The Threat to Resources in Mali makes Military Action Inevitable
A Canadian Forces C-17 military transporter traveled to France today, from where it will be deployed as part of a Canadian contribution to help diffuse an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali. The aircraft will help French armed forces to transport materials, supplies and equipment to Mali’s capital Bamako. Canadian troops will not take part in any combat but the Government has described the logistical support necessary and essential in order to repel the radical Islamists that took control of northern Mali last spring as they started to make advances toward the south. As the rebels started to move closer towards Bamako, France started to launch air strikes from its bases in neighboring Chad to block them-much sooner than was expected. The number of French soldiers involved in the operations in Mali is currently 750, but their number will increase until the deployment of an African force is ready. France could send up to 2,500 troops until then.
The French government has expressed the need to maintain the integrity of Mali. Indeed, it is in France’s interest preserve the structure and stability of the Malian government to avoid a phenomenon described as ‘Somalization’ another way of saying ‘failed state’. Actually, and quite beyond any humanitarian consideration, it is in the interest of many countries to help Mali.
French President Hollande said that France’s purpose of France is to “fight against terrorism”; however, there is far more realpolitik and resource economics at play in the reasoning behind what is known as Operation Serval. Surely, the advancing al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would destabilize the Malian government and other regional powers, favoring more arms trafficking and drugs through weaker borders. Mali, whose historical Islamic tradition is one of the most tolerant in all of Africa, would surely be subjected to the establishment of extremist version of Shari ‘a (‘Islamic law’). The Tuareg separatists, represented by the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad), had allied themselves with the Islamists at first only to have stated their intention to help defeat the Islamists.
France has important strategic and economic interests in Mali and in its neighbors. The effort to block the Islamist advance, preventing it from spreading across the border with Niger or Mauritania is very important. Mali exports gold, cotton and cattle to France and imported some EUR 280 million of French goods last year and there are close to 5,000 French citizens in Mali. Nevertheless, the real target of the French effort is Niger, where France’s nuclear energy player Areva operates important uranium mines. The potential for the Malian Islamist rebellion to spread beyond Malian borders and into Niger would have had a serious impact on the security of France’s energy supply. Areva extracts about half of France’s uranium production from Niger and the company’s Imouraren mine in Niger is the world’s largest. There were even plans to build a nuclear reactor in Niger in return for the Imouraren concession, which was at the heart of international competition as Chinese and Canadian companies also competed for access to it. Apart from Niger, Mali also borders Mauritania, where there are valuable oil deposits and where the French oil major Total SA has operated since 2005. There is also Algeria, which sits on Mali’s northern border. Algeria suffered a bloody civil war in the 1990’s that has left deep repercussions and it fears Islamist infiltration. For its part, apart from gold (of which it is the world’s fourth largest producer), Mali has uranium, oil and phosphate resources and several companies were attracted by favorable regulations since the late 1990’s to develop them.
It is not surprising, moreover, that Canada has decided to participate and add its name to the list of countries contributing to the effort to liberate northern Mali. Canada is one of the most important players in African mining; it is part of a strategy that started in the 1990’s to take advantage of the liberalization of several African economies, which opened themselves to foreign investment thanks to ‘pressure’ from international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF. Mali’s has become the world’s third largest producer of gold in the world and some of the main players involved are Canadian, including IAMGOLD and Avion Gold. While many large Canadian companies are involved in Mali, the continent is especially important to the juniors, several of which are listed on the Toronto and Vancouver stock exchanges. In Mali, there are uranium explorer Rockgate Capital and phosphate developer Great Quest Metals to mention a few. Mali also has rich oil deposits in the Taoudeni Basin and the government of Mali has encouraged its exploitation. Several oil companies have started work in the area including Baraka Petroleum (Australia), Sonatrach (Algeria), Eni, (Italy) and Total SA (France). China’s ‘China Petroleum Corp has also started work in the area.
It is not surprising therefore that, unlike the case of Somalia, the crisis in Mali has triggered international military intervention within a relatively short timeframe. Before the crisis, Mali was one the way to becoming a leading mining power in Central and Northern Africa. While, gold operations were unaffected, given their presence in the western region, the development of oil, uranium and phosphate were blocked by the excessive political risks. Nevertheless, the fact that the crisis threatened to expand in Mali’s neighbors, holding strategic resources for European powers – and beyond – could not be tolerated and made military action inevitable.
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