“Down with France!”, “Down with Imperialism!” were the slogans that rang across Independence Square in Mali’s capital of Bamako, where thousands gathered on Saturday 19 February to celebrate the announced withdrawal of French troops. National flags of their former coloniser, along with cardboard cut-outs of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, were set on fire to chants of “Adieu la France!”
“It was a spontaneous demonstration. As soon as our government asked the French troops [on 18 February] to leave without delay, we knew we were going to gather to celebrate,” Hassan Yattara, a Malian activist in the anti-French protest movement, told Peoples Dispatch.
Mass-demonstrations calling for the removal of French troops from Mali have been recurring, especially since 2020, mobilising hundreds of thousands in Bamako last month. Against this backdrop, an increasingly defiant posture has been adopted vis-a-vis France by Mali’s transitional council, led by Colonel Assimi Goita.
Goita won popular support in August 2020 by ousting then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who was seen by the protesters as corrupt, subservient to France and inept in reversing the deteriorating security situation in the country. Following another coup in May 2021, Goita took the position of interim president.
Since then, especially over the past six months, the Malian army has registered major victories in the fight against the armed separatist and Islamist insurgencies, after turning to Russia and Turkey for military assistance. This has further consolidated the transitional government’s popular support, and laid the grounds for a deepening alliance between Mali and Russia.
The French, though, are left with little security gains to show after leading counter-insurgency operations in Mali for nearly a decade. Its troops entered the country in 2013 under Operation Serval to clear Islamist armed groups from the urban centres they had occupied in the north.
Hoping to countervail Al-Qaeda in Maghreb (AQIM), France threw its weight behind the Tuareg separatist movement called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Fr MNLA), only to find that this movement subsequently joined hands with AQIM.
The troops stayed on as the mission evolved in 2014 into Operation Barkhane, with an expanded mandate to build up the Malian army and stabilise the region. Canadian troops were also enlisted in this operation. To provide additional support to the 2 400 French troops, several hundred other troops were brought in from 14 European countries under Task Force Takuba that was created in 2020.
Throughout this period under French leadership, incidents of violence only increased, from 115 events in 2014 to 1 007 in 2021. Violence has also spread to neighbouring Sahel countries, where the remaining 2 000 to 2 500 French troops under Operation Barkhane are deployed.
France and its Western allies in Mali thus lost credibility as a bulwark against the menace of Islamist insurgencies, which they themselves are accused of having created by waging a war on Libya in 2011, and have come to be seen as an occupying force.
It is against the backdrop of the protests that erupted in this context that Goita consolidated power with two coups and made substantial security gains by moving away from dependency on France and exploring security partnerships with other powers, mainly Russia and Turkey.
“The Russians are interested in helping build a strong and unified Malian national army,” remarked Yattara. “But the French want our army to fight under them, to defend their interests in Mali’s wealth. To have a strong national army goes against their colonial interests.”
‘The French don’t care’
Amid increasing anxiety about Mali’s developing relations with Russia, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in January called the transitional military council “illegitimate”, citing its refusal to hold an election in February 2022.
Owing to a lack of security, “70% of the country as of today can’t hold free and fair elections. Political parties cannot go and campaign in these regions,” Napoleon Abdulai, Ghana’s ambassador to Mali, told Peoples Dispatch. Meaningful elections, he opined, can only be held by next year after making adequate security preparations and holding political dialogues to secure peace between various groups.
“The French don’t care about democracy in Mali,” added Yattara. “They are simply using elections as a pretext, blackmailing us: ‘Hold elections or we will not recognise you.’ But what the country needs now is security, because it has been at war for nine years.” Securing the country adequately for polls, he said, “will take six to eight months. But we will decide when we are going to election, we don’t need to discuss that with the French.”
Objecting sharply to Le Drian’s comments as “hostile and outrageous”, Mali’s government expelled French ambassador Joel Meyer from Mali on 31 January. It is on the heels of these developments that Macron announced on 17 February the decision to withdraw troops from Mali in an “orderly” manner.
“Due to multiple obstructions by the Malian transitional authorities, Canada and the European States operating alongside Operation Barkhane and within the Task Force Takuba deem that the political, operational and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue their current military engagement in the fight against terrorism in Mali,” said the statement from Paris. The three bases in Gossi, Ménaka and Gao will shut in four to six months, Macron said.
The following day, Mali’s transitional government issued a communique responding to the decision taken by France and its European allies without consultation with Mali, stating, “The government invites the French authorities to withdraw, without delay, the forces – Barkhane and the Task Force Takuba members – from the national territory, under the supervision of the Malian authorities.”
Never been done before
This prospect is being celebrated as historic in Mali. “We are an old colony of France, and we never became truly independent,” Yattara said. Despite the strong anti-French sentiment in the masses, he complained, the state leaders in Mali had until now never reflected it, and remained docile to the former colonial master.
“But what this government is now doing has never been done in Mali before. It has the full backing of the Malian people because it is willing to fight for our independence,” he added. “The international media tries to portray the situation here as if some military dictator has taken power from a democracy and is now moving against France. It is not so,” he says, pointing to the size of the anti-french demonstrations in January as an indication of popular will.
While much alarm is being raised about the future of the fight against terrorism in the region, the communique read, “The government of Mali reminds that it … would not have been necessary if Nato had not intervened in Libya in 2011. This intervention, which fundamentally changed the security situation in the region and in which France played an active role to the great displeasure of the Africans, is the root of the current security problems in Mali in particular, and in the Sahel in general.”
Nevertheless, exuding confidence about being able to fight the armed groups without French support, the statement added that “the transitional authorities, in the exercise of their sovereign right, have taken proactive action to diversify partnerships and have made tremendous amount of efforts, thus enabling the rise in power of the Malian armed forces while increasing the security situation on the ground, over the past six months, in particular, with a view to creating the conditions for holding elections”.
The French crisis will have implications in neighbouring Sahel countries
However, uncertainty remains, as Macron has turned down the “invitation” to withdraw “without delay”. For now, Mali and France are yet to agree on the schedule of a withdrawal. “It has to be worked out. It is a difficult process. Movement of such a large number of troops involves large-scale planning, particularly across hostile terrain in the Sahara,” Abdulai said.
Burkina Faso coup
“Depending on the jihadists and the local population”, Abdulai cannot rule out the possibility that the withdrawal of French troops may not turn out to be quite as “orderely” as Macron intends.
“Remember the recent movement of French supplies from Abidjan [Ivory Coast’s capital] to Niger via Burkina Faso?” he asked, referring to the mass protests the French convoy was met with along its route in November. It is against the backdrop of these protests that Burkina Faso also saw a popularly supported military coup in January.
“If French troops fire into the civilian population, it would increase anti-French sentiment and impact the regime in Niamey,” the capital city of Niger, to which Macron intends to relocate many of the troops that are withdrawn from Mali.
“The heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali but in Niger … and perhaps in a more balanced way across all the countries of the region which want this,” Macron said. But for protesters in France’s former colonies, there are no “countries of the region which want this”, only eager governments – disconnected from the strong anti-French sentiment in their population – desperate to curry favour with Western governments, even at the risk of losing their domestic legitimacy.
Such is the case with Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum, who, amid growing anti-French protests in his country, has invited the French troops to come in from Mali and take positions along its border inside Niger.
“Our goal is for our border with Mali to be secure,” Bazoum said, and went on to predict that after the French withdrawal, Mali “will be even more infested and the terrorist groups will strengthen. We know that they are destined to extend their influence.”
Maïkol Zodi, one of the leaders of this protest movement in Niger, warned: “It is unacceptable and intolerable to accept this redeployment on our territory … We will treat them as an occupying force.”
“Any country that accepts French troops will have public opinion against the government. France is bad news for now,” Abdulai said. “I think there is a movement across the Sahel against neocolonialism. The youth are up in arms. They want genuine development that does not destroy their culture and history.”
This article was first published in Peoples Dispatch.