Since the French military intervention in the Mali conflict, known as Operation Serval, began last week, the internet has been buzzing with talk about its motives. Is France really only trying to contain a terrorist threat, as it claims? Or do major world powers have other, more sinister interests at stake? At its root, what is the conflict in Mali about?
This discourse, generated largely by journalists, analysts and activists unfamiliar with Mali, has been far too speculative for my tastes. Let’s consider what we do and don’t know about the causes and effects of international interest in Mali.
1. Mineral rights
Many sources say that the main reason France, and Western countries more broadly, are getting involved in Mali is that these major world powers covet the country’s mineral resources. The website globalresearch.ca expresses this view bluntly: “the goal of this new war is no other than stripping yet another country of its natural resources by securing the access of international corporations to do it.” Mali’s subsoil has been reported to contain abundant precious metals, oil and gas. But the truth of Mali’s “mineral riches” is rather murky.
Where oil and gas are concerned, talk of Mali’s “oil wealth” is premature: while Mali has potential reserves, it has zero proven reserves, and despite its government allocating 700,000 square kilometers for drilling since 2005, no wells have been drilled yet (see Jeune Afrique). No major multinational energy companies have even bought drilling rights in Mali: the only companies who have are Italy’s ENI, Algeria’s SONATRACH, Canada’s Selier Energy, and a few other minor players with high risk tolerance. Even before the present conflict began a year ago, the Malian Sahara’s remoteness and chronic insecurity made it a no-go zone for most investors. Military intervention will not change that for the better.