The West is preparing to pull its armies out of Afghanistan. But the French intervention in Mali and the Algerian hostage crisis suggest that a new front is opening up in the Maghreb region, north west Africa. It may last “even decades” according to prime minister David Cameron.
To understand what’s happening we need to bear in mind that the entire African continent has been rising in importance for the Western imperialist powers. This is crucially because of the natural resources boom, in particular the growing attraction of the oil and gas reserves lying under Africa’s soil or off its shores.
Some of these are long established, such as the In Amenas complex in the Algerian desert where the hostage crisis took place. It supplies 2 percent of Western Europe’s natural gas. But now Mozambique, a very poor country far away in southern Africa, finds transnational firms struggling to get access to its coal and gas reserves too.
So the stakes of involvement in Africa have risen for the leading capitalist states. France has a long history of military intervention in its former African colonies. In central Africa Britain became a major sponsor of the Tutsi regime in Rwanda. It has distanced itself recently because of the Rwandan government’s blatant efforts to destabilise its vast resource-rich neighbour the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The US has recently become much more active in the region. The Pentagon now has an African military command, Africom, that has been busy, as we will see.
Rwanda isn’t the only unsavoury regime the West is backing. There has been much admiring media coverage about the “toughness” of the Algerian special forces. These soldiers learned their skills in a savage civil war that cost 200,000 lives in the 1990s. It was precipitated when the Algerian military refused to accept that a moderate Islamist party had won parliamentary elections.
After Muammar Gaddafi abandoned Libya’s nuclear programme in 2003, Western security agencies such as the British Secret Intelligence Service backed him as another bulwark against Islamism. The war that overthrew Gaddafi helped to destabilise the Maghreb by spreading well-armed Islamist fighters from Libya across the region.
The French intervention in northern Mali against Islamist militants allied to insurgent Tuareg nomads is another destabilising factor.
Patrick Cockburn wrote in the Independent on Sunday, “Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso all have impoverished and restive Tuareg minorities. Their governments pretend their main concern is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism because this presses the right buttons in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow.
“But the recent history of the region shows that their real concern is Tuareg separatism. The threat is all the more serious for them because… they are often living on top of great reserves of oil, gas, uranium and valuable minerals.”
Cockburn quotes sources claiming that the Malian government encouraged Al Qaida in the Maghreb to operate in the north as a counterweight to Tuareg separatists.
The New York Times reports on a ham-fisted intervention by the Pentagon as well. US Special Forces have been involved a military training programme right across the Maghreb and West Africa, where up to £380 million has been spent in the past four years.
Mali was selected as an “exemplary partner”.
But last year while the Malian military staged a coup, the Tuareg commanders of three of the four elite units fighting in northern Mali took their forces over to the rebels. “I was sorely disappointed that a military with whom we had a training relationship participated in the military overthrow of an elected government,” said a sheepish General Carter F Ham, the head of Africom, last month.
So behind the hostage crisis in Algeria and the French military campaign in Mali are much more complex economic and political relationships. We see local regimes manoeuvring to maintain their power, and the main Western capitalist states seeking to reinforce their position in an area whose economic importance is growing.
When we remember as well the poverty of most Africans, we should expect more explosions.