On the 17th of February 2022, President Emmanuel Macron announced that France and its allies would “start a coordinated removal of their military in the Malian territory”, where several of its forces had been fighting against Islamist militants since 2013. This removal came after a clash between France and Mali amid population dissatisfaction over the troops’ failure to eliminate the terrorist threat. Added to that, various distensions episodes took place between France and the new military rulers in Mali, reinforcing the tensions between the two.
Mali has been afflicted with the presence of active jihadist groups competing for power over the past 10 years: the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) (now including the former Salafi jihadist group Ansar Dine) and Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an organization affiliated with the Al-Qaeda. Both have led multiple terror attacks in the region, using the Tuareg rebellion to take control of northern Mali. The sudden and fast advance of these organizations in 2013 led France, its former colonizer, to intervene under a U.N. mandate.
Back then, former French President François Hollande sent 5,000 troops to Mali, as part of Operation Serval. The goal – ousting Islamic militants – was met successfully on July 15, 2014. However, it was then replaced by Operation Barkhane, officially launched on August 1, of the same year. Its aim became much broader: fight against the rise of jihadism in the countries of the Sahel-Saharan region.
Despite French military presence, the past years have seen an increase in terror attacks and the emergence of new jihadist groups. Discontent over France and its presence also started growing. At the same time, Mali has been going through unstable political times. After the forced departure of former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, in August 2020, Mali went through a second coup on May 24, 2021. Colonel Assimi Goïta has since been Mali’s self-proclaimed president.
To better understand the current landscape of the Sahel region after Barkhane’s removal, The Paris Globalist spoke with Niagalé Bagayoko, political scientist and president of the African Security Sector Network, a pan-African organization that brings together specialists in security system reform. She specializes in security policies in Africa and the Western world. In the past few years, she was often seen on French TV, on shows such as C Politique (France 5) to comment on and analyze the current evolution in the Sahel region.
Why do we often talk about Operation Barkhane’s failure? Was this instrumentalized by the Malian military junta?
There is no denying that Operation Barkhane has had obvious tactical successes. Such examples can be found in the elimination of JNIM or ISGS leaders. But another reality is that these interventions have never been converted into strategic victories. Jihadist groups are now embedded in local environments also because they have expanded the geographic space in which they are influential. In this sense, it is impossible to consider Barkhane a success. But will the Malian Armed Forces be capable of reversing the trend? The results they might earn with their new Russian allies can only be verified by the security levels they will provide to civilian populations, the first victims of insecurity.
Russia has seemingly gotten closer to Mali in recent years, sending weapons to the West African country at the end of March 2022 … Is this a sign France is getting replaced?
To begin with, it is important to note that this delivery of weapons and equipment is hardly the first instance of Russian involvement. . Moscow has already sent arms shipments to Mali in 2012 and in 2019. In general, the military cooperation between those two countries needs to be put in a much broader chronological framework. This started with Modibo Keita, the first Malian president elected after the independence of Mali (September 22, 1960), who already wanted to break the ties of cooperation with France and get into closer cooperation with the Soviet Union. Therefore, this Russo-Malian partnership is not “new”. However, the alliance has strengthened since the second coup in May 2021, when the first civilian authorities of the transition were overthrown. With the current Prime Minister Maiga’s proximity to Russia, it all seems to have quickened and taken a controversial turn with the arrival, apparently true but difficult to prove, of the private company Wagner.
The Russo-Malian military partnership is indeed presented in such a way by the Malian authorities. Especially, in the context of the rejection of the French military presence, which in their eyes has not given satisfaction. I don’t think it is possible for an outside actor, who is very new to the operational field, to be more effective than other actors. But the presence of Russia in any form, private or bilateral will have a lasting influence.
What message does the ruling junta want to send to France by blocking the broadcast of RFI and France24?
It is one visible effect of the current diplomatic tug-of-war that has been going on for some time between France and Mali. Relations between the two countries’ authorities, such as under former Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, have shown several points of contention over, for instance, the implementation of the peace agreements or the status of Kidal, for which the Malians have never forgiven France (that left it under the authority of Tuareg armed groups). While these disputes are present and lasted up to the time of the first civil transition, the 2nd coup in June 2021 pushed France to end the Barkhane operation in Mali. Unsurprisingly, accusations from both sides and growing tensions accelerated France mid-air desertion.
Since then, Malian authorities have multiplied the signals to encourage France to withdraw. Whether through the dismissal of the French ambassador, or the numerous demonstrations organized by groups close to the Malian government to denounce Barkhhane and France’s ‘hidden interests’, these symptoms of discontentment have been increasingly evident.
Why did the G5 Sahel – created in 2014 with Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Niger – also fail to create a solution?
G5 Sahel was formed on the initiative of Mauritania but is part of broader institutional calculations. The “new” cooperation was immediately supported by the European Union, to the detriment of another approach involving subregional instruments, such as the already existent Liptako-Gourma Authority which Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are already part of.
As many experts have pointed out, it was illusory to create a new institution for such an acute problem. G5 Sahel is dedicated to promoting security and development, but the institution has had difficulties mobilizing long-term and sustainable funding. Its inability to place its intervention under a mandate – in a more offensive manner – by going beyond joint operations under chapter 7 of the UN Charter also explains part of its failure. The final element explaining the organization’s lethargy is the concurrent creation of the international Sahel coalition, with a secretariat based in Brussels.
Governance troubles have led to the organization being dominated by three military regimes – Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso – out of the five members. This further paralyzed its functioning, especially as France created a double standard by supporting the Chadian junta and while opposing the new Malian military order.
Do you think that the end of Barkhane can bring the Sahel region out of an exclusively military logic?
I don’t think so at all. This would mean that the only actors are the soldiers of the French operation, which is far from being the case. Just like in Afghanistan, we are facing a collective failure of all civilian and military actors. We must remember that despite the billions of dollars mobilized in the Sahel alliance or the Sahelian authorities, results have not allowed us to reverse the current trend. Otherwise, we will only learn from this lack of effect on the strategic evolution of the area, by continuing to cover other fields.
Unfortunately or fortunately, this crisis is a turning point. It invites us to rethink all the conflict’s players. National actors must be the first to mobilize their expertise, which no external actor can ever replace in their understanding of the crisis. As we have seen, however, some have not acquired operational autonomy or want to continue to rely on external actors. European, Russian, American and even Turkish actors have still not mastered the complexity of the Sahel environment.
With the current ban on the French army to act on Malian soil, there is a form of “free movement” of terrorists on the Malian side. What will change in the movements and actions of the jihadist groups?
We are witnessing a worsening of the situation, for sure, particularly around the Mali/Niger border. There is an enormous deterioration with extremely serious community connotations. Islamist militants of the ISGS have been seen fighting against Tuareg armed groups, which are signatories of the 2015 peace agreement, part of the permanent strategic framework (PSF).
Right now, GATIA and the MSA, two Tuareg groups part of the PSF, are at the forefront of countering the offensive, which has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths and injuries. Today, the Malian armed forces do not seem to be able to counter the Islamist offensive.