It had been six months since the new French president had settled into the Élysée Palace. On 28 November 2017, Emmanuel Macron was visiting the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. Before an amphitheatre of students, he said: “France no longer has an African policy.”
This is part 8 of an 8-part series.
It was supposed to be a symbolic trip. With a strong image: the first meeting between Colonel Assimi Goïta and President Emmanuel Macron in Bamako. It was meant to be a reminder that, despite numerous tensions over recent months, France and Mali remained solid partners. But the handshake never ended up taking place and, a few weeks later, conflict between the two countries took hold.
Officially, this presidential trip to Mali, scheduled for 20 December, had to be cancelled at the last minute because of the health situation in France. According to the Élysée Palace, it would have been awkward for the President to leave the country in the middle of the fourth wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In reality, French and Malian authorities, in a brewing battle for weeks, had never managed to agree on the format of this visit. In Bamako, which had already adopted anti-French rhetoric, there was no doubt that the risk of Macron being heckled by Malians also had something to do with the final decision. The Macron was in the midst of his re-election campaign and images like that would not have looked good.
How did we arrive at this scenario in a capital where, less than 10 years ago, France’s former president François Hollande was welcomed as a liberator by tens of thousands of people?
A smooth start
Between Macron and the Malian junta, the story had started rather smoothly. On 18 August 2020, when a band of colonels toppled the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) to cheers on the streets of Bamako, the Élysée Palace did not necessarily take a dim view of the putsch. For years, French officials had been complaining about IBK’s inability to improve Mali’s security and stability. The break could have created a new beginning.
The first months of the transition went smoothly. One month after the coup, its plotters in the Comité National pour le Salut du Peuple (CNSP) handed power over to civilians as planned, while retaining key positions at the heart of government.
On the military front, the colonels’ presence at the top was also taking its effect. The Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMA) were regaining their motivation and vigour in combat. The French soldiers deployed alongside them were delighted. “The working relationship between the Barkhane command and the Malian general staff was excellent,” recalled a senior French official.
But then the machine gradually started to jam. Goïta and the colonels did not hide their sovereignist ideology or their desire to diversify their partnerships – including with Russia, one of France’s rivals on the continent.
By May 2021, the transition was hanging by a thread. President Bah N’Daw and his prime minister, Moctar Ouane, wanted to get rid of colonels Sadio Camara and Modibo Koné, respectively ministers of defence and security, whose growing influence they did not appreciate.
But the officers took action. On 24 May, a new government excluding the two putschists was unveiled. And N’Daw and Ouane were immediately arrested and taken to Kati, home to an important military base. Mali experienced its second coup d’état in nine months. A “coup within a coup” that was “unacceptable” for Macron, and which marked the beginning of the end of good relations between the two countries.
“This second coup was the result of an internal conflict. The colonels had a conspiratorial view of the situation. They were convinced that we were acting behind the scenes to get them ousted,” said an Élysée source. “From then on, they has a paranoid attitude tinged with heightened nationalism. We never again found a way to see eye to eye.”
From then on, there was a gulf between the Malian junta and French leaders. And the verbal and diplomatic escalation reached a crescendo. On 25 September 2021, at the United Nations General Assembly, Mali’s prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga accused France of “abandoning [Mali] in the middle of a journey” after Paris’ announcement of an in-depth readjustment of its military presence in the Sahel. Macron’s scathing response to Maïga’s comment: “It is a disgrace that dishonours what is not even a government.”
The Russian line in the sand
At the same time, French intelligence services were closely monitoring the deployment of the nebulous Russian Wagner group in Mali. This private company headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, had already sent its mercenaries to Libya, Sudan, and Central African Republic. For Paris, Wagner’s arrival in Mali constituted a “line in the sand” – the Russian forces were incompatible with the presence of French soldiers in the country.
Since August, several Wagner executives had been in Bamako to prepare for the arrival of their men and to explore the potential for gold mining operations. Among them were Sergei Laktionov, a geologist who had already worked for the group in the Central African Republic, Alexander Maltsev, military commander of the Central African base in Bria, and Ivan Maslov, a former member of the Russian navy’s special forces and Wagner’s operational manager in Mali.
By early December, the arrival of Russian mercenaries was no longer in doubt. A base had been built alongside the Bamako airport to accommodate the first contingents. On 23 December, a joint communiqué from France and its European partners condemned, for the first time, the mercenaries’ deployment to Mali. This time, the famous “line in the sand” had really been crossed. The French flexed their muscles but did not react, at least not immediately.
Preparing for a split
On the Malian side, Assimi Goïta, his defence minister Sadio Camara and the other colonels of the junta continued their break-up strategy. At the end of January, they demanded that the Danish government “immediately” recall its special forces participating in the European task force Takuba, on the grounds that their deployment had taken place “without the consent” of Bamako. This led to more French anger and a new battle between the countries’ ministers.
France’s foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian accused the junta of being “illegitimate” and of taking “irresponsible measures”. In response, the Malian authorities expelled Joël Meyer, the French ambassador, on 3 February. It was a first in the history of the two countries.
On the ground, Wagner’s mercenaries began their operations alongside the FAMA. They were mainly present in central Mali. Some were in the north, where, ironically, 150 of them took up residence in the former French base at Timbuktu, which had been vacated a few months earlier by the soldiers of the Barkhane force. The situation was becoming politically and militarily untenable. For Macron, there was no question of French soldiers remaining in Mali under these conditions.
On 17 February, President Macron announced the departure of France’s troops from the country after a dinner at the Élysée Palace with his European and African partners involved in the Sahel. “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside authorities whose strategy and hidden goals we do not share,” he said. “The choice we are making is above all linked to the fact that the Malian transitional authority has decided not to do the work of securing its own country and that it has preferred to hire mercenaries to protect its own interests rather than fight terrorism.”
For France, this brought to an end nine years of costly – both in human and financial terms – military engagement in Mali. And what was the result? Macron, who inherited this situation when he came to power in 2017, “totally” rejects the term “failure”. It is difficult, however, to see it as anything else.
It is true that the top-rung jihadist leaders have been eliminated. But their groups have not stopped recruiting, strengthening and extending their influence, to the point where they are now threatening coastal countries. Insecurity, once concentrated on Mali’s borders, has spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. And in this Sahelian powder keg, where coups d’état are applauded by some, anti-French sentiment keeps gaining ground.
But did the disagreement with the junta, after all, offer a pretext for the France’s President to disengage from a war that had become a quagmire?
In reality, Emmanuel Macron and his advisers had been thinking for months, even years, about the best way to end Operation Barkhane. “We should have thought about it earlier. But a form of collective conservatism made us lose time, and we had to implement a new strategy,” said an Élysée source. The source also pointed to the reluctance of some Sahelian heads of state, such as IBK, Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Chad’s Idriss Déby Itno, who told their French counterpart “not to change anything”.
In Paris, the initial plan was to gradually put in place a more flexible intervention model, in collaboration with European partners and all the countries in the region, including Mali. A new mechanism was set up, but for the moment without Bamako. In broad terms, the aim is to be less “boots on the ground”, with a lighter military footprint that is better coordinated with local forces. All this is to be put in place with the countries of the region that clearly request it.
“Big foreign operations like Barkhane are no longer tenable,” said a source in Macron’s entourage. “Public opinion, both African and French, does not understand them and no longer accepts them. The end of Barkhane is one of the last big acts of this five-year term, which is part of our desire to update the Franco-African relationship all around.”
It remains to be seen whether that relationship can still be refreshed between France and Mali.
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