Tags: Mali, France, Serval, Barkhane, Burkina Faso, Libya, Gaddafi, Nicolas Sarkozy,
Director of the Center FrancoPaix
Full Professor, Royal Military College Saint-Jean
Not everything started in Mali in 2012. Important precedents, which should not be forgotten, highlighted the weaknesses, limits and consequences of French military interventionism in Africa, as well as the beacons of its criticisms. The year 2011 had been particularly turbulent with the fiascos that had been the French interventions in the Ivorian electoral crisis and in the NATO war in Libya1. Many believe that the collapse of the Gaddafi regime was (and remains) one of the direct causes, or at least an important catalyst, of the rebellion in Mali. In the first months of 2012, therefore, President Nicolas Sarkozy had no appetite for France to get involved in the Malian crisis. His priority was the French presidential election.
However, Sarkozy would lose it to François Hollande. From the first days of his presidency, the latter made the Malian conflict a priority of his foreign policy, spouting the familiar speeches of the war against terrorism to underline the urgency of the situation and the reasons for which the international community had to intervene in the mali. Throughout the summer and fall of 2012, Hollande repeated that France would not send troops to Malian soil. However, the hesitations of ECOWAS and the African Union and the rise of jihadist groups in the north justified the deployment of Operation Serval in January 2013.
The years 2013 to 2015 were a series of missed opportunities to resolve conflicts and tensions in Mali. A United Nations peacekeeping mission—MINUSMA—was deployed in April 2013. Ill-equipped, ill-prepared and staffed with ineffective troops, it took years to become fully operational, while being constantly torn between its « good offices » mandate and counter-terrorism agendas. France demanded rapid elections (July 2013), hoping to stabilize and normalize the situation and thus hand over to the UN and the Malian authorities. In the summer of 2014, Operation Serval did not leave Malian territory, but turned into Operation Barkhane, thus extending the area of French military operations to the G5 Sahel countries and making the fight against terrorism the priority of international actors in the Sahel. In this context, the 2015 peace agreement was meant to serve, or at least not hinder, counter-terrorism efforts.
The sequel is well known. The security situation has steadily deteriorated since 2015, according to reports by the UN Secretary General. The rise in violence in the central regions and beyond Mali’s borders has revised the narrative of a conflict between southern and northern Mali. The coups in Mali and Burkina Faso gave voice to various forces and populist discourses, let in the Russian group Wagner and showed the way out for Operation Barkhane in 2022.
Serval did not have a long-term vocation, but had to be a one-off military intervention to restore stability, the territorial integrity of Mali and its democratic legitimacy. His tactical successes were not commuted into political or strategic successes. Thus, Serval was transformed into Barkhane to officially address the transnational nature of the terrorist problem. According to the French, Barkhane responded to a triple logic: 1) partnership with the G5 Sahel; 2) supporting MINUSMA in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 2100 and 3) adapting the military response to a transnational threat. If there is one observation to be made in 2023, it is that of the failure of the approach, incapable of resolving conflicts or even stabilizing the security situation.
The Center FrancoPaix has published numerous analyzes on Mali and the Sahel since its foundation in 2016. This bulletin is inspired by them and is composed of a set of short texts on various elements and aspects of the heritage of the French intervention in Mali and beyond. What remains of this intervention? What are the immediate consequences of his departure on Malian governance and the populations of northern Mali, on border management, on Niger, on MINUSMA? Kalilou Sidibé, Adam Sandor, Yvan Guichaoua, Nina Wilén and Philippe Frowd offer their analyzes in the following pages.
The political situation in Mali
Professor University of Legal and Political Sciences of Bamako
The polarization of the political and security orientations and the « strategic choices » of the transition in Mali, marked by a strong militarization of the administration and of the state companies, have created a context of global uncertainty as to the trajectory of this transition. . The plan to rebuild the state is neither inclusive nor consensual, as shown by the reluctance regarding the draft constitution and the appointment of the heads of the independent agency for the management of elections (AIGE). The ongoing political messianism in Mali has fractured society. Any opposition or opinion contrary to the adopted policy is perceived as a betrayal to the fatherland. The delays in the implementation of the transition schedule are part of a logic of confiscation of power to arrive at the unacknowledged deadline of at least 5 years. The management of the transition in Mali is based on trickery and denial by exploiting the patriotic fiber of the populations martyred by risky political choices under the pretext of « recovered sovereignty ». These choices have led to the continued deterioration of the security situation, to which has been added the deterioration of the country’s economic situation. The use of Russian instructors did not produce the desired results: progression of jihadist attacks on several localities in the south and serious violations of human rights. The geopolitical shift consisting of putting an end to French military cooperation.
Contrary to what is said, in Mali and elsewhere, Barkhane has produced significant results. The French force of Operation Barkhane (and Takuba) made it possible to reduce the logistical capacities and the attacks of the jihadist groups in the areas of intervention of these two forces. However, as French military operations have remained concentrated in the north of the country, the center has also become the target of jihadists. Since the Serval intervention, the demarcation line was located in Konna, about fifty kilometers from Mopti. The Malian army was unable to secure the central regions from Mopti. The stabilization approach marked by the establishment of secure development and governance hubs (PSDG, 2018), with European funding, aimed at deploying forward detachments from security posts to meet the urgent needs of the populations and facilitate the redeployment of basic services and the gradual return of the administration to the areas of central Mali, produced the opposite effects. Following the departure of French troops, the Malian army was unable to retain the hold Barkhane enjoyed in the north, notably in Gossi and Ménaka, where jihadist groups extended their control and influence.
The relative failure of the French presence (Serval and Barkhane) in Mali is at the political level. The stabilization of a country in crisis is based on two pillars: military and political. France remained passive in the face of the abuses of the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Kéita (corruption, embezzlement, electoral fraud, etc.) which led to the coup d’état of August 18, 2020. French military efforts were reduced to nothing by France’s silence vis-à-vis a political process increasingly contested by the Malians themselves. Walled in their own certainty, the Malian soldiers who hold the realities of power are leading the country towards the abyss. The objective of a transition is to create favorable conditions (credible, transparent elections, inclusive and less contested) to the return to normal constitutional order. A transition is not a political project tending to question the fundamental principles of the State. A reform of the State must be made by a legal and legitimate power resulting from democratic elections.
“The ongoing political messianism in Mali has fractured society. Any opposition or opinion contrary to the adopted policy is perceived as a betrayal to the fatherland. »
Departure from Barkhane: the effects on the regions of Gao and Ménaka
Adam Sandor, Postdoctoral researcher Postcolonial Hierarchies in Peace & Conflict, Universität Bayreuth
The French soldiers of Operation Barkhane left their last and largest base in Gao in northeastern Mali in August 2022, barely a month after leaving the Ménaka base. At the time of the announcement of the end of the mission, a local team of researchers with whom we work traveled to the city of Gao to investigate the perception of communities in the region. Apart from a few supporters of the Bamako junta who boasted about Malian power and its rediscovered sovereignty against “the neocolonialist forces of evil”, public opinion mainly expressed a single fear: what will happen now?
After ten years of presence in the northeast of Mali, the results of the French intervention are mixed. Serval certainly pushed back the jihadist groups towards the center and the north of the country. And Operation Barkhane « neutralized » (translation: killed) several lieutenants and leaders of these groups, present in the Sahel. But targeting jihadist leaders had often unpredictable consequences and these targeted assassinations turned an already fragile political and security context upside down. Given the developments within jihadist groups and their relationship with local communities, Barkhane’s military objectives could not bring peace to Gao and Ménaka. The clearest example is the alliance of convenience that Barkhane forged with pro-government community militias (from mid-2017 to mid-2019) to attack the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS). These clientelist security relationships have exacerbated intra- and inter-community tensions and violence in this border area, which has led to a sharp increase in cattle rustling, settling of scores, targeted assassinations and extrajudicial executions of civilians. Barkhane ended up ending its alliance with these militias, leaving them in a vulnerable position forcing them to conclude non-aggression pacts with jihadist groups. Pacts that would not last. These clientelist security relationships have exacerbated intra- and inter-community tensions and violence in this border area, which has led to a sharp increase in cattle rustling, settling of scores, targeted assassinations and extrajudicial executions of civilians. Barkhane ended up ending its alliance with these militias, leaving them in a vulnerable position forcing them to conclude non-aggression pacts with jihadist groups. Pacts that would not last. These clientelist security relationships have exacerbated intra- and inter-community tensions and violence in this border area, which has led to a sharp increase in cattle rustling, settling of scores, targeted assassinations and extrajudicial executions of civilians. Barkhane ended up ending its alliance with these militias, leaving them in a vulnerable position forcing them to conclude non-aggression pacts with jihadist groups. Pacts that would not last. leaving the latter in a vulnerable position obliging them to conclude non-aggression pacts with jihadist groups. Pacts that would not last. leaving the latter in a vulnerable position obliging them to conclude non-aggression pacts with jihadist groups. Pacts that would not last.
“Targeting jihadist leaders has had often unpredictable consequences and these targeted assassinations have turned an already fragile political and security context upside down. »
As expected, the announced departure of Barkhane only strengthened the determination of the EIGS. Interlocutors in northeastern Mali quickly informed us that the group was mobilizing, leaving their hiding places and moving in large convoys of combatants. The group’s violent extraction of local property was to escalate. The non-aggression pacts were finally broken, pushing the ISGS to take revenge on the communities whose leaders had associated themselves with Barkhane: since March 2022, more than 1,300 civilians have been killed, and the forced displacements towards the cities of ‘Ansongo, Gao and Ménaka have reached staggering levels(1). EIGS almost surrounded the entire region, approaching the town of Gao (Djebock) in September (just after the last French soldiers had left).
International interventions cannot last forever. Serious mistakes are inevitably made and Barkhane is no exception. Yet given the level of violence in 2022, even the strongest critics of the departure of French military troops (including the author of this text — Barkhane’s Twitter account blocked me some time ago) have serious questions. In the worst times experienced by the communities of north-eastern Mali, the presence of Barkhane constituted an umbrella of deterrence for the majority of the populations of this region. This is no longer the case, proof of which are the corpses of decomposing civilians. As an interlocutor from Talataye explained to us: “if the other international forces leave Mali, it will be a bloodbath”. Can the situation get worse? Yes. Should Barkhane have left? It is less certain.
(1) Several Malian journalists, civil society associations in the Gao and Ménaka regions, as well as local interlocutors put forward figures between 700 and 2,000 dead. Researchers from the NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project estimate that at least 800 civilians died as a result of ISGS violence in northeast Mali.
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