Barkhane, Wagner… Tensions rise between France and Mali

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Friday, 1 October 2021 08:56

French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp (PfOD) during the Operation Barkhane in Gao
French soldiers work on a Tiger attack helicopter at the Operational Desert Plateform Camp (PfOD) during the Operation Barkhane in Gao, Mali, August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Paris, which is already irritated by the discussions that are taking place between Bamako and the Russian company Wagner, did not appreciate the latest statements made by prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga, who accuses it of abandoning Mali.

Relations between Paris and Bamako have become strained, as the two governments continue to clash on more and more issues.

Mali’s prime minister has publicly accused France of turning its back on Mali. At the UN headquarters in New York on 25 September, Mali’s prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga described Paris’ decision to reorganise its military presence in the Sahel as ‘abandonment’.

Florence Parly (France’s minister of the armed forces) responded saying these are “untruths”, “unacceptable” and “indecent” statements, which amount to “wiping one’s feet on the blood of French soldiers”.

Building on the words of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who announced in June that some French army bases would close and the number of troops deployed in the region would be reduced, Mali’s head of government defended the need to open channels for discussion with other partners.

Sergei Lavrov, the head of Russian diplomacy, has confirmed that talks have been held between Bamako and Russian private security companies. However, Western governments – such as France – have expressed concern and outrage at the possibility of Mali entering into a cooperation agreement with a company from the Wagner group.

Remonstrance

Although this subject has added fuel to the fire, the quarrel between Paris and Bamako dates back to before this topic was broached. Prior to his visit to the UN, Mali’s prime minister had already received a letter of clarification from Joël Meyer, France’s ambassador to Mali. In this firm missive with an air of remonstrance, the French diplomat denounced the remarks that the prime minister had made on 16 September, during a meeting with members of civil society. At the time, he had mentioned ‘difficult relations with partners’.

In the document, which is circulating on social media, Meyer dismisses the term abandonment, which Maïga had employed. “France, through its development and cooperation activities on the one hand, and in its support for the Famas [Malian Armed Forces] through Operation Barkhane on the other, is not leaving Mali […] It is inaccurate to say that France is no longer standing by the Malian people,” he says in a rather unwelcoming tone.

He also denies accusations that the Malian authorities had not been consulted regarding the restructuring of Operation Barkhane. “The subject of adapting our security mechanism has been discussed on several occasions with the Sahelian authorities, and in particular with the Malian authorities – for example, the last consultations were held on the sidelines of the N’Djamena summit last February,” the diplomat says.

These arguments obviously did not prevent Mali’s prime minister from hammering home the point during his visit to the UN. “Mali regrets that the principle of consultation and dialogue, which should be the rule between privileged partners, was not observed before the decision was made,” he said on 25 September.

Anti-French populism

“Choguel Maïga deliberately maintains a populist discourse. To understand it, we must remember that he became prime minister at a particular time, during which he himself was very critical of the transitional bodies. He is seeking legitimacy by employing anti-French discourse, which he knows will help mobilise people, especially young ones,” says Abdoul Sogodogo, vice-dean of the Faculté de Sciences Administratives et Politiques in Bamako.

By accusing the French authorities of having decided – unilaterally – to transform Operation Barkhane, the head of government is fuelling a discourse hostile to France, which is regularly accused of displaying a condescending, even neo-colonialist attitude towards the continent.

At the beginning of 2020, the Pau summit had been viewed as a ‘summons’ of the G5 Sahel African heads of state. France’s president called on his counterparts to clarify their views regarding the French military presence in the region. Several of France’s positions were also seen as infringements on Bamako’s sovereignty. This is particularly the case with the red line that Macron drew on possible negotiations with armed groups, which Paris considers ‘incompatible with the presence of French soldiers in Mali’, but which Malians are calling for.

After 10 years of war and disputed results, Barkhane “is a popular target,” says Sogodogo. Maïga knows that anti-imperialism is what sells on the continent.

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