Last year, I saw a film entitled “White Material” which featured Isabelle Huppert and Christophe Lambert. The plot focused on the life and fate of a family of white French settlers in an unnamed African country: the country in question is being overrun by rebels. The insurgent army bears a chilling resemblance to the “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda: most of the soldiers are brutalised children. One of the first scenes shows a French army helicopter hovering over Huppert; a solider shouts through a megaphone and pleads with her to get her family out. She dismisses this, her inner monologue refers to the French soldiers as “arrogant whites” despite the fact that Huppert’s character also visibly lacks melanin. She apparently loves her life in Africa, as evidenced by a reckless motorcycle ride amidst the bush.
Her passion is also an obsession. Huppert’s character is absolutely determined to stick it out: she has a ramshackle coffee plantation to maintain, and nothing, not insurgents, not her teenage son being assaulted and robbed by rebel soldiers, not threats of brutality nor the imposition of violence, indeed, not her plantation being burned to the ground, will make her move on. In the end, she is left with nothing; by this point, the viewer is left without much sympathy as it was her stubbornness and wilful ignorance that made it impossible for her family or any portion of her property to be spared destruction. Africa’s red earth and the legacy of terror implanted by the European empires have swallowed her entire: one can damn the character’s apparent stupidity, but perhaps the viewer is meant to linger over Huppert’s initial monologue. “Arrogant whites” somehow thought they could tread upon someone else’s soil, master it, bend it to their will; in the end, the effort is nothing but a blood-soaked waste.
I couldn’t help but think of this film when I heard about France’s intervention in Mali. France is the only European power that presently maintains bases in Africa: they simply did not get the message, as eloquently expressed in Harold MacMillan’s “Wind of Change” speech in 1960, that the presence of European powers in Africa was no longer wanted nor desirable. Not only does the French military remain, France also provides its former colonies with a currency, the CFA Franc, and regularly involves itself in African politics. Sometimes this is positive: in 1979, the French deposed Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the dictator who ruled the Central African Republic. He was so wildly over the top in his pretensions that in 1976 he turned his Republic into a grotesque Empire and had himself crowned Emperor. Among the crimes against humanity that he is supposed to have committed, he turned cannibal. This form of self-indulgence was perversely apropos given how he had otherwise swallowed the country’s wherewithal; a minister who objected to Bokassa’s extravagance and tried to instigate a rebellion, Alexandre Banza, was apparently slashed by the dictator with a razor in front of the other members of the cabinet. Bokassa’s guards then beat Banza until his back was broken and shot him on the streets of the capital, Bangui. Le Monde said this murder was “so revolting that it still makes one’s flesh creep”. Such behaviour ensured no one objected when Bokassa was deposed.
Mali’s situation is quite different. However, it is relatively easy to see why the French would want to involve themselves: the extreme Islamist ideology which inspires the rebels is out of kilter with Mali’s prevailing culture. The current government, while no beacon of liberty, at least co-operates somewhat with international institutions. Furthermore, it wouldn’t do for France to allow an “African Afghanistan” to develop in a region it considers part of its sphere of influence. So in go the French troops, along with the air force and additional soldiers from Burkina Faso, Niger and elsewhere, in an attempt to secure the capital and beat back the rebels. One wonders if the insurgents look at the sky, see the Rafale fighter jets coming to rain down destruction on their positions and say, “arrogant whites”.
There are good reasons to believe that this intervention will fail. The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has said that “Operation Serval” will continue as long as necessary: apparently President Hollande is determined to “eradicate the terrorists”. As America’s decade in Afghanistan has illustrated, such “eradication” is difficult to achieve. One can think that progress is being made only to find that the insurgents are suddenly re-vivified. Mali resembles Afghanistan in another respect: its government lacks popular support. The Malian state is rightly perceived as being run by criminals; it’s only there due to a coup d’etat. A quick look at the Heritage Foundation’s “Index of Economic Freedom” illustrates the country’s main problems: Mali ranks in 111th place, and as the Foundation states, its “judicial system is considered notoriously inefficient and corrupted by bribery and influence-peddling.” According to the United Nations, Mali is ranked 175th on the Human Development Index: this puts it below notorious laggards like Haiti, Mauritania and Sudan.
The Malians are justified in wondering how such a miserable situation came about. Furthermore, they are right to ask from whom did they acquire their institutions. Whose laws did they (at least initially) copy? Whose style of administration did they emulate? Who still dominates their economy, including the provision of their currency? Which nation continues to make their presence felt in their affairs? This same country has now returned to prop up a government which has comprehensively failed its people. The Islamists are not in step with most of Malian opinion and represent an ethnic as well as religious divide in Malian society: however at least they arose from its soil. They may be malignant; but at least they are not as alien.
The French will make mistakes in the course of their operations: it’s impossible for even the most precise bomb to discern between civilian and foe. France 24 may not choose to run the images of Malians mourning their dead. Nevertheless, one can imagine the pictures of makeshift coffins carried to cemeteries, the tears of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters streaming down care worn faces and lamentations bemoaning the cruelty of fate and begging for God’s mercy: this will be remembered, provoking sorrow in some, anger in others. If and when the body count mounts, so will the sadness and rage accumulate, potentially leading to a final scene much like that in “White Material” in which a French Army helicopter gathers the few French citizens that remain before beating a hasty retreat.
The collapse of the European empires provided a valuable lesson: popular consent provides the only means for any government, whether alien or not, to endure. Consent is fleeting if it takes the form of mere acquiescence to force; unless a state is just and seen to be just, it will eventually fall, taking all the grand monuments to its egotism and power down with it. Despite Bokassa’s use of terror, which kept both citizens and ministers cowed for a time, his eagle fell from its Central African perch and shattered. It probably would have done so eventually without intervention; the French may have succeeded in 1979 because they merely accelerated the process.
The French and their allies may get the Malians to bow down to their current corrupt regime under threat of violence or even out of fear of the rebels; alternatively, the rebels may overwhelm the country and frighten their fellow citizens into obedience with a spectacle of brutal street justice carried out in the name of Sharia. Neither scenario offers the Malian people stability or prosperity: arrogant whites and arrogant rebels will only make a nation, whose suffering should be a stain on the conscience of the world, bleed even more.