The way to Timbuktu, oops, to hell is paved with good intentions…Humanitarian Interventions, fumbling around in Africa and the lack of inside-outside analysis in conflict research


If ever someone wanted to study how so-called humanitarian interventions can mess up entire regions, they should start with the unilateral declaration of independence of Azawad and the so-called Touareg Rebellion in Mali.

Of all the things that can be said about this armed conflict opposing touareg groups, radical islamic groups and the Malian armed forces, the most striking is the recurrent fumbling around of external powers in the region (a very nice discussion can be found here and some keys for understanding what is going on here). Interference is certainly the politically more appropriate word, however, interference suggest a strategic and persistent approach to influencing another state’s politics and society. And this is exactly not the case in this African region. The United States, the UK, France and others, notably the African neighbours like Niger and Algeria in this case, do a little here and there, financing this group, arming another, giving this advise to a government and training that military, all in a pretty incoherent way and with rather parochial and short-sighted interests in mind, and then, when all blows up, they throw their hands up in the air and cry out “It was not me!”.

The “not-me” is nicely supported by most of academic conflict analysis, which endogenizes conflict causes and dynamics. Whether conflicts are fought for material resources or ethnic identity or because of seemingly failing states, typically the Colliers, Bates, Humphreys and Fearons of the academic world identify the causes of those conflicts arising from greed, incompetence, corruption, lack of public goods and all other kinds of nasty things inside the states concerned.

Colonial legacies, trade and development aid, globalisation and international organisations, and most particularly all this “fumbling around” simply do not appear at all or very selectively. The UCDP conflict encyclopedia (already discussed in a former post) for instance mentions only Libya – our consenusal baddy – as outsider in the Azawi conflict and no one else.

Yet, if there is one thing observers on the ground and journalists of the region seem to be agreeing upon in the troubles that Northern Mali are going through it is the major role played by the intervention in Libya, the proliferation of small arms, the various interests and inminglings of Algerian, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Western powers, and the US-led, Algerian supported “war on terror” in its various forms in the region. Smuggling and trafficking certainly do play a big role in the livelihoods of the people in these regions as well as kidnappings are important for the finances of armed groups.

Just who exactly has contributed, instigated, and benefitted from these activities and what alternatives have been destroyed and discarded, remains entirely unclear. As Jeremy Keenan points out it seems unlikely that the Touareg would destroy their own economic base, tourism, through kidnappings – unlikely, of course, if one does not assume that Africans in general and Touareg in particular are manipulated by short-term interested, greedy warlords.

However, as Patricia Allemonière points out this money has also allowed financing public services, health care and schooling in a region that has been entirely abandoned by the Malian state due to its fiscal incapacity to provide public services across a difficult territory. The reasons why the Malian state has abandoned this region are manifold and deeply linked to global policies whether constraints of various aid policies, including the incredible efficiency of NGOs to substitute the state, geostrategic pushing and hoving in the region (as Jeremy Keenan contends), the regional embroglio or the continued paternalism of the former colonial power, France.

Obviously, the question is not whether external forces or internal dynamics are more responsible for creating conflict situation as in Norther Mali as if such a tradoff would indeed make sense….rather the two troublings questions are, as far as the politics of academia are concerned, why so many Western scholars obstitinately ignore external influences (and vicious thoughts could be formulated that this is not unrelated to the denial of colonial wrongdoings) , and how the interaction of such a large array of factors over different times spanes can be sensibly analysed. Both actually bump into the same major problem, namely that social science research is not value-free as so passionately claimed, but runs up against a wall of normative ideas. The very cherished idea that humanitarian interventions are, in principle and really, good, that they stop the killing and that they “free” populations is one of them and yet, looking at the Malian case it is evident that they are just one more episode of a long history of fumbling around…