Mali: Can Maïga go back on military agreements signed with France?

By Manon Laplace
Posted on Thursday, 20 January 2022 11:04

Malia’s prime minister Choguel Maïga in July 2021 in Bamako © BASTIEN LOUVET / BRST/SIPA

Mali's Prime Minister Choguel Maïga has strongly criticised the military treaties between Paris and Bamako, saying that Mali “cannot even fly over its territory without France's permission”. Does he really want to amend them or is he simply tapping into anti-French sentiment?

Accustomed to making bitter remarks about France, Mali’s head of government Choguel Maïga launched a new round of attacks on 15 January. He repeated, over and over, that Paris had “prevented the Malian army from entering Kidal”, created “a terrorist enclave”, and then denounced its “abandonment in midair” in the fight against terrorism.

In a lengthy interview broadcast on ORTM – during which he mentioned military cooperation with Russia, the national conference and the transition timetable – Maïga questioned the very foundations of the military agreements that bind the two countries.

‘Unbalanced agreements’

During the interview, the prime minister stated that the main point of friction is the Malian airspace. “We want to review the unbalanced agreements that make us a state that cannot even fly over its territory without French authorisation,” he said.

Anxious not to further aggravate the situation, France has refrained from responding directly. However, behind the scenes, there is a sense of growing annoyance. “The agreements make no mention of anything that could constrain the Malian air force,” says the foreign ministry. “The Malians would never have agreed to sign such […]. When they want a plane to take off, they don’t ask, they do it. They are at home.”

France’s general staff has also refuted this accusation. “Let’s be clear: the French army has never prevented the Malian army from flying over its territory,” says a source who wished to remain anonymous. “And there is nothing in the defence agreement that says it can do so.”

Our interviewee says “logical cooperation procedures are in place in order to avoid accidents between Malian and French aircraft”, but specifies that it is “in no way a question of France authorising or not authorising Malians to fly over their territory”. Several specialists on Mali and military issues tell us that, to date, there is no evidence that suggests French military personnel were behind such a ban.

Two agreements and a certain ambiguity

However, there is a certain ambiguity as to whether French travel is subject to Malian consent. Two frameworks currently define military cooperation between the French and Malians. “On the one hand, there are agreements, which were signed in March 2013, framing the French military assistance intervention, in this case Serval and then Barkhane,” says Julien Antouly, a doctoral student and specialist in the law of armed conflict at the University of Paris-Nanterre.

Some countries are using Ecowas and Uemoa to settle other scores.

“In 2020, the text was updated to include the European countries that make up the Takuba task force. On the other hand, there is a defence treaty dating from 2014, which replaced a text from 1985. This is a general treaty on military cooperation that does not particularly concern Operation Barkhane,”

While the latter states that French forces are free to engage in any land, sea or air activity, subject to the prior consent of the Malian state, the 2013 agreement does not mention that Bamako’s consent must be obtained.

In a letter sent in late 2021, Mali’s foreign ministry told the French ambassador that the prime minister is seeking to amend the 2014 agreement. “Touching this treaty allows the Malians to review the conditions regarding the French presence without seeking to modify the 2013 agreement, which would make them risk a pure and simple withdrawal of French troops,” says an expert on the issue, who also requested anonymity.

One of the points that Bamako would like to review is the French intervention’s legal framework, which until now has been automatically applied to the Takuba contingents. Specific bilateral agreements would then have to be established, with each country joining the task force. The government would also like to review certain facilities granted to the French military, like visa exemptions and importing military equipment. However, there is no indication that the Malian authorities are seeking to change the rules concerning aerial overflight.

Scathing exchanges

However, during his interview, Maïga talked about the 2013 agreement and referred to a letter dated 11 January 2013, in which Mali officially asked François Hollande to send in the French army. “This is just one more inconsistency,” says a source in the French Foreign Ministry. “Like when Choguel Maïga says that France is there to occupy Mali forever but at the same time, abandons it in mid-air. That’s what we call populism.”

Riding the wave of protest against France and Operation Barkhane, the prime minister spoke a few days after Ecowas sanctions were announced against Mali on 9 January, with the support of France, as ‘illegal’ by the head of government, who announced that he would file a complaint with the sub-regional institutions.

His comments come after months of tension between Bamako and Paris. “Some countries are using Ecowas and Uemoa to settle other scores,” said the prime minister. This is a barely disguised tactic against France. The prime minister’s office did not respond to our requests for comment.

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