It’s colonial, get over it

TW: military intervention, neocolonialism

In the past couple of days, I’ve been seeing Bruce Whitehouse’s blog generally and his specific post on the various flawed narratives of what’s really going in in the French (and to a lesser extent West African) intervention in Mali. I made it quite clear yesterday that I don’t think asking actual Malians living in Bamako to comment on the conflict isn’t going to lead to a very representative understanding of how the conflict is understood by Malians in general, and I’m even more skeptical when it’s an anthropologist who moved to Mali later in life (although he is fluent in at least one local language, so props to Whitehouse).

Still, while his explanation of how the Clash of Civilizations going on is hardly the one many European and American observers have perceived is rather insightful, and he makes a lot of other good points, his leading and third ones are astoundingly bad. He starts out his debunking by saying that there’s not really much in the way of mineral resources in north Mali or Azawad, at least, and this is a direct quote, “of which I’m aware”. Oh, can you spot the problem with me, dear readers?

Yes, the majority of the gold deposits aren’t located in rebel-controlled areas, the actual extent of gas and oil reserves is probably not as much as hoped for, and there is a big uranium deposit in Faléa, in the southern, non-rebel-controlled part of the country. What isn’t true, however, is that that’s the only uranium deposit in the country, as the Malian government’s  website for their own conference on mineral reserves notes, there’s also the “Kidal Project, in the north eastern part of Mali, with an area of 19,930 km2” which is expected to further the reserves in Faléa along with the uranium in the Samit deposit. The Samit deposit, like the reserves in Kidal, is located in the rebel-controlled northwest, and “is thought to [contain] 200 tonnes” of uranium if not more.

As the website gushes over the mineral wealth in Mali it mentions what Whitehouse was aware of – the gold and uranium in the South, but also the scattered bauxite and iron ores in the center of the country, and what’s more the deposits of that incredibly pricey metal, copper, in the north. There’s also reserves of phosphates, tin, and zinc in the north that have proven extensive. Funny how none of those got a mention while the minerals that Whitehouse knows aren’t actually all that prevalent in the north did?

In any case, it’s clear that a government that could control the entire territory that Mali is currently recognized as controlling would have, should we say a diverse portfolio of natural resources to sell at profits? Unlike most export-dependent economies, the variety of resources in play would shield Mali from the short term but unpredictable threat of unstable global prices (well, except on copper, which again, is costly and just getting pricier).


(Looks like the Malian government had that same thought and foolishly said it out loud on their website for their conference on mineral extraction in the country. From here.)

Of course, that’s not just to the benefit of Mali, but also whichever country owns or even simply invests in the Malian mines. Speaking of which, is the fact that many of the French national hostages captured in the region were working for French mining companies another thing that Whitehouse and others who are certain this isn’t about resources or neo-colonial just aren’t “aware” of?

Ah, but Whitehouse has anticipated this sort of argument – after all, he explains, “Operation Serval was a last resort, whereas a few years ago it would have been the default option.” Because colonialism is definitely about how occupying forces feel about their actions, rather than their powers and impacts on the region they occupy and the world in general. Likewise, there’s an interesting belief here that colonialism was never interested in intermediaries or non-military means of exploitation. I’ve already talked about how in other corners of Africa, European powers ruled through local authorities which allowed them to avoid frequent and direct military confrontations, so let’s just call that point what it is – a wishful need for this to not be colonialism.

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5 thoughts on “It’s colonial, get over it

  1. brucewhitehouse says:

    You’ll note that the blog post in question doesn’t exclude mineral resources and neocolonialism as possible motivating factors. It simply argues that the evidence for them is hardly as solid as some purport it to be, and that representations of northern Mali as “mineral-rich” are premature. You also failed to point out that none of the major mining operations in Mali is run by a French company.

  2. I think your post laid out a very convincing argument that the mineral resources in Mali have very dubious reserves outside of deposits in government-controlled areas, but as I pointed out above, that’s based on an incomplete understanding of what resources are even worth discussing. And while oil and gas reserves are pretty uncertain, it’s clear that there’s significant phosphate deposits at Tamaguilelt and high quality uranium at Samit.

    Likewise, you don’t “rule out” resource-driven arguments, sure, but you do contend that there’s no resources that really are in jeopardy and that access to what resources are in the region isn’t at stake (which the case of the kidnapped French nationals in Niger pretty pointedly disproves, since we’re not even talking about southern Mali, but an entirely different country being affected).

    As for the mining companies, yes, because most of the mining has been done with the resources you’ve looked at, the most established companies are Canadian-, US-, or South African-owned (and let’s not forget the nice cut they give the Malian government). But that’s the whole point – those lucrative industries aren’t being threatened, because they’re largely situated in non-rebel-controlled areas. That’s why none of those countries were particularly motivated – their interests weren’t threatened.

    What’s been threatened are French geologists (and not just ones in Niger, remember these guys?) who are maping out the areas that are under rebel-control. If that wasn’t happening, as you pointed out, the French would likely think that they could extract whatever they wanted at whatever price they decided was fair and they wouldn’t have a problem. Instead, people are getting taken hostage, and suddenly intervention (which was off the table) is happening right now.

    France wants to catch up with its competitors, who’ve been eyeing the slightly different minerals in the north too. It can’t do that if its geologists can’t work in the region.

  3. […] it claims to find in Emma Banks’ work for the Andean Information Network. Now, I’ve already made clear how I feel about people with a Western background being expected to clarify a […]

  4. […] all, just the showy part that Western media were particularly interested in is. I’ve had my strong disagreements with Bruce Whitehouse in the past, but I think his recent piece on the transition of the conflict […]

  5. […] on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for […]

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