For nine years, France was Mali’s staunchest ally in its fight against rebel fighters who have killed thousands of people and driven hundreds of thousands from their homes.
Now, French forces are pulling out after a breakdown with the country’s military government which this week renounced Mali’s core military agreements with France.
What has brought relations between France and Mali to this point?
France began its military operations in the Sahel in 2013, helping Mali, its former colony, to stamp out a revolt in the north. But the rebels regrouped to attack the volatile centre of the country, initiating a full-throated rebellion that elected president Ibrahim Bubacar Keita was unable to brake.
In August 2020, protests against Keita culminated in a coup by disgruntled colonels in the Malian army – a move that was followed by a second military takeover in May 2021.
From that point, relations with France went steadily downhill, propelled by the military’s resistance to setting an early date to restore civilian rule and by Bamako’s allegations that France was inciting regional neighbours to take a hard line against its military rule.
The disagreement accelerated in 2021 as Mali’s military wove closer ties with Moscow, bringing in “military instructors” that France and its allies condemned as mercenaries hired from the pro-Kremlin Wagner group.
In January this year, the French ambassador to Bamako was expelled and the following month, France announced the pullout of its troops from Mali, and those of the French-led Takuba force.
Mali ditches accords
In the latest twist, the Malian government on Monday formally renounced three agreements that provide the legal foundation for French and French-led military activities in Mali.
Mali accused France of acting unilaterally and of being deaf to its requests to amend the accords – the result of which, it says, is “blatant violation” of its national sovereignty by France.
Mali now says that French aircraft have violated Malian airspace about 50 times in previous weeks, ignoring a huge air exclusion zone that it has declared.
France has denied this.
There has also been another episode that has inflamed the situation.
Last month, the French army shared a drone video that it said showed Russian mercenaries burying bodies near a base at Gossi, a day after the French military handed the facility back to Mali. The point of the bodies, France said, was to falsely accuse departing French troops of war crimes.
Mali reacted furiously, accusing the French army of “spying” and “subversion”.
What are the consequences?
France has 2,400 troops and several bases in Mali, and safely unwinding this operation is a dangerous, months-long task.
On Tuesday, the political temperature rose further when Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop said there was no longer a “legal basis for France to operate on Malian soil”.
He said France could continue to work on its withdrawal from the country, but “anything which takes place on the territory of a sovereign state should be discussed and agreed with the state which is in place.”
Niagale Bagayoko, head of the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) think tank, is among those who fear the danger from heightened suspicion or misunderstandings – the risk of a “blunder” that puts French and Malian forces in confrontation.
A further unknown is the effect for the UN’s peacekeeping force in Mali, which with 14,000 troops and police is one of the biggest UN operations in the world. The UN mandate for MINUSMA authorises French forces to support the mission “when (it is) under imminent and serious threat”.
If that support has to end because the agreements governing French forces are no long valid, “that will obviously lead to consequences,” MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado told AFP, adding however that the mission would be able to adapt.