Qaddafi's colorful behavior and megalomania made it easy to overlook the extent to which the troubles he helped foment were a carryover from much older struggles. In the late 19th century, France and Britain vied mightily for control over the Sahel, the eastern extremity of which (today's South Sudan) was a cornerstone of their respective imperial schemes.
Paris, already enjoying possession of North Africa, dreamed of ruling over the Sahel, from the Atlantic coast in Senegal all the way to White Nile, in Sudan. This would have permitted utter French domination, both east-west and north-south, of trade between Europe, the Maghreb, and the population and resources centers of West Africa.
If anything, Britain's dream was even more ambitious. It was based on Cecil Rhodes's scheme to build a continuous rail network -- a virtual spine traveling the length of the continent and linking Cape Town and all of southern Africa's vast mineral wealth to Cairo, via people- and produce-rich East Africa.
None of these grand designs considered, however, the existence of fiercely independent-minded peoples, and especially Muslims with well organized societies and sophisticated martial traditions throughout the contested Sahelian region.
Both Britain and France faced some of the stiffest tests of their imperial era here. For London, this came in campaigns to subdue Sudan, and for Paris it involved Samori Ture, the founder of an amorphous Islamic state, centered not far from the region of today's fighting in Mali, that resisted conquest through most of the 1880s.
Pundits who bang on about the events in Mali on television today speculate glibly about the possible linkup of militant Islamic movements in places like Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, and northern Nigeria, potentially constituting a vast sea of Muslim radicalism and hostility to the West. They would do better to understand that such currents are inherent to the politics and culture of this region and are in no way a recent import. Rejection of borders and of the European drawn states is as old as the borders themselves, and Islam has always played a central role in this, as intellectual base, religious justification and rallying catalyst. These currents have been given added force and coherence by the age-old movement of peoples and ideas via pastoralism, overland pilgrimage to Mecca and the existence of large, sprawling and aggrieved transnational ethnic groups -- like the Tuareg, Hausa, and Fulani, to name three -- whose interests were never considered by the imperial mapmakers.
Most of those who write on today's crisis seem to ignore that the Tuareg, who are a key to events in Mali, have been sporadically fighting for decades against the country of that name we see on the map. During a visit I made to Timbuktu in the 1990s, Tuareg rebels fired mortars into the town that landed within meters of my hotel with no prior warning, scrambling tourists and creating a state of emergency.