France sent armour, troops, and helicopters to Mali in January to beat back Islamist rebels advancing on the capital, Bamako. French diplomats were in the process of drafting an UN Security Council resolution that would have authorised an armed mission by the African Union to send its own troops; the rebels’ advance prompted swifter action.
At the beginning of February, Francois Hollande, the French president, said that his country’s troops would stay until ‘the sovereignty of Mali [was] restored’, and that AU troops would replace them when ready. Writing for The Risky Shift, Patrick McGhee supported this view, saying that the threat to Malian sovereignty came from Islamist militants, not the French intervention.
Commentators elsewhere have speculated that France has other motives. In a Guardian opinion piece, Seamus Milne wrote that the intervention was part of France’s ‘post-colonial habit of routine armed intervention’, and that the real motives for it were access to oil, gas, and uranium.
Assed Baig, writing in the Huffington Post, made a similar argument: the public explanation was a ‘myth’; France was really interested in gaining preferential access to Mali’s natural resources, such as uranium and gold.
How to judge these claims? It seems sensible to consult some reliable statistical sources to try to shed more light on claims that access to Mali’s economy and resources lies behind France’s intervention.
First, Mali’s economy. The CIA World Factbook shows that Mali has a small national output, and it is very poor in absolute and per person terms. The World Bank concurs, estimating that 35 per cent Malians live on less than $2 per day. According to the CIA, Mali’s 2012 GDP was $17.35bn, or 137th in the world; its GDP per capita was $1,100 – 214th in the world.
What is Mali selling to the world? Not very much, as it happens. Its main export partners are in South Asia and the Far East. France is the second largest seller of goods to Mali. But this is unlikely to be a motive for intervention, either. From the World Factbook:
11.6 per cent of Mali’s imports is $372m per annum. French exports in total are $567 billion – meaning that Mali accounts for 0.0007 per cent of the French export market. France has budgeted €650m ($868m) for the Mali intervention. This does not seem good value for money to secure such a nugatory market.
How about Mali’s oil wealth? Again, the CIA has statistics.
So there seems to be little in the way of oil or gas wealth to speak of. Two authoritative histories of oil as a resource, Daniel Yergin’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Prize and Francisco Varra’s Oil Politics, do not mention Mali.
Are other resources drawing France in? France generates the highest proportion of electricity from nuclear of any country in the EU, so access to uranium is certainly important in keeping the lights on. However, the World Nuclear Association’s 2011 table of world uranium production ranking does not mention Mali; in other words, no production was recorded. (Neighbouring Niger is a large producer, producing around 7% of world output.)
One area where Mali’s resources are significant is minerals. Gold is a significant commodity, and there is potential for other large-scale mineral exploitation. Niger is also mineral-rich, including coal production. But France is not involved in mineral extraction in either country. A 2010 report by the US Geological Survey on Mali and Niger did not mention any French mining companies. Foreign companies are involved in gold mining in Mali, but these are based in west Africa, South Africa, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
In summary, Mali’s resources, argued by some commentators to be the primary motivation for the intervention in January, are negligible and are unlikely to have motivated French intervention. Its economy is poor, it has no proven hydrocarbons, and France is not heavily invested in its extractive industries. France may yet be shown to have an ulterior motive, but looting Mali is probably not it.
Photo Credit: Magharebia