Tribalism and religion has always been exploited as a pretext to economic and imperial ambitions. We have always known this but how quick we are to forget.
The studies of a somewhat unknown and insignificant desk researcher for the British Army, was so successful in charting the differences of the Arab peoples, their languages, their customs, the subtle and major differences in creed; that it was used a template for engagement - ostensibly for division and conquering - during the first and second world wars. So good in fact was Thomas Edward Lawrence's book, that it was still being used as an operations manual in the US and UK Iraqi invasion of 2003, which some estimate lead to the loss of millions of lives.
With political influence comes land. And with land, come assets. In 1878, at the Berlin Congress, Western powers met to divide up the Muslim world and Africa, between them. At the Congress, Britain and France made agreements and mutual concessions for dividing Muslim lands between them. The French beat Italy to taking control of Tunisia with the support of Bismark and the British. The British would focus on Egypt and Palestine. Germany, and Bismarck particularly, encouraged French expansion into Tunisia despite complaints from the Italians. In April 1881, under the pretext of a provoked border incident, a 30,000 man French Army invaded Tunisia. Within a month of invading, the French were at the capital and had forced the signing of the Treaty of Qasr Said. During the summer of 1881, the French forced the Bey to effectively sign away all Tunisian sovereignty. The Tunisian people resisted French occupation (arguably they never stopped) but by November 1881, the French had gained control over all of Tunisia.
By the late 1880s, French fiscal reforms included a new Tunisian national debt of Fr125m and guaranteed payments for French monopolies. For their trouble, the Tunisian Bey and his family received just over Fr1,000,000 per annum. However, the last, most lucrative and hardest to reach assets, were those held under the Islamic system of 'waqf' which were kept for the public good and charitable causes, and were exempt from the land grab. But not for long.
Eventually, the French 'protectorate' of Tunisia opened the floodgates to not only French but other European nations; the open pillaging of Tunisian resources, mining and legal land seizures continued as an economic bonanza for European nations. By the early 1900s, Tunisians who had owned their own land since antiquity had suddenly become tenants paying French owners. In 1881, the paltry 100,000 hectares of Tunisia claimed by the French had within 20 years, become almost 1,000,000 hectares. By 1913, Tunisia, which had previously been considered to be a jewel of the Islamic Empire, run peacefully and harmoniously under Islamic law, was now producing 300,000 gallons of wine for France.
Tunisia remained in French control until 1955. Bourguiba, installed by the West as a dictator for life, was replaced by Ben Ali. Tunisia was the first of the North African-Arab nations to fall to European conquest and in a straight line to Bouazizi and the Arab Spring; it was the first to come out from under the yolk of oppression.
Tunisia formed the northern tip of 'French West Africa' which also included what is now Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali - which gained its independence from France in September 1960. West Africa has dense reserves of high-grade gold ore and so Mali now finds itself at the centre of a new global gold rush as the third largest gold producing country in Africa, behind South Africa and Ghana. When it comes to these matters, fortune literally, favours the brave. Brock Sailer, a mining analyst with GMP Securities Europe says his preferred destinations for gold are "Mali, the Kénieba inlier in Senegal and Burkina Faso". Based on a GDP per capita of $691, Mali is one of the ten poorest nations in the world. Gold makes up a greater percentage of Mali's GDP than for any other top 20 gold producing nation (19% of the GDP) and accounts for 75% of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
The African pot of gold at the end of the colonial rainbow has not gone unnoticed here in the UK. The Prime Minister's announcement at Davos earlier this year, whilst focussing on plans for UK growth, also outlined a number of less than subtle references to Africa. Whilst asking how we compete and succeed in the global economic race today, a near Pavlovian assessment of the "staggering" potential open to Britain and an open and unashamed plan for liberating African resources was proffered. This is not just a history lesson; this is happening on our watch.
In this age of austerity, the solution to growthlessness cannot be a return to colonial exceptionalism and intervention. It cannot a return to the rape and pillage of nations. It cannot be a return to exploitation and oppression. Mali, and indeed much of Africa has blossomed; she wears her finery in the open. Oscar Wilde quipped that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Well, it seems that Africa may well be a temptation too far for some.
I can only hope and pray that this is not the case. Time will tell.
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