The first reaction of most of us to the escape of Belfast hostage Stephen McFaul from captivity in Algeria will have been joy at his improbable survival tinged with grief at the fate of other kidnap victims.
The event focused attention on the war tearing Mali apart. Outrage at the atrocity has boosted support for the intervention in the war by French troops supported by Britain and the US to drive back the perpetrators of the kidnap and shore up the regime of Captain Amadou Sanogo.
He seized power in a coup in March last year against President Toumani Toure, who for all his faults, and they were many, had been democratically elected.
Dublin Foreign Affairs Minister Eamonn Gilmore has declared the intervention necessary to prevent northern Mali becoming “a terrorist base camp”. The Republic, he said, would give “full support” to any wider intervention by the EU.
This contradicts repeated assurances from Gilmore and others during the 2009 Lisbon Treaty debate that a Yes vote would not lead to Irish involvement in EU military actions. But Gilmore knows that he will be able to dismiss critics of his latest U-turn as being soft on terrorism.
Every colonial power which has ever invaded another country – going back as far as the Persians in the 6th century BC - has claimed to be acting for humanitarian reasons against vicious barbarians –-in which context it is worth noting that French ‘planes supported by US “spotter” drones have been bombing anti-Sanogo insurgents for months.
Military intervention was not prompted by but preceded the kidnap and murder at Amenas refinery.
The rebels have widely been represented as jihadists connected to Al Qaida. The destruction of historic religious sites in Timbuktu and the imposition in areas under rebel control of an extreme version of “sharia law” confirms that some factions fit this bill. But what generated the uprising in the first place had nothing to do with Islamism,but arose from the oppression of the Tuareg people. The fact that extraneous groups with malign intent battened onto the grievances of the Tuaregs shouldn’t be allowed to shift focus away from the underlying causes of the war towards the aspect of the violence most useful to outside powers.
Mali became independent from France in 1960.
The Tuaregs had been integral to the “national liberation movement” and believed that the hour of their liberation had come. But they then found themselves marginalised and forced out of their semi-nomadic pastoral way of living. Drought and commercial agriculture impoverished them further.
They have staged four uprisings since independence, each of which was beaten back by military action, internment and exile. Many found sanctuary in Gadaffi’s Libya and served in his armed forces.
The rebel offensive at the beginning of last year was the latest Tuareg uprising. Sanogo then launched his coup, on the basis of a claim that the Toure government, because of corruption and incompetence, wasn’t up to the challenge. He promised a no-holds-barred approach to the “Tuareg problem”. The rebels were then joined by jihadists. But their intervention and the cruelties it has brought should not be allowed to blind us to the justice of the Tuareg cause or automatically to support the Western-led forces who may be about to be reminded of the old truism that it’s easier to intervene in somebody else’s country than to manage an exit.
Anyone who wants a sense of the culture and spirit of the Tuaregs should get their hands on any of the albums of Tinariwan. They play an entrancing fusion of traditional desert music and the blues. Some will have seen them on Jules Holland’s BBC2, programme, or at Mandela Hall in Belfast where they raised the roof two years ago, or at the Oxygen festival or even at Glastonbury in 2009, when Robert Plant, Bono and Thom Yorke stood at the side of the stage in awe. Tinariwan have since toured with Carlos Santana. Their 2011 album Tassili won a Grammy as the Best World Music Album of the year.
The band developed their unique style in refugee camps in Libya, where they first encountered John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Hendrix. (Libya under Gadaffi was a much more westernised country than is generally supposed.)
For a taster, call up Plant and Tinariwen’s version of “Whole Lotta Love” on YouTube.
Listen to Tinariwen before swallowing the line that the Malian imbroglio can be explained solely or mainly by reference to civilising forces from the West seeking to save the country from hate-crazed fundamentalists.