NIAS Africa Monitor

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NIAS Africa Monitor
Africa: The anti-France sentiments in Mali and beyond

  Mohamad Aseel Ummer

If France is undergoing a decline in the Sahel, it can create a vacuum in the region; this is likely to be filled by Russia and China. Such shifts in power dynamics can create further instability in Africa.

On 4 February, The European Union imposed selective sanctions on Mali’s Prime Minister and close members of Col Assimi Goita’s inner circle as the military leadership retracted from the chalked-out plans to conduct elections in February. The sanctions came after the French Ambassador to Mali was given 72 hours to leave the country in response to the provocative remarks made by French foreign minister earlier. He called out the regime be “illegitimate” and accused them of being “out of control”. This marks the recent low between France and its former African colony. 
France is the most dominant European player in Africa. The colonial legacy has enabled Paris to maintain influence in the region’s economic, political, strategic and military affairs. Despite decades of decolonization, the French interventions (overt & explicit) in the continent has become systematic and institutionalized. This resulted in increased public resentment and anger. Lately, the military junta in Mali has become the most prominent agent of anti-French sentiments and a staunch diplomatic adversary in the ongoing contentions between both countries. 

Mali has undergone two military takeovers in recent years. The military takeover was condemned internationally. French foreign minister Le Drian criticized the takeover stating, "France condemns with the greatest firmness the violent act that occurred in Mali.” After a nationwide reform conference in Mali that ended in December 2020, the regime has proposed to stay in power till 2026. This prompted the regional ECOWAS to place strict sanctions including the closing of land borders, trade embargos and other strict measures. This was followed with the recent EU’s backlisting of important figures in the Malian military administration along with freezing assets and travel bans. 

Anti-insurgency operations by France and Russian mercenaries in Africa
The French troops have been fighting insurgencies since 2013 under various operation banners (Serval, Barkhane & Takuba) in the Sahel region. Islamist militants have grown considerably in recent years by exploiting structural issues such as poverty and unemployment. Thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed in the tri-border region lying between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso due to increased Islamist insurgency. 

Macron administration recently announced pulling out men from their 5000 strong troops in the region by underplaying the militancy threat. He also commented: “France doesn’t have the vocation or will to stay eternally in Sahel… we were there because we were asked to.” As a response, the junta had allegedly entered into a deal with a Russian PMC, the Wagner group with close ties with Kremlin and Putin. This resulted in another episode of heated diplomatic dialogues. The French foreign ministry argued: "An intervention by this actor would therefore be incompatible with the efforts carried out by Mali’s Sahelian and international partners". Malian authorities augmented their decision by stating that the public opinion is in favour of Russian cooperation, and as a sovereign nation, Mali cannot allow Paris to interfere in their domestic affairs. Wagner troops have already occupied bases in regions like Timbuktu that was abandoned by the French troops and some reports also suggest that they are engaged in active training and advisory programs for the Malian authorities. 

Mali’s relations with the EU have hit a major roadblock when the regime demanded the withdrawal of Danish troops who were in the country as part of the Takuba task force, as the Malian government wasn’t informed regarding the deployment of troops from Denmark. The withdrawal was a major blow to French dominance in the ongoing operations and its influence in the country.

Four factors contributing to France’s decline in Africa  
First, the critics blame the CFA Franc as a primary reason for the economic dependency of Africa over the French treasury. The currency is often dubbed the colonial currency used in 14 francophone African counties and has been in the region since the 1940s. It is pegged with the Euro and is financially backed by the French economy. French authorities argue that the currency ensures a degree of financial stability and helps in regulating inflation. Whereas it is widely held among many that Africa can attain financial independence by ridding with the currency as the continent contribute a lot more than what they receive in aides from France.

Second, most Africans see the current French interventions as neo-colonial and accuse France of exerting dominance by violating their internal sovereignty. According to many African historians, France has tactfully consolidated their influence by supporting and strengthening the positions of elites in its former colonies. Some argue that the French replaced the parliamentary form of governance with presidential systems as an exertion of influence is considerably easier in the latter.  

Third, unlike his predecessors, Macron’s accession brought high hopes for many Africans. He was openly critical of France’s Africa policy, and has also expressed his willingness to do away with CFA franc. Yet, relations between Bamako and Paris have hit a serious low. Macron has failed to remove the French influence as he pledged during his campaigns. Finally,  like most parts of the third world, Africa is intensely dependent on foreign aid. Africa alone is the prime exporter of various minerals to the rest of the world, but the continent has the highest rates of poverty, underdevelopment, crime and so on. Critiques of Franc Afrique often accuses the west of depriving the African population of the profits of their resources and creating a state of financial dependence. Countries like Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic are prime victims of such western trends.

To conclude, relations between France and Mali has turned increasingly acrimonious and both countries are drifting away. There have been anti-French slogans, waving Russian flags and Macron’s effigies being burnt. The present wave of anti-French sentiments has signs of spill-over with similar popular movements in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. 

If France is undergoing a decline in the Sahel, it can create a vacuum in the region; this is likely to be filled by Russia and China. Such shifts in power dynamics can create further instability in Africa.

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