Mali’s military-led government has expelled France’s ambassador, the latest sign of mounting tensions between the West African country and its former colonial power.
The standoff comes as Western powers say Russian mercenaries working for the controversial Wagner group have been deployed in Mali, a country at the heart of a long-running conflict in the Sahel region, where thousands of French troops are deployed to fight armed groups.
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But how did Paris and Bamako get to this point? Here is a timeline of key recent events:
On August 18, 2020, a group of Malian soldiers led by Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was facing angry protests over the government’s failure to stem the violence. The coup is seen as a blow to French President Emmanuel Macron, who had supported Keita and sought to improve relations with former colonies in Africa.
On March 30, 2021, in a rare criticism of French forces in Mali, United Nations investigators accused the French military of being responsible for the killing of at least 19 civilians at a wedding party in central Mali in an air raid three months before. France denied the findings, saying its forces targeted an “armed terrorist group” and that it had “numerous reservations about the methodology used” in the UN investigation.
On May 25, Goita pushed out a civilian-led government appointed to oversee a transition period, plunging the country into further uncertainty. He was named interim president on May 28.
In reaction to the power grab, France suspended its joint military operations with Malian forces on June 3 “awaiting guarantees” that civilians return to positions of power.
On June 10, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a major “transformation” and drawdown of France’s military presence in the Sahel where about 5,100 soldiers – across Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – operate under its Barkhane operation.
France decided on July 3 to resume its military operation in Mali, as well as its advisory missions.
On September 14, France warned Mali against a deal with Wagner as reports emerged the country’s military government was close to hiring 1,000 mercenaries.
A spokesperson for the Malian defence ministry said his country wanted to “diversify its relationships” on security grounds.
On October 5, Macron called on Mali’s military to restore state authority in large areas of the country. “It’s not the role of the French army to fill in for the ‘non-work’, if I may describe it, of the Malian state,” he told French media. Later that day, Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop summoned France’s ambassador to inform him of the government’s “indignation and disapproval” of Macron’s comments.
Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga said on October 8 that he had evidence that France was training “terrorist” groups operating in the country. Maiga said French troops had created an enclave in Kidal, a town in the desert region of northern Mali, and handed it over to a “terrorist group” known as Ansar al-Din, allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.
On December 15, French forces left the city of Timbuktu, marking the scaling down of France’s intervention in northern Mali which had started in 2013 when it helped beat back groups advancing towards Bamako.
France and more than a dozen countries condemned on December 24 the deployment of Wagner mercenaries – one of the first official acknowledgements by Western capitals of the stationing of fighters from the Russian firm. Mali’s government has denied this, saying the Russian troops are in the country as part of a bilateral agreement.
The Malian government had previously said that “Russian trainers” had arrived in the country, but Bamako and Moscow have so far provided few details on the deployment, including on how many soldiers are involved or the Russian troops’ precise mission.
On January 7, Russian soldiers were deployed to Timbuktu to train Malian forces at the base vacated earlier by French troops.
On January 9, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) imposed a trade embargo on Mali after the military government postponed elections for up to five years, despite promising to hold a vote by February.
Two days later, on January 11, France, the United States and the European Union backed the West African bloc’s sanctions. With borders closed, the military government branded the sanctions an “extreme … and illegal embargo against our people” and organises mass protests. The UN called on Malian authorities to announce an election timetable.
Denmark sent 105 military personnel to Mali on January 18 to join a European special forces mission, known as Takuba, that was set up to help Mali tackle armed groups. It said its troops had deployed after a “clear invitation” from Mali.
On January 24, the Malian government called on Denmark to “immediately” withdraw its contingent of special forces deployed alongside French and international troops. Denmark’s withdrawal was a headache for France, which had staked much on “Europeanising” its Sahel intervention.
On January 27, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian lashed the military transitional cabinet’s “irresponsible” decision, calling it “illegitimate”. And in remarks published on January 30 in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, the French foreign minister accused the Wagner group of plundering Mali’s resources in exchange for protecting the military government. “Wagner uses the weakness of certain states to implant itself … to reinforce Russia’s influence in Africa,” Le Drian added.
But Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop hit back saying France was not defending democracy and was angry only because “we have hurt their interests”.
On January 31, Mali said it was expelling the French ambassador because of “hostile statements” by French officials.