Bernard Porter: Mali Intervention ... When Former Imperial Powers Step In

Bernard Porter is the author of The Lion's Share. A History of British Imperialism 1850 to the Present.

France has troops there, driving the Islamist rebels back. Britain is keen to help, logistically at least. The reason in France's case is that Mali used to be part of her African empire. Britain's excuse is that many of Mali's near neighbours, who might be induced to intervene too, have "strong links to Britain". That's a coy way of saying that they were part of her empire once. So, we are told, "British troops could be used to train Nigerian forces".

It sounds reasonable. You could also make another argument for British and French intervention. As Africa's former rulers, Britain bears some of the responsibility for the way the continent has turned out. Mali became a French territory during the "Scramble for Africa" of the late 19th century: a struggle between European powers to carve the continent up between them, for their own reasons – trade, natural resources – and not Africa's. A little later it was said to be for the Africans' benefit too. Britain was "civilising" them. That was a pretty arrogant claim, especially in view of some of the features of "civilisation" we were bringing them, like exploitative capitalism. In any case no one would argue today that the project was entirely successful: either because it was ill-conceived in the first place, or because we didn't pursue it seriously enough. (Old imperialists would say it was because we "scuttled" too early.) Some of Africa's present-day problems – not by any means all – are due to that. So it's up to us to put things right. "You broke it; you mend it."

Here, however, is where the problem arises. Colonialism left another legacy, as well as these material ones. That is its reputation afterwards: the "myth" of imperialism, if you like (bearing in mind that myths can be partly true); which is arguably as powerful a factor in international politics today as the thing itself was, at its apparent apogee. ("Apparent" because it might have been weaker then than it liked to present itself; and because it may still be going on today, in disguise.)..

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