Old foes, new friends: Mali eases suspicious minds

What a difference a military intervention makes.

Old foes become new friends, once suspicious allies become indispensable partners in war.

The latest French military intervention in Mali is shaking things up in so many ways, I don’t know where to begin.

Let’s start with Washington’s growing footprint in Africa.

In a report that has generated a buzz in France, The New York Times this week revealed that the US is preparing to establish a drone base in northwest Africa – possibly Niger.

On Monday, the US and Niger signed what they call a “status-of-forces agreement” – which sparked a spate of stories about Africa becoming a priority in US anti-terror efforts following the Malian operation and the Algerian hostage crisis earlier this month.

But the one that caught my eye was the Wall Street Journal report on the US and France moving to create an intelligence hub in Niger.

Ah, the US and France joining together in the fight against the bad guys in Africa. How nice, how reassuring, how perfectly logical…

Wait, hold on a second, did we just say the US and France together in Africa?

Afri - keep off my turf - ca?!

And not just any old part of Africa at that. We’re talking about French-speaking – or Francophone - northwest Africa.

Africa what? Africa where?

Much has been said about the US and France as suspicious allies. It reached silly-season lows during the pre-Iraq War “freedom fries” saga of course, but it’s been raging since Cold War days.

In Africa, the French have had their own silly season in their former colonies, which the French call “Françafrique” – or the incestuous system of patronage between Paris and the political elites in their former African colonies.
With Françafrique running on full-throttle despite periodic French presidential vows to stop it, the French have been very protective about their African backyard.

In the post-9/11, pre-Malian intervention days, it sometimes felt like French and US officials were on different planets when it came to North and West Africa.

French officials and journalists would darkly mutter about the US base in Djibouti, the US military’s Africa Command (Africom), Washington’s intelligence outreach with the Algerians…proof, they maintained, that the mighty US was meddling in their turf and ousting poor old France.

But whenever I aired these concerns with US officials, ex-officials, experts or former CIA honchos, I invariably received the same reply: My dear girl, we’re stuck in Iraq and Afghanistan. Africa what? Africa where? That continent where those nasty guys dragged our Black Hawk boys through the streets of Mogadishu? The less time and money we spend out there, the better. The French are welcome to Africa. They’re masters at the African game in any case - and we wish them well.

I never met a single Frenchman or woman who believed this perfectly logical line.

Bah oui, they’d shrug. That’s what the US says. But what about the base in Djibouti eh? And Africom? The US is ALL over Africa - c’est evident.

Bring it on, Rambo

Then suddenly, on Jan. 11, the Malian intervention began and the French could not get enough of the dreaded USA.

At every edit meeting, I was being asked to write about US cooperation – or the lack thereof – in the Malian intervention. They’re not providing us air refueling tankers! This, after the Obama administration initially balked at the French request, sparking behind-the-scenes consternation that the US response was not as fast or robust as Paris had hoped.

In the end, the Obama administration did agree to provide those air tankers – phew!


But then Washington made some noises about a political solution to the Malian crisis and once again, alarm bells pealed and guttural exclamations issued. Fancy the Rambo Americans telling us to talk, not fight.

In fact les Américains were NOT telling the French not to fight. They were just issuing a call for talks among the different, “non-terrorist” Malian players – just like the French have done.

But these are sensitive times and the French are simply keen to get by with a little military help from friends. US spy drone base in Niger? Bring it on, Rambo. A joint intelligence hub in Francophone West Africa? Mais, pourquoi pas?

After all, to paraphrase Elvis, we can’t build our al Qaeda-free African dreams on – suspicious minds.

Enter Nigeria, the new best friend on the bloc

The USA is not the only new best friend on the bloc. There’s Nigeria too - Africa’s most populous, decidedly non-Francophone, proudly independent, Anglophone nation.

France and Nigeria have not been the best of friends, to put it mildly.

During the 1967-1970 Biafra conflict – a civil war that still haunts Nigeria – France did not hide its support for the Biafra secessionists, funnelling arms to the rebels, straining bilateral relations and wounding the national psyche of a proud African country.

French-Nigerian relations took a further tumble during the 1990s Liberian Civil War, when France, distrustful of Nigeria’s regional superpower status in its Françafrique backyard, backed opposing proxy rebels.

The two Anglophone countries in the West African region – Ghana and Nigeria – have been disparaging about what they see as their Francophone neighbors’ craven subservience to their former colonial master – from voting with Paris at the UN, to handing plum contracts to France. In other words, Françafrique viewed from the other side.

But all that, it seems, is so yesterday. Mali has changed all that.

The squash-playing Nigerian at the helm

Since the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2085 authorizing the deployment of an African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) in December 2012, the Nigerians have been quick to offer help, overcoming domestic opposition to pledge troops for the mission.

When the Jan. 11 French invasion jumpstarted the process, the Nigerians speeded up their deployment, with contingents arriving at Bamako Airport looking sharp and serious.

And guess who’s heading AFISMA? The erudite, media-savvy, squash and tennis-playing, decorated Nigerian military official, Major General Shehu Abdulkadir.

Abdulkadir, we’re told, speaks English and his native Hausa and he can also communicate in French.

For some reason, I think even if the Nigerian major general didn’t speak a word of French, it wouldn’t matter.

Mali is changing the old dynamics. There’s nothing like a war to win new friends – and ease suspicious minds.

(*Photos courtesy: EMA / armée de l'Air)

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Much journalistic ado ,as usual ,about almost nothing.A lot will depend on how the Islamists will respond to their apparent reversal in Mali.The jihadist menace is spreading so fast in Africa that one wonders if the combined strength of France and the U.S would be effective enough to halt it,given the number of weak and failed states in that part of the world.

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