As representatives of the Malian government and various rebel groups meet in Algiers for peace talks, violence in northern Mali continues and so does the French military presence.
France launched its military intervention in Mali in January 2013 with the mandate to stop an uprising of various militant groups in the north, threatening the stability and sovereignty of the country. The goal was then to free the northern part of the country from jihadist occupation, bring back peace, and restore Malian sovereignty on the whole territory. Although France’s defence minister announced that the so-called “Operation Serval” had “fulfilled its mission”, Mali is hardly a peaceful place today.
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As Mali fell into a media blackout, France announced it was reorganising its military presence into “Operation Barkhane”. No one seems to be asking why the French are still there, how long they will stay and more importantly – doesn’t their intervention constitute a form of neo-imperialism?
France in Mali
Back in early 2013 many Malians gave an enthusiastic welcome to French soldiers, when they came to “rescue” this crisis-torn West African country. Much has changed since then. In their January 2014 book, La Gloire des Imposteurs, Malian activist Aminata Dramane Traore and Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop explain this initial enthusiasm for the war with the Malians’ shock and panic in the face of the invaders from the north who were destroying historic monuments, killing and mutilating people.
But as the authors pointed out, Mali might be facing an even bigger threat: the former colonial ruler going back to its old colonial ways on Malian territory. After all, it is just hard to believe that France selflessly sent its soldiers to face danger in a faraway African country for the sake of “saving it”. The question that Malians have to ask themselves is: Do they prefer having to fight against jihadists for a long time, or having their sovereignty challenged, and their territory occupied by an ancient colonialist state or partitioned to satisfy a group allied with the colonial power?
This is not the first time France has gotten involved in its former “colonial territories”. And it is always the same scenario: Some excuse is found in order to deploy on the ground to protect economic interest, occupy strategic points or defend an ally among the local politicians. The story is well known from Djibouti all the way to the Ivory Coast!
In July, France signed a new defence agreement with Mali, which would allow it to maintain a considerable military presence in the country. The agreement’s eleven pages of mostly general statements say that French military troops and civil servants will be allowed to stay in Mali, build military bases, operate, if needed, with Malian troops, etc., for the next five years. The five years term, as written in the document, is renewable.
With this agreement Mali has started to reverse the decolonialisation project of its first president Modibo Keïta, who made sure the last French soldier departed his country in 1961. Keita was a firm nationalist and while almost all the newly independent West African countries at that time signed defence pacts with their former “master”, he only consented to an agreement on economic and cultural cooperation with France. Keita didn’t allow French military bases or troops on Malian soil.
The Malian presidents that followed him also resisted French pressure for a defence agreement. Although Paris demanded repeatedly, three different presidents of Mali – Moussa Traore, Alpha Oumar Konare and Amadou Toumany Toure – refused, despite huge diplomatic and economic pressure. The most France could get in Mali was a 1985 military cooperation accord which allowed France to give military training and technical assistance to Malian troops.
These presidents seemed to be following a doctrine that gave a boost to the Malian people’s self-esteem. However, now it is clear that the “Operation Serval” against the jihadist has given France an unexpected opportunity to achieve an old regional military scheme.
As Senegalese commentator, Babacar Justin Ndiaye – known as one of the most influential analysts on military questions in West Africa – has pointed out: Mali was intentionally weakened to prepare the French military operation “Serval”. “Serval”, which, in turn, has prepared the ground for operation “Barkhane”, announced by the French just as they were wrapping up the previous one in July. This new operation is based from Chad and will cover Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
After having defeated the invaders, and chasing them out of Timbuktu and other northern cities, and disarming factions of the rebellions, the French military surprisingly (or not) banned the Malian army from Kidal, the central city of the northern Azawad region. The territory is claimed by different rebel groups, but it is under the de facto control of the MNLA (National Movement for Liberation of the Azawad).
France allowed the rebels to occupy the area, reorganise and later gain a place at the post-war negotiations table. The first round of peace talks supervised by France took place in mid-July in Algiers between Malian authorities and various rebel groups. The Malian government has always rejected negotiating with rebels who call for cessation, yet this time it had to accept the talks.
As is well known, France has openly supported the MNLA for a long time and the MNLA is profusely covered by French media, which presents a sympathetic romanticised image of the rebels. The leaders of the MNLA are frequent visitors to the French capital and quite welcome on French TV, which likes to show people in MNLA-controlled territories amicably accepting French troops.
Although France enjoys considerable sway with the different groups in the peace talks, it is finding it increasingly harder to mediate, as disagreements between the rebel groups continue to arise. During the first round of talks, for example, various groups had to be separated and accommodated in different five star hotels in Algiers to avoid hostility.
The purpose of this latest round of talks is to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in northern Mali. But whether such a solution will be for the best interests of all Malians, is unclear, given that France has not excluded partition – as the Malian government had demanded.
French interests in Sahel
French support for the MNLA is not surprising, at least not geopolitically. France wants Niger protected from the insurgencies sweeping across the Sahel region, and it is ready to support the MNLA, which in return would prevent the expansion of jihadist groups towards the borders of Niger, the world’s fourth largest producer of uranium. Coincidentally or not, France generates more than 75 percent of its electricity through nuclear plants.
Unsurprisingly, Niger is host to France’s biggest economic interest of in the region and therefore its security is a foreign policy priority for the French government. The French corporation Areva mines uranium in Niger and it is currently investing 1.9bn Euros in the development of the large uranium deposits in Imouraren. Protecting the eastern borders of Niger was indeed among the major reasons behind French President François Hollande’s decision to get involved in the conflict in Mali. The May 2013 car bomb attack on one of Areva’s operations must have further convinced him that it was the right thing to do.
Thus it only made sense to wrap up the Mali-focused “Operation Serval” in order to unroll “Operation Barkhane” with a wider geographic scope. The provisions of the new defence agreement forced on the Malian government naturally allow for whatever the French need in order to sustain their new operation in the region.
It should not come as a surprise that France decided on Chad as the centre for the new operation. After all, Chad has a history of hosting French military operations. French military presence in Chad began in 1968, when former president Francois Tombalbaye asked Charles de Gaulle, in the name of the defence pact between his country and France, to intervene with “Operation Bison” against a rebellion in the northern regions of the country. In 1986, the French military intervened again with “Operation Epervier”, this time against Muammar Qaddafi who was invading from the north. The French have never left ever since.
Nowadays, a small number of French soldiers are based at Niamey airport, where a small American military crew launches drones to survey the region, tracking jihadist groups.
Just after “mission accomplished” was announced on “Operation Serval”, Holland took a trip into the region, getting reassuring support from heads of state for his anti-terrorism campaign. The “terrorist threat” is a great opportunity for France to put its hands on West Africa again militarily, politically and, even economically. The US, of course, is in with the French, supporting them and even lending another friendly drone operation from Niger’s capital.
As France is expanding its military control of the region, there are few who are objecting or ringing an alarm bell warning that the colonial “master” has come back.