GP Short Notes # 616, 19 February 2022
On 17 February, France and its European and African allies released a joint statement announcing the withdrawal of their troops from Mali. The statement mentioned that the conditions in Mali, including “obstructions” created by the military government, were not suitable to continue their operations. French President Emmanuel Macron said: “Victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself.” Macron maintained that the withdrawal did not signify the failure of France in its mission against the insurgency in Mali and clarified that the military operations will now be headquartered in Niger. Further, Macron claimed that Russia had deployed its private military company Wagner in Mali. France24 quoted Macron: “This is the hiring by the Malian junta, using financing which they themselves will have to explain to the Malian people, of mercenaries who are essentially there to secure their own business interests and protect the junta itself.”
On 18 February, Nigerien President Mohamad Bazoum accepted the French proposal to redeploy troops from Mali in Niger. Bazoum tweeted: “Our goal is for our border with Mali to be secure” and reasoned that terrorist groups are likely to expand their influence in light of the latest developments.
What is the background?
First, the French operation in Mali. France deployed its forces in Mali in 2013 under Operation Barkhane to fight groups linked to al Qaeda and later ISIS. France had a significant military presence in the Sahel region with 4,300 troops, of which 2,400 were posted in Mali. However, over the years, France has been facing criticism from local communities in Mali and the Sahel due to increased insecurity.
Second, the friction in France-Mali relations. France has been criticising the political developments in Mali. The coups in August 2020 and May 2021 further deteriorated the relations. It got worse by the end of 2021, when interim President and coup leader Colonel Assimi Goita proposed to extend the transition period to 2025 instead of holding elections in February 2022.
Third, Europe’s efforts in erstwhile colonies. In recent years, various European countries have attempted to mend relations with their erstwhile colonies, and apologise and compensate them for colonial atrocities. The efforts were evident in the Belgium King Philippe’s note to the Congolese President in 2020, regretting the humiliation and suffering cause to Congolese under the Belgian colonial rule; similarly in 2021, France acknowledged and regretted its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Fourth, role of Russia. Mali has confirmed that Russian trainers are present in the country under a bilateral arrangement to reportedly assist Mali’s National Defence and Security Forces. However, Mali has denied the presence of Russian mercenaries. Meanwhile, Malians have called for increased Russian presence in a bid to counter the French presence.
What does it mean?
First, the withdrawal and redeployment of troops are visible signs of increasing challenges that France has to address if it wants to maintain its presence in the Sahel. It also signifies the gravity of anti-French movement in Mali, which is gradually spreading to neighbouring countries including Niger.
Second, if the Russian mercenaries are indeed present in Mali, it would be a positive development for Russia which is building inroads into Africa through military relations. It would also be a testimony to the increasing involvement of private military companies in Africa, as was previously witnessed in Libya, the Central African Republic and Mozambique.