Why some Malians are happy about the arrival of the French, in charts

January 15, 2013

When Western powers enter into regional conflicts, they aren't always greeted as liberators. But in the past few days, many Malians have been quoted as vocally supporting the French intervention there.

In Mali's capital of Bamako, French and Malian flags are hanging side by side, and in the south-central city of Segou, some are holding signs reading, "Thank you, France, for saving our lives."


People wave a French flag in Bamako, Mali. (AFP/Getty)

"The Islamists were advancing rapidly towards us without the intervention of the French army," said Moussa Touré, a Bamako resident in her 30s who was interviewed by the African-oriented news site Jeune Afrique.

Traore Ouma, a woman who was displaced to Bamako by the conflict in the north,  told al-Jazeera that she's eager to see an end to the Islamist takeover in the north:

"I am very happy with the French intervention. I would like the crisis to come an end so we can go back home," she said.

Some educated, urban Malians were even quoted by Le Monde as saying French President Francois Hollande will be thought of as a "folk hero." 

Of course to some, a former colonial power intervening in African affairs feels more unsavory than heroic. Theories about neocolonialism have bounced around in both French and African press since Hollande announced that he was putting French boots on the ground:

 France, "the former colonizer ... after flooding the Sahel region with countless heavy weapons, [is] harvesting the fruits of the crisis," the Algerian paper Echorrouk said.

Even in Mali, not all are convinced that the French don't have ulterior motives of capturing natural resources.

And it's worth noting that Mali has one of the world's lowest Internet penetration rates, so evidence of French support picked up on social media likely comes from a wealthy minority.

But it does seem as though a significant contingent of Malians interviewed by Western journalists are welcoming help from France.

That's partly because the Islamists who have taken over northern Mali seem capable of terrifying brutality, meting out punishments such as amputations for even small offenses. As The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan reported:

[R]efugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.

 

Meanwhile, countless musicians have been driven out of the country after the imposition of Sharia law outlawed music. This combination of violence, extremism and barbaric justice forms a strong argument for an immediate solution to the crisis. 

“We can no longer live like we used to live,” lamented Aminata Wassidie Traore, 36, a singer who fled her village of Dire, near Timbuktu, to The Post's Raghavan. “The Islamists do not want anyone to sing anymore.”

But Malians' support of the French might also stem from their comfort with both the West and Christians. Mali's population is 90 percent Muslim, but more than half of Malians believe "Islam and Christianity have a lot in common," according to a 2010 Pew study.

What's more, more than 90 percent of Malians say it's important for Muslim and Western societies to get along, one of the highest percentages in the Muslim world, according to 2011 research from Gallup.

Gallup
Gallup

They're also one of the most likely Muslim countries to say that Westerners respect Muslim societies:

Gallup
Gallup

It's probably easier to accept the presence of thousands of Western troops on your soil if you believe your relationship is based on respect rather than post-colonial paternalism.

It remains to be seen if this optimism will persist if the conflict starts to drag on and life in Mali continues to deteriorate. But it's promising that at least for now, the French aren't contending with a disgruntled populace on top of a formidable rebel enemy.

In the blog Africa is a Country, Gregory Mann, an associate professor of history at Columbia University, writes:

One tweeter figures French President François Hollande is more popular than Barack Obama right now. I’d wait for Hollande’s face to go up on a few barbershops before making that call.

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Max Fisher · January 15, 2013