have done anything?

BBD: We can certainly grant him that, and it is, in fact, a stroke of genius on the part of Paris that France can be depicted as an enemy of the “villains.” I use this word deliberately because international politics often reminds me of a Hollywood movie in which the whole plot depends on us being conditioned to be on the side of the good guys. When you learn that narco-terrorists occupy two-thirds of Mali, and that they destroy mosques and the tombs of saints, set fire to the Ahmed Baba Library and cut off people's hands, your first impulse is to approve of those trying to help innocents out of harm's way. And as we listen to the various positions being spouted now regarding Mali, there comes a realization that we somehow have an inability to ponder the fact that this is France’s “nth” intervention in Africa. The other night on 2STV, I saw that Senegalese philosopher Massaër Diallo had bluntly approved of military action, followed two days later by Senegalese diplomat and intellectual Cheikh Tidiane Gadio and  Egyptian thinker Samir Amin. Isn’t it disturbing? And the thing is that these three scholars are always above suspicion when it comes to analyzing the criminal excesses of France's colonial and neocolonial ventures in Africa.

SN: Does this mean that you agree with them?

BBD: Oh, no! Definitely not. I understand, and do not doubt, their sincerity, but I do not share their views. The danger, in my humble opinion, is to analyze the war as an isolated event. Everyone connects it to the aggression against Libya, but not with as much emphasis as this merits. It is not enough to say that the aggression against Libya is still destabilizing the Sahel and the rest of West Africa. This must be placed, along with the Arab Spring, at the heart of the debate on northern Mali. We can perhaps even go further and ask whether we should not have raised our voices when French tanks toppled the palace gates of Gbagbo in Ivory Coast. It was possible, without necessarily supporting Laurent Gbagbo, to understand pretty well that Paris had crossed a red line. But we have been brainwashed a bit too well when it comes to the injection of terms like “democracy” and invented concepts like "good governance" - who’s ever heard of "good governance" in Belgium? We have lost all sense of nuance, especially the ability to situate specific political events within a global logic.

SN: In this case, what specific criticism could you formulate against France? 

BBD: Here, we need to look at the sequence of events. After Qaddafi was killed, under appalling circumstances, the French government believed the time had come to entrust the outsourcing of war against AQIM [Al-Qaeeda in the Maghreb] and MUJAO [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa] to the Tuareg rebellion. As Ibrahima Sene recently pointed out in his response to Samir Amin, Paris and Washington then decided to help the Tuareg in Libya return, heavily armed, to Mali – but, more interestingly, not to Niger, where they did not want to take any risk because of Areva. The Tuareg were delighted to finally realize their dream of independence through the new state of Azawad, an ally of the West.

Some French media were then asked to "sell" the project of the "blue men of the desert" who were willing and ready to go to war against Mali. Just take a look in the archives of France 24 and RFI to see how the MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad], in particular, has been created from scratch by Sarkozy’s services. These strategists knew very well that this would lead to the collapse of the Malian government and the division of its territory. But this did not make them hesitate for a second. French politician Alain Juppé was allowed to minimize the Tuareg’s slaughter of about a hundred or so Malian soldiers and officers on January 24, 2012, at Aguelhok, and suggest the possibility of a sovereign state of Azawad in the north. Ultimately, the MNLA, which could not live up to the expectations of its sponsors against the jihadists, has virtually scuttled, and this is also probably a first in the history of liberation movements. In this case, France clearly occupies the role of a pyromaniac firefighter. Everything suggests that the French will defeat the jihadists, but this victory will cost the Malians their government and their honor.

SN: What do you mean?

BBD: I just want to say that this is the end of independence for Mali for a long time, and for its relative territorial homogeneity. It would be naive to imagine that, after having worked so hard to liberate the North, France will hand over the keys of the country to Dioncounda Traore and to the Malians and be satisfied with effusive farewells. No, the world does not work that way. France has put itself in a good position in the race for the prodigious natural resources of the Sahara, and it would be hard to imagine that the French will just drop the Tuareg rebellion, which has always been their trump card. There is an episode in this war that has gone unnoticed, yet deserves some consideration: the capture of Kidal. We initially conceded that Kidal was “captured” by the MNLA, which no longer has any military presence, and a few days later, on January 29th, French troops entered the town alone, not allowing Malian forces to accompany them. Iyad Ag Ghali, head of Ansar Dine, discredited by his affiliation with AQIM and MUJAO, is already almost out of the game and his "moderate" rival, Alghabasse Ag Intalla, head of MIA (Islamic Movement of Azawd) is in the best position to find common ground with Paris. As a matter of fact, after this military debacle, the Tuareg separatists are going to have political control over the North, something they have never had before. It's a great paradox, but it is in the interest of the West that Mali has no hold over the northern part of it's country. Dioncounda Traoré is already being pressured to negotiate with the moderate Tuareg backed by Paris, and it is unlikely that we are going to see a president as weakened as Dioncounda trying to resist Hollande. Whether we like it or not, the Arab Spring is completely detaching North Africa from the rest of the continent, and in some respects, the "new border" is Northern Mali. This is a clear and coherent strategy that the West is in the process of implementing.

SN: What did you think when you saw young Malians waving French flags?

BBD: Some say it has been fabricated. I don’t agree. I think these pictures reveal the immense relief that the Malians feel. They are particularly disturbing images, and this is why should have the guts to confront them. The real question is not so much what we, as African intellectuals and politicians, should think of the French. More importantly, the question is how is it that our people are left in such a state of abandonment? The question that these images really raise for us is how is it that the French troops who occupied Mali for centuries as barbaric colonizers have come back fifty years later to be greeted as liberators? Does this not leave us seriously perplexed? What is Malian independence really worth? What is to be done with the heritage of Modibo Keita? The question ultimately for all of us, and probably even more strongly for former French colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, is that of national sovereignty. These historical reversals are hard to swallow, and we all have a responsibility. But sometimes I feel that our historians do not put their intimate knowledge of the past in the service of understanding the issues of the present. Many of them have their noses in their grindstone, while others repeat the same phrases for decades without taking into the account the many transformations that shape this history.  

SN: What are other images that have struck you in this war?

BBD: One in particular is of Malian kids on the side of the road looking at the passing Toubab military. I always wonder what must go through the child’s head that sees this. It is rare to see a population that is so astounded by what is happening at home, and yet not understanding at all that it is indeed their own war. Sometimes you have the feeling that they don’t know what is right under their noses, and that it's crazy; is it even reality, or is it like something on TV?

SN: Despite everything, doesn’t Operation Serval restore France’s prestige in Africa?

BBD: Maybe, but that would surprise me. The outpouring of affection towards French soldiers is from the heart, but it is temporary. The real aims of the war will become clearer for Malians, and time will not be on the French's side. Benign foreign forces don’t exist anywhere. The French media can delude themselves, but for them, I would say that the bride is still too beautiful! And then, you know, as Operation Serval is taking place, the Parisian press is simultaneously disclosing more and more precise evidence of the active French role in the attack of 6th April 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda, where the plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by missiles as it was about to land to Kigali. This, as you know, triggered the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda. The strong involvement of France in the last genocide of the twentieth century is an indelible stain on its honor, and the momentary cheering in Gao and Timbuktu cannot deflect from this. 

SN: What lessons can we learn from this conflict in Mali? 

BBD: Firstly, it must be extremely hard these days to be in the Malian military. Here is a national army fighting in its own country, and its soldiers’ deaths do not even count, unlike that of the French helicopter pilot, Damien Boiteux, who was shot on the first day of fighting. All these humiliations will show Mali that a certain democratic comedy, aimed at pleasing foreign backers, is meaningless. Mali is a case study, cited everywhere as an example. Very little is needed for the country to collapse. We already see the mechanisms of exclusion in the works, and these create more and more murderers: All Tuaregs and Arabs will come to be seen as accomplices of jihadists or of the Tuareg separatist movement. Already aware of this danger, intellectuals like Aminata Dramane Traoré of Mali have repeatedly sounded the alarm in recent months, but nobody wants to listen. Relations between the different communities in Mali have always been fragile, and the threat of racial hostilities has never been as grave. This is the time to overcome old grudges. Shortly after the carnage at Aguelhok, I had the opportunity to speak in a school in Bamako. There were young Tuareg in the audience, and they were clearly afraid of what might happen someday. Nothing, indeed, should happen to them. They do not have to pay for the crimes of a few ambitious politicians who are basically just lackeys of the French.

SN: Its being said that the slow reaction of Africans to the problem created an opening for France and even legitimized its actions. How can we prevent this from happening again?

BBD: Yes, the procrastination of the African states has been rightly criticized, but you have to understand that it is ultimately suicidal for them to engage in a complex war with their bare hands. Yet this is precisely the criticism we can dole out to our countries: A failute to have the means to defends ourselves, collectively or individually. And here we come back to what Cheikh Anta Diop has always said: "Security precedes development, and political integration comes before economic integration.” During his life, Cheikh Anta Diop stressed the need for a strong continental army. Its creation is obviously not a simple matter, but seeing all West African soldiers once again become "Senegalese riflemen," one does feel ashamed, and we can say that on this issue that Cheikh Anta Diop was right. I think it is not too late to ponder his words.  

Boubacar Boris Diop (born 1946 in Dakar) is a Senegalese novelist, journalist and screenwriter. Diop’s career to date includes six novels in French and one in Wolof, screenplays and plays, several essays and an opera, "Leena." His best known work, "Murambi: The Book of Bones," is the fictional account of a notorious massacre during the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and was considered among the 100 best African novels of the twentieth century in a list established by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. Diop has been awarded prestigious literary prizes in Senegal and France for his novels "Les tambours de la mémoire" and "Le cavalier et son ombre." He is also the founder of Sol, an independent newspaper in Senegal.

Souleymane Ndiaye is a journalist for Senegalese newspaper, Le Pays au Quotidien.