The French colonial designs in Mali

France stands to benefit if Mali’s territorial integrity is pulled apart.

Mali France army - Reuters
A French soldier searches a man during an area control operation in the Gourma region during Operation Barkhane in Ndaki, Mali, July 27, 2019 [Benoit Tessier/Reuters]

Mali is breaking apart. After the devolved northeastern region of Kidal, where the presence of the French army failed to prevent mafia-like groups interested in exploiting the region’s immense gold reserves from taking control, the Malian government now appears to be losing its grip on the equally resource-rich neighbouring region of Timbuktu.

As Mali slowly disintegrates, France – which claims to be working to protect the unity and territorial integrity of Mali as part of Operation Barkhane – and the United Nations – which is supposed to be doing the same with MINUSMA – are turning a blind eye. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (AU) are also staying idle, partially because the authorities in Paris deem them unfit to manage conflicts and crises in French-speaking Africa. 

But what is behind the looming collapse of the Malian state? Is it the natural outcome of deep-rooted local problems, or is there something more sinister at play? Could it be that a former colonial power, which is rapidly losing its influence on the African continent and facing major economic and financial problems as a result, is deliberately creating the conditions for the country’s disintegration?

Mali has been in turmoil since a coup in 2012 cleared the way for Tuareg separatists to seize towns and cities of the north. Al-Qaeda-linked fighters then overpowered the Tuareg, taking control of northern Mali for nearly 10 months until they were thrown out by a French-led military offensive.

On paper, the French military is currently in the country “to fight terrorism” and help it regain its authority over the northern regions. But, of course, the real reason behind Paris’ decision to continue risking the lives of French soldiers in a faraway country is to protect French economic and geostrategic interests – namely its exploitation of the gold and uranium mines in the region.

As is well known, France has openly supported the National Movement for Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the main Tuareg separatist group, for a long time. The MNLA’s “fight for freedom” has been profusely covered by French media throughout Mali’s conflict, with French journalists romanticising the MNLA rebels as “the men in blue” in their poetic reports.

France’s positive attitudes towards the rebels had geopolitical reasons, as Paris saw the MNLA as a group that could protect France’s economic interests in the region from al-Qaeda-linked fighters and any future attempts by the central government to take full control over the nation’s natural resources.

In 2014, encouraged by France, the MNLA along with other Tuareg separatist groups and Arab nationalists formed Coordination of Movements of Azawad (CMA). A year later, it signed a peace deal with the Malian government.

The agreement handed greater autonomy to the sparsely populated northern region of Mali. International media focused on the role Algeria played in the signing of the deal, but for attentive Mali watchers, it was clear that its real architect was none other than the country’s former colonial “master”, France.

At the time, many analysts both in Africa and France argued that the peace deal would mark the end of the Malian state as we know it. Senegalese political scientist Babacar Justin Ndiaye, for example, said early on that the peace accord “is so bad we can call it the shroud of Mali”. Joseph Brunet-Jailly, a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris, meanwhile, said that the peace deal, “without actually spelling it out, plans for the autonomy of a vast region”. This, Brunet-Jailly added, “is obviously suicidal, for the north of Mali, as for Mali as a whole”

And four years on, it is clear that the peace deal did indeed pave the way for the disintegration of Mali. The devolved region of Kidal, officially under the control of CMA but in practice dominated by the French military, has become an epicentre of lawlessness and violence completely beyond the reach of the Malian state.

And earlier this month, the media circulated a document released by CMA calling for a meeting on September 3 to discuss “reorganisation” in Timbuktu to take over all aspects of its administration.

This move, which effectively would dissolve the authority the central government exercises over this part of the country can only lead to one outcome: the official partition of Mali.

Neither the Malian army, practically forbidden from entering Kidal and its surroundings, nor the MINUSMA currently have the ability to stop CMA from taking over Timbuktu and further consolidating its power over the northern territories.

It is France and France alone that can stop the disintegration of Mali. However, the French government has no interest in doing so as it perceives the expansion of CMA’s area of influence as a way to solidify its presence in the country.

Mainstream French media is once again presenting a distorted picture of the reality on the ground. It is trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the international community by focusing its reports on Mali not on the instability, violence and the threat of disintegration that is holding the country hostage, but the major “gold rush” taking place in Kidal.

In a report for Le Point, published in April this year, for example, journalist Olivier Dubois talked of the profitable “gold fever” in Kidal, without even mentioning the absence of the Malian state in the region or the French military’s ongoing occupation. 

In September, with CMA officially taking control of Timbuktu, all these efforts could cumulate in the de facto independence of the northern area, which will likely lead to new conflicts between already fractured separatist movements, pushing the region once again into a state of turmoil.

The Malian society is aware of the neo-colonial plan afoot to divide Mali in an attempt to claim ownership of its vast resources. Images from a 2015 protest in which Malians burned the French flag and brandished posters “Holland equals MNLA” are making rounds on Malian social media once again.

The anti-France feeling is not restricted to Mali only, but it is prominent across French-speaking West Africa, with citizens frequently taking to the streets to tell Paris that they want old colonialists to leave their countries 

Just last month in Senegal, a country neighbouring Mali, activist Guy Marius Sagna, leader of a movement called “FRAPP/France degage” (the Front for a popular and pan-African anti-imperialist revolution/France clear), was arrested over a Facebook post claiming that France is psychologically preparing people in Senegal to live with the idea of a terrorist threat to legitimise its military presence on the continent.

The post that got Sagna in trouble was alluding to the example of Mali, where the presence of the French army brought nothing but more disorder and division.

Now, with CMA preparing to take over Timbuktu, the second phase of France’s neo-colonial plan to secure its access to Mali’s vast natural resources by dividing the country and weakening the central government has started. It will likely bring more violence and bloodshed to the country, but it appears this does not concern Paris which historically has shown little care for the wellbeing of Africans.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.