Conflict Alerts # 508, 6 May 2022
In the news
On 3 May, the Mali government announced the termination of defence ties with France, condemning multiple violations of its sovereignty by the French troops. In a statement, the military spokesperson, colonel Abdoulaye Maiga said: "For some time now, the government of the Republic of Mali notes with regret a profound deterioration in military cooperation with France." The accords that Mali ended were the framework for France's intervention in Mali, which was signed on 1 August 2014 to fight against Islamist militancy.
He cited multiple instances of French forces violating the country's air space. He also referred to France's decision on 3 June 2021 to end the joint military operation and on 17 February 2022 to withdraw its troops. A French foreign ministry spokesperson called the junta's decision "unjustified". He said: "France considers that this decision is unjustified and absolutely contests any violation of the bilateral legal framework".
The announcement came following the Mali junta accused the French army of "spying" and violating its airspace after Paris released drone footage of mass burial by "Russian mercenaries" at a former French military base. With the end of the agreement, France and European forces can no longer enter and move freely within the country.
Issues at large
First, Mali-France defence ties. France's defence ties with Mali began in January 2013 as Operation Serval, helping the government in their fight to clear Islamic militants from their urban stronghold in northern Mali. Turning into a prolonged conflict, Operation Serval was transformed to Operation Barkhane in August 2014. The objective was to provide continued counterterrorism support to the G5 Sahel member states. Approximately, 2,400 of France's 4,300 troops deployed in Sahel were stationed in Mali scattered between the large base at Gao, others at Kidal, Timbuktu, Tessalit and Gossi. However, in February, France withdrew its troops from Mali following the breakdown of its relations with the country.
Second, growing tensions between France and Mali. Tensions between France and the military government increased since the coup in August 2020, reaching their peak with the second coup in May 2021. The relationship worsened as the junta resisted international pressure to oblige at the given time, returning to a democratic civilian rule. Besides, France opposed the junta's efforts to negotiate peace with the jihadist groups. Whereas Mali publicly accused France of training "terrorist groups" in the region and expelled the French ambassador. The growing presence of the Kremlin-linked security firm Wagner of deploying in Mali fuelled the tensions. These major disagreements, coupled with alleged abuses by the French troops, the failure of Operation Barkhane with further deterioration of the security situation in Sahel, France, witnessed a popular drawback.
Third, Russian involvement. The military junta has built closer links with Russia after its relations severed with the West, particularly France. Russia's presence in Mali positions itself to fill the power vacuum as French and European forces withdraw. Nearly 1000 Russian officials and instructors from the mercenary, the Wagnor group, are deployed. The government claims that the Russians are military instructors helping to restore order. However, the United Nations has accused the Wagnor of human rights violations, including indiscriminate killing alongside the regional forces. The suspected role of Russian mercenaries participating in an operation with Mali's army in March, in which about 300 civilians were allegedly killed over five days has raised concerns.
First, the end of a long term relationship points to France's reluctance towards Mali's governance crisis, despite the rhetoric calling for democratization and Mali's resistance towards France's overwhelmingly militarized approach and involvement in its internal affairs.
Second, taking advantage of widespread anti-French sentiments and lack of trust in state institutions, the transitional military government seems to have captured public support that it is better capable than France and democratically elected officials.
Third, for Mali, the Russian involvement introduces a partner capable of fighting the jihadists without binding to the Western demands to respect human rights and pursue democratic governance. The new partnership, not concerned itself with trivialities like democracy, is likely to make the democratic transition difficult.