Mali – is foreign involvement truly for the greater good?

Since the 19th of August 2020, when a military coup forced the democratically elected but unpopular president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita to resign, Mali has been struggling to return to stability. The coup was the culmination of weeks of mass protests against the president who was accused of corruption and mishandling a spiralling security situation in the northern and central regions of the country. However, it was but one of the many symptoms of a crisis rooted far deeper. 

Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned terrorist groups seized the northern two-thirds of the country after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, leading France, the former colonial power in the region, to intervene to set them back. In 2013 the UN MINUSMA[1] mission was established to help stabilize the situation. As the government and international actors sought to restore peace in the north, a power vacuum was created in the central region, which soon became a launchpad for jihadist attacks on neighbouring countries. The international intervention helped lead to a peace agreement in 2015, but very little progress has been made since then in disarming rebel groups. An attempt by the government to give the north more autonomy in exchange for disarmament has also proven ineffective, and extremist groups continue to be active in various parts of the country. 

Now, despite a transitional government having been put in place to oversee an eighteen-month period before elections are held, the situation remains highly unstable. Furthermore, an increased number of voices is calling for a dialogue with certain armed groups, in an attempt to reach an agreement. This move has strongly been criticized by external international actors, first and foremost France, and has been seen by many as proof of the growing gap between Mali and the former colonial power. France believes in fact that it is highly unlikely these groups will abandon their ideology and objectives, such as the imposition of shari’a on the state.

A multidimensional crisis 

Due to its geographical position, Mali has become the centre of external efforts to secure the region and counter terrorism, which has inevitably led to increased and consistent international involvement in the area. The fact that the new government is prepared to negotiate with armed jihadist groups, however, should make us question the nature of French and international involvement and whether it is in the country’s best interests. In this context, it is important to keep Mali’s colonial past in mind. 

Falling under French colonial role in 1892, Mali quickly became a country of marginalized subjects ruled by a controlling colonial administration that feared Muslim jihads. The French, in contrast to other colonizers, chose to implement their customs in all occupied territories, a strategy that proved to be particularly difficult in Mali, which was characterized by a diverse multitude of ethnic communities. This resulted in cooperative groups being favoured by the French over others and intensified ethnic divisions. By the time Mali became independent in 1960, the new country was deeply divided. This fragmentation made it particularly difficult for the new Malian political elites to assert their authority over the whole country, which would eventually lead to the marginalization of the north. 

There is no doubt that other factors have contributed to the current situation as well, yet this is another reminder, of how strongly colonialism has affected the state of many contemporary African countries. Of course, there is no changing the past, but perhaps things could be different when looking at the future. 

Rethinking foreign intervention 

It is undeniable that violence in this area has been steadily increasing and that Islamic extremism poses a big threat not only to this region but to surrounding countries as well, with regional as well as international implications. However, the continued presence of international actors has not been as successful as imagined. These powers may have the institutional framework and resources to face particular threats, but does this justify their involvement? At a certain point we need to ask ourselves: is this engagement really for the greater good of the country or is it just a modern form of imperialism?

In light of what we know about Mali’s colonial past, continued foreign intervention could be doing more damage than good. It could in fact lead to the following scenario: an alliance of national forces, including militant groups, with the goal of requesting the withdrawal of international actors. This would inevitably lead to Islamic militias gaining a foothold in the Sahel area[2] for the first time, something international actors are trying to avoid in the first place. It may be time for a change in strategy in view of the long-term goals that could bring stability to the area. 


[1] To date it remains the largest peacekeeping force in the world. 

[2] This term refers to the semi-arid stretch of land just south of the Sahara desert which includes Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

African art restitution – a vital step towards decolonisation

In a post-colonial world, the issue of colonialism and its consequences may seem to belong to the past, as society has moved on and everyone generally agrees that colonialism was a very dark chapter in world history that should never be repeated again. However, this does not in any way mean that this complex issue has been resolved, as is exemplified by many different matters, including the issue of art restitution.  

Since the 1960s many African countries have been advocating the restitution and legal transfer of objects and artifacts that were stolen during colonization and are now displayed in many European museums. However, this request has been mostly ignored by European governments and cultural institutions, who argue that restitution is unnecessary, complicated, and legally challenging. 

Many have claimed that the artworks in question would not be safe in these countries, as they lack the infrastructure and resources to safeguard these precious objects. Others have used the “How far back will you go?” argument, underlining that many items in Rome were also taken from somewhere in Greece or Ancient Egypt, thereby normalizing these kinds of actions. 

It has been estimated that 90 to 95% of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent. The British Museum in London alone contains about 73’000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, whilst France holds at least 90’000, most of which were stolen during its colonial rule over a big part of this region.

One item in particular that has been at the heart of the restitution debate is the Benin Bronzes, a set of unique plaques in wood and ivory that were looted from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. These artefacts, which where revered and reserved for ancestral altars, are now a constant reminder of a violent past and a stolen future. There are countless other examples.

Empty words and promises will not solve the issue 

Despite French President Macron’s promise in 2017 to “allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage [held in French museums] to Africa”, three years later not much has changed. The situation in many other European countries is not very different, with many actors barely acknowledging the issue. 

So why are we still seeing so much resistance in recognizing Europe’s dark colonial past?

Accepting the need of returning African artifacts would reignite the conversation on the many structural problems African countries face today because of colonialism, a topic that still makes many European countries uncomfortable. The many structural and economic disparities between the two continents can in many cases be directly led back to colonialism. By delivering empty promises and general statements on the issue of restitution, they can seem morally correct, whilst everything more or less stays the same. 

By denying restitution these institutions are continuing to support a narrative that depicts Europe as more progressive and Africa as less developed, thus indirectly justifying colonization and dehumanizing non-western cultures. In today’s post-colonial context this narrative is no longer acceptable. Africa should be given a right to reclaim and define its cultural heritage, and Europe has an obligation to support this. 

Responsibility needs to be taken and art restitution is the first step towards this. Words are not enough – it is time European governments and institutions take concrete action in a crucial step towards turning a page on their troubled relationship with colonial history.


Black lives mattered, matter, and will always matter

It seems like a long time ago when people gathered on the streets, Instagram feeds were covered in black squares and the issue of racial inequality was a frequent topic of conversation. Nowadays, world affairs are so busy and fast-paced that they give the impression, they can only be devoted to a specific topic for a short amount of time. It is therefore all the more crucial in such a loud environment, that the moving and powerful outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) continues to be heard and paid attention to.

If we consider the emergence of the BLM movement as the result of an acute social problem, this is not entirely correct. It is a mistake to believe that this is a new struggle. Especially when we look into our past, we become aware of how long there has been worldwide injustice in our society and that it is far from over. If we think of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, Pan-Africanism, and the civil rights movement, we see countless figures who fought and began to pave the way for us to continue. While the US has been the main stage for these movements, a global perspective and investigation are required. Since injustice and racism are global issues, it is imperative to come to terms with our past, including the legacy of imperialism and colonialism. 

From addressing the problem to solving it

With that, I would like to raise the question: What can I, as a white person, do now? Protests and actions on social media platforms have given us the basis to address and raise awareness for this issue. What is missing are solutions to the problem of injustice and racism that bring long-term social change. To be anti-racist and support the equality of people of color not only requires empathy, but also the understanding that being white still comes with privileges many people are unaware of. It is this insight that we should keep in mind as we go about our daily actions.  

This privilege must no longer be denied, and it is imperative to accept that our self-image in society is distorted. However, this privilege can and must be used to weaken existing structural injustices. This means making people more aware of how certain actions contribute to an unjust and unequal system and not being afraid to speak up when something is wrong.  

Since this is a socio-political issue, the responsibility not only lies on politicians but on each one of us. Thanks to globalization and technology, the images of the protests spread at a rapid pace around the world. The difficulty, however, lies in the contrast between ideals and real life. Although the movement is rapid, the goal of equality requires time, and it may take a while to achieve real structural change. That is why constant engagement, education, and awareness of the issue of justice for people of color and the abolition of racism are necessary.

As moving and important as the outcry of the BLM movement is, it is all the more important not to let it fall silent.