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     Feb 2, 2013

Symbolism merges for Mali and North Korea
By Derek Henry Flood

Less than two months before he was ousted in a military coup d'etat, then Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure on January 25, 2012, inaugurated a relatively lavish cluster of monuments celebrating the history of Mali's less-than storied military. Coming to the end of the recently completed Sino-Malian Friendship

Bridge into Bamako's Sotuba district, one is suddenly struck by an assortment of monuments of incongruous bronze socialist realism that would look more at home in Pyongyang than in a West Africa rich in its own indigenous artistic traditions.

At first pass, these creations appeared to be a pastiche of North Korean militarist sculpture superimposed with Malian features. On closer inspection it turns out the figures marking the milestones of Malian military history were in fact crafted by a North Korean state company, established in the Malian capital and known as Baikho Mali-Societe a responsabilite limitee (Sarl). The company is likely a subsidiary of Pyongyang's Mansudae Overseas Development Group, which has been erecting prideful statues in Benin, Botswana, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Mansudae is the external arm of the Mansudae Art Studio, the sole producer of all artistic representation of the 'Eternal Leader' Kim Il-sung, the 'Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il and ostensibly will also immortalize Kim Jong-eun when appropriate.

The North Korean sculpted bronze of General Abdoulaye Soumaré standing at the northern end of the Sino-Malian Friendship Bridge. Soumaré was Mali’s first military chief after independence from France in the early 1960s and considered the architect of its post-colonial army. North Korea’s state artists, the last of their kind producing rigid Stalinist social realist art, have been busy installing monuments across the width and breadth of the African continent in recent years. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

Mansudae serves a very practical purpose beyond keeping the art of socialist realism alive and well in Africa. It provides much-needed hard currency to Pyongyang at a time that is perhaps the apogee of its internationally sanctioned and self-imposed isolation. It also provides African leaders a low cost means of portraying their proud pre- and post-colonial histories.

While North Korea is lambasted in the West for its unwelcome nuclear program and atrocious gulags, for a number of poor African states, Pyongyang is a perfectly amenable business partner willing to work cheaply and finishing projects ahead of time or on schedule.

The visitor to Bamako is greeted by a bronze cast of General Abdoulaye Soumare, Mali's first Army Chief of Staff after independence from France. Further on is a plinth of a Malian soldier lunging forward with a Kalashnikov in one hand and his helmet raised high in the air. The anonymous soldier, meant to embody national liberation, appears devoid of historical context and is evocative of Bolshevik period propaganda in Russia and the Soviet-inspired official art of Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Another North Korean-made statue can be found in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's rustic capital. There stands the late president Laurent Kabila, father of the current president. The DRC, like Mali, has erected another Democratic People's Republic of Korea vanity monument when it is facing another bout of deadly internal rebellion in eastern DRC with the M23 rebel movement. The North Korean artists' interpretation of Kabila from the neck down isn't terribly dissimilar to Mail's Soumare - both of which appear to have striking similarities to the contours and garb of the late Kim Jong-il - save for the bust atop the bodies with something resembling the heads of the African leaders.

A vestige of the DPRK’s Kim Il-sung-era Cold War propaganda in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia known locally as the ‘Derg Monument’ denoting the name of the dreadful Marxist junta that ruled Ethiopia after ousting the monarchy of Emperor Haille Selassie in 1974. After northern insurgents toppled the regime in 1991, Ethiopians left the hideous Stalinist obelisk intact to remind future generations of the “Red Terror” years earlier generations endured under the Derg. North Korean state artists have been constructing monuments in Africa for decades. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

The monuments in Mali are the DPRK's most subdued on the continent in terms of scale. Mali's slice of Pyongyang pales in comparison to the highly controversial, gigantic DPRK-constructed "African Renaissance Monument" unveiled in 2010 in neighboring Dakar, Senegal. Senegal, like Mali, contracted out its nationalist art needs to Pyongyang even in the face of astronomical unemployment statistics. Then Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade told the Wall Street Journal at the time: "Only the North Koreans could build my statue … I had no money."

Much further south, the Namibian Sun described the unveiling of gargantuan Mansudae-made statue of an "unknown soldier" on the outskirts of Windhoek commemorating Namibia's guerilla war against apartheid South Africa as an "eight-meter high statue of a soldier holding an AK-47 assault rifle in one hand and brandishing an anti-tank grenade in the other". Save for the bearded head, the bronze figure in many ways looks more out of the battle of Stalingrad than an African freedom fighter.

A year ago, then president Toure opened the monument grounds replete with a formal military parade just as the war for northern Mali was gaining steam and his ill-prepared troops were in the process of a series of hasty retreats that would leave the northern two-thirds of the country under control of a coalition of three Salafi-jihadi Islamist groups. Immense dissatisfaction with the army's inability to fend of both ethno-nationalist Tuareg fighters and militant jihadis armed to the teeth would lead to the toppling of Toure's government on March 21-22, 2012.

Mali's history with North Korea is far from a recent development. In fact links between Bamako and Pyongyang date back to Mali's earliest years as an independent republic beginning in 1960. Modibo Keita, Mali's first president was an ardent socialist of the Marxist strain and anti-imperialist figure who came to power at a time when Kim Il-sung (himself wedged between Soviet Russia and Maoist China) was actively promoting political and economic self-reliance among newly post-colonial states, a very early advocate of so-called "south-to-south" cooperation.

Malian army flag-bearers-as interpreted by DPRK artists. As the biggest challenge to Mali’s territorial integrity was well under way in Mali’s distant northern reaches with Malian security forces in a desperate collective retreat, the nation’s Army Chief of General Staff, General Béguélé Sioro, described the new Army Square during the opening ceremony as “an eloquent testimony of our national army.” Credit: Derek Henry Flood

Kim provided President Keita with economic advisers as Mali tried to implement a Soviet-style command economy with grandiose plans of centralized development to emancipate Malians from inherited, unfavorable economic dependencies on metropolitan France.

Mali became somewhat of a laboratory for North Korean diplomacy in Africa. In Korea versus Korea: A Case of Contested Legitimacy, author Barry Gills, a professor of global politics at Newcastle University, writes that in 1964, Mali's Keita paid a state visit to Pyongyang, where he issued a joint communique with Kim Il-sung and Kim emphasized what he termed the "common past, ideals, and enemy" shared between Mali and the DPRK.

Following Pyongyang's establishing ties with neighboring Guinea in 1958, Mali, was the second nation in sub-Saharan Africa to provide the DPRK with full diplomatic recognition in 1961. At a time when post-war partitioned North and South Korea were locked in a race to establish diplomatic ties around the world, the DPRK focused its efforts on the newly independent states of the Third World with a heavy focus on Africa.

Throughout the height of the Cold War period in the 1960s and early 1970s, Kim Il-sung sought to outmaneuver Seoul in Africa with the isolation of an American-allied South Korea. In 1975 Kim successfully acceded to the Non-Aligned Movement and blocked the South's attempt at joining the same organization due in large part to the North's carefully targeted relations with so many NAM member states.

As time went on and the DPRK became mired in economic stagnation concomitant with the rise of South Korea's tiger economy in the 1990s, Pyongyang was forced to greatly scale back its diplomatic presence throughout much of Africa, but its links with whomever is in power in Bamako have remained largely intact, if primarily more financial than political-military.

It is not surprising that when in 1999, the government of Alpha Oumar Konare - then president of Mali - decided to build a complex honoring the legacy of Keita, he partnered up with North Korean sculptors and Chinese engineers to develop the complex. In 2010, to celebrate 50 years of Malian independence, Baikho-Mali was enlisted to create a somewhat kitschy green space featuring grottos and an artificial waterfall spilling into a man-made pond bedecked with spindly white storks at the foot of the Presidential Palace, at reported cost of more than US$700,000.

Mali, a country of intense poverty and limited social mobility for some of its more marginalized ethnic groups, could not resupply its remote garrisons near the borders with Algeria, Niger, and Mauritania in the face of a fast-moving rebel onslaught. This led soldiers to defect to one of the rebel factions, scurry southward beneath a rapidly consolidating frontline as northern cities fell in succession, or do away with their uniforms altogether and melt away into the civilian population. The first noteworthy attack in 2012 came to the eastern town of Menaka on January 17, a week before Toure and his coterie from Mali's embattled Ministry of Defense heralded the North Korean works which were estimated at a cost of $410,000, a fortune in light of estranged northern troops complaining that they lacked adequate food and ammunition.

Unlike the adjacent Sino-Malian Friendship Bridge which was described as a "gift of the People's Republic of China to Mali," Bamako's North Korean works were paid for out of the country's coffers and Pyongyang profited from the affair. With North Korea's great northern neighbor China, the transactional relationship has been just the opposite.

A billboard in downtown Bamako promoting the construction of the N’Sukala sugar mill in central Mali. This Chinese-state firm built mill, the third such structure constructed at Beijing’s behest, would help turn Mali from a net importer of sugar to a net exporter according to its boosters. Credit: Derek Henry Flood

According to Yu Jianhua, an assistant Minister of Commerce serving as Hu Jintao's emissary in Mali at the time, the sprawling expanse was China's most expensive gift in its ever expanding West African infrastructure portfolio. Moreover, China's highly functional "gift" would help alleviate some of the Malian capital's horrendous traffic congestion by providing a third bridge with which to cross the Niger River that bisects the city roughly north and south.

China has been at work in a number of infrastructure projects in Mali, undeterred by the very real prospect of a southward Islamist rebel advance which was only recently halted when French President Francois Hollande saw it in Paris's national interest to rescue the shaky interim government in Bamako with a highly publicized, grandiose military intervention.

While many Western governments were quick to suspend military cooperation and financial aid to Mali in the wake of the junta's toppling of Toure, insisting upon the restoration of representative democracy, typically stoic officialdom in Beijing remained un-phased. State-run China Light Industrial Corporation for Foreign Economic and Technical Cooperation (CLETC) busily completed a massive sugar mill in what was thought to be the relatively stable central Segou region well south of the Mali's frontline.

The mill was met with fanfare by then prime Minster Cheik Modibo Diarra - himself since deposed in a murky December event that Columbia University's Gregory Mann termed a "second coup" - with yet another assortment of local Malian and Chinese dignitaries promoting "friendship."

For Pyongyang and Beijing, who have just undergone opaque leadership transitions of their own, their clients in Mali and elsewhere in Africa may be forcibly ejected on a semi-regular basis, yet the business relationships with their East Asian peers shall persevere. Borne out of decolonization in Africa or the emerging post-Japanese order in China and Korea, the shared anti-imperial sentiments held by African and Asian leaders will see them continue to balance external actors in order to maximize advantage at home.

As a fractured Afghanistan attempts to walk the line between powers great and near, its leaders are constantly striking deals with a complex array of foreign militaries, warlords, tribal elites, neighboring governments and business interests with their eyes looking years down the road. Mali - like Afghanistan (cliched Taliban comparisons regarding the north aside) - presently must struggle to find an equilibrium between all of the competing forces thrust upon it. In one such example one of Toure's top military men, Colonel Beguele Sioro, was hailing the debut of North Korean works in 2012 while the previous February he was in Senegal being promoted in a press release by the Pentagon's Special Operations Command and nothing about this contrast is considered contradictory.

Mali's enfeebled interim President Dioncounda Traore had little choice but to call Francois Hollande to stave off a possible militant storming of Bamako,a task neither palatable, much less conceivable, for Mali's historic East Asian comrades. The dramatic made-for-TV return of French hard power to West Africa's perennially troubled Sahel region however, in no necessarily way signifies to decline of others eager to exploit Mali for economic or political gain.

When French forces began Operation Serval in Mali on January 11, 2013, a certain reactionary current in American society immediately feared the United States military becoming bogged down in yet another poorly articulated conflict in the Muslim world. Those who harbored such fears did so without realizing the Pentagon has been quite active in Mali and surrounding countries for close to a decade with alphabet soup-like series of military ententes led by the State Department called the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI), the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI) followed by the creation of United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) which has led many both in and outside of Africa to suspect the US seeks to counter Chinese competition through military influence.

Now that the temporary cleaving of Mali by northern rebels and caravanning Salafi-jihadi fighters has been undone with a mix of French air power, the French Foreign Legion, regular French troops, potentially vengeful Malian soldier sand soldiers from several ragtag regional militaries, Mali will no longer have to suffer an agonizing, anachronistic status quo partition that endures today on the Korean peninsula. But the wealth of grievances that led to northern Mali's competing Tuareg and Islamist takeover has in no way been meaningfully resolved.

For the moment, Mali's former colonial masters and their African proxies are all that are keeping the warring belligerents at bay. While France and their British and American supporters will continue to view Mali in terms of military expenditures for the near term, the official artists of North Korea and the state engineers from China will continue their transactional relationships with Bamako uninterrupted.

In the same political space, Malians now have the French bombing, the Americans looking for a venue to expand the drone capabilities of their global special operations program, the Chinese building big-ticket infrastructure, and quiet sculptors from sanctioned North Korea literally shaping the icons of their history.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist focusing on the Africa, the Middle East and South and Central Asia. He has covered many of the world's conflicts-both major and minor-since 9/11 as a frontline reporter. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com. Follow Derek on Twitter @DerekHenryFlood

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