Mali and the media

Mali is an obscure country which most people in Britain know little about; many students and academics who study African Politics are currently on Wikipedia attempting to contextualise the current conflict. British media reporting of Western intervention, whether from The Sun or The Guardian, has been poor. Rather than outlining the nuances of the conflict, most mainstream media outlets have relied on a lazy and crude narrative of ‘West versus Islam’. This allows our leaders to justify war without sufficient criticism and debate.

The British media offers a one-dimensional caricature of the conflict devoid of historical context.  There is a simple starting point in understanding the conflict: who is the Malian government fighting? The Guardian says ‘al-Qaeda-linked rebels’, The Telegraph reckons ‘Islamist fighters’ and the Daily Mail thinks they are actually ‘al-Qaeda rebels’.

The conflict is much more complicated. In northern Mali, the MLNA (a violent, secular Tuareg independence movement) is in conflict with the Ansar Dine (an extremist Islamic movement calling for Sharia Law in all of Mali). Both are unpleasant and are engaged in a civil war; the Ansar Dine, mostly consisting of non-Malian fighters, is winning and now controls most of the North. The Malian government is extremely unstable following an army coup in early 2012 from army officers who believed the former president was soft on Northern terrorists. The new interim president, in power after sanctions against the military regime, has broad support but is in a very weak position, last year attacked and nearly killed by pro-coup elements of the military.

Al Qaeda is repeatedly mentioned without context, as an automatic justification for war that seemingly does not need explanation. Al Qaeda in the Magrheb is an Algerian nationalist, autonomous ‘franchise’ that shares some ideology with other Al Qaeda groups. There is little evidence, however, of any operational links with other groups using the Al Qaeda brand, and certainly no evidence of any sort of command structure to other Al Qaeda leaders.  It has some links with the Ansar Dine but is nowhere near as significant a part of the conflict as the Western media uncritically argues and accepts. The conflict is essentially three-sided between Islamic fundamentalists, Tuareg independence movements and the Malian government, with Al Qaeda only a marginal actor.

What are the roots of the conflict? The roots of the conflict lie in national independence movements for the Tuareg people, a nationless cultural group spread over five African countries, not fitting into artificial post-colonial African boundaries, which recently joined forces and were then pushed out by other, better organised movements such as the Ansar Dine. One of the most overlooked roots of the conflict is the direct, clear effect that instability in Libya had in accelerating conflict in Mali; many Tuaregs fought for the Gaddafi regime and, in the power vacuum following Western-backed regime change, heavily armed fighters fled to Mali. Conflict in Mali can reasonably be described as a direct consequence of Western intervention in Libya.

The British media decontextualizes the conflict, ignoring Malian history, culture and politics. Instead, the conflict is crudely placed into the sweeping ‘West v Al Qaeda’ narrative, a prism through which most post 9/11 conflict is perceived and justified. Enemies are all connected by a unifying, evil ideology. The national, country-specific roots of conflicts are branded irrelevant and ignored. This is similar to the ‘Free world versus Communism’ narrative of the Cold War. Communism was perceived as a unifying ideology hierarchically controlled by the Soviet Union. Most Communist movements, such as Vietnam and Cuba, were actually intertwined and inseparable from nationalist independence and liberation that sometimes conflicted with Soviet ideology. Yet a narrow, monolithic view of Communism prevailed in much of the media, much like the 21st century enemy: Islamic extremism.

Media reporting of war in general is deeply outdated and, with often heroic exceptions, consists of an amalgamation of press release from governments and regional organisations. The EU, American French and Malian governments are all asked for their bland, sterilised opinion. Ordinary Malians, directly affected by war, are barely asked for their opinion. Though difficult to establish, the general opinion in Mali seems to be broad support for an intervention and the interim president, but with no delusions about noble motivations beyond self-interest from their former colonial master.

Even if an intervention is ultimately justified to bring stability to the region, the media has far too uncritically let ruling elites control the news agenda. War should always be challenged and criticised, even if it is ultimately justified, because it almost never fits into the simplistic ‘good versus evil’ narrative our leaders would have us believe.