Almost sensible: Making (Geographic) sense of Mali

Foreign Affairs (by the Council on Foreign Relations) recently ran an article on “Making Sense of Mali”, and I enjoyed most of it. But then I got to the end and I found inspiration for a post on, you guessed it, the organic state.

But really the article is quite good, it is a well-thought, critical analysis of Mali and the conflict there. The CFR points out the need to understand that Malians are dissimilar at local scales and that the roots of the conflict are deeper than al-Qaeda’s relatively recent emergence. Author Susanna Wing says it best “simplifications of the ethnic, religious, and political dynamics of this crisis will not help to resolve the complex issues that are at its root.” Now there’s a sentiment that Z Geography, and most reasonable people, would stand behind. She also argues that France’s venture into Mali is not driven by neocolonial motives, a rare argument indeed. The article even laments the poor condition of the Malian state and armed forces, something Z Geography did recently as well.

While the article did a good job analyzing the current state of affairs and pointing out the necessity of maintaining critical views of the conflict, it did a less effective job of envisioning a path to the future. In the second to last paragraph, CFR argues that “it is feasible that Mali’s borders could be sealed to halt… the flow of supplies to the rebels.” No, no it is not feasible CFR, at least not yet.

The answer is the organic state, as I discussed a couple of weeks ago, and the CFR articles acknowledges it. The Malian state is in no condition to assert its sovereignty over its own northern interior, why would it be feasible to “seal” a border? Looking back at the UNYOM map in that second post (also below), it was probably prohibitively expensive to garrison UN personnel all along the ar-Rub al-Khali border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Do we really think that its “feasible” for Mali to pay an even greater sum of money to garrison and patrol a 710 mi. border, in the Sahara, between Mali and Algeria? And don’t forget there’s Mauritania next door with another 600+ mi. of desert to patrol. No, the Malian state can’t afford unless it pays even less money for things like education, healthcare, and infrastructure. And besides this, does the military have the appropriate equipment to even undertake this Herculean task? The United States can’t even seal its own 1,200 mile border. And I doubt the French taxpayers are willing to garrison their own troops for any length of times out in the middle of nowhere. The French, and the U.S, would probably gift the military with equipment to make border monitoring easier, but then once a Malian predator observes “arms smugglers” violating the border, how are they supposed to respond?


On another note, the CFR violated its own principle of understanding the myriad actors at play at a local level. I’m guessing that the dry Sahelian transitional zone has an impact on lifestyle and agriculture in the area, enforcing a semi-nomadic lifestyle that has been around for generations. In attempting to seal the border, I would bet that Mali would also be dividing pastoral communities in neighboring countries because if there was anything that Europeans didn’t do in Africa it was make “sensible” political borders based on human geography. Dividing communities and challenging their livelihood, cross-border trade and pastoralism, would simply earn the state the enmity of the locals. The “solution” would probably involve paying off the local communities to “enforce” the state’s sovereignty in its hinterlands and borders.

And this could work. If Mali was wealthy enough to keep the foederati from rising up and sacking Rome…er Bamako. Hence Z Geography still thinks that the third scenario envisioned previously will be the one that arrives: Mali (with international help) defeats Azawad, extends its writ to the northern area (not so much the borders) for a few years, and then the state retreats due to corruption and lack of capacity. And Azawad fills the vacuum.

1 thought on “Almost sensible: Making (Geographic) sense of Mali

  1. Pingback: Military Geography and Mali: the Afghanistan-effect | Z Geography

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