Finally, France will be leaving Mali, nearly a decade after the original military intervention in 2013. The repercussions of this decision will hardly be confined to this West African nation, but will likely spread to the entirety of the Sahel Region; in fact, the whole of Africa.
France’s decision to end its military presence in Mali – carried out in two major military operations, Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane – was communicated by French President, Emmanuel Macron. “Victory against terror is not possible if it’s not supported by the state itself,” Macron said on February 16.
The French President called the Malian leadership “out of control” and rationalized his decision as a necessary move, since “European, French and international forces are seeing measures that are restricting them.”
“Given the situation, given the rupture in the political and military frameworks, we cannot continue like this,” Macron added.
Macron is not fooling anyone. The French military intervention in Mali was justified at the time as part of France’s efforts to defeat ‘Jihadists’ and ‘terrorists’, who had taken over much of the country’s northern region. Indeed, northern militants, protesting what they have described as government negligence and marginalization, had then seized major cities, including Kidal and Timbuktu. But the story, as is often the case with France’s former African colonies, was more complex.
In a recent article, the New York Times said that France’s “diplomatic power” is predicated on three pillars: “its influence in its former African colonies, along with its nuclear arms and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.”
Mali is one of these ‘former French colonies’, largely located in what used to be called ‘French West Africa.’ Once a great kingdom, known as the Mandinka Empire, Mali was colonized by France in 1892. It was then renamed French Sudan. Though it gained its independence in 1958, Mali remained a French vassal state.
To appreciate French influence over Mali and other West African states long after their independence, consider that fourteen African countries, including Niger and Senegal, continue to use the West African CFA franc, a French monetary invention in 1945, which ensured the struggling African economies continued to be tied to the French currency. This has allowed Paris to wield tremendous influence over various African economies, whose resources were provided to their former colonizers at competitive prices.
Unsurprisingly, France took the leadership in ‘liberating’ Mali in 2013. Hence, France was able to reconfigure the region’s militaries and politics to remain under the direct control of France, which presented itself as West Africa’s savior in the face of terrorism. Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Togo, all participated in the French-led operation, which also involved the United Nations and several Western powers.
The arrival of French soldiers to the Sahel region was meant to underscore the importance, if not indispensability, of France to Africa’s security, especially at a time that Africa was, once again, a contested space that attracted the continent’s old colonial powers and new political players, as well: Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, among others.
However, for the people of Mali, the intervention merely prolonged their misery. “Operation Serval”, meant to last a few weeks, carried on for years, amid political strife in Bamako, worsening security throughout the country, rising corruption and deepening poverty. Though initially welcomed, at least publicly by some in the south of the country, the French military quickly became a burden, associated with Mali’s corrupt politicians, who happily leased the country’s resources in exchange for French support.
The honeymoon is now over. On January 31, the Malian government ordered the French Ambassador to leave the country.
Though Macron pledged that his military withdrawal will be phased out based on France’s own outline, the Malian leadership, on February 17, demanded an immediate and unconditional French withdrawal. Paris continues to insist that its Mali decision is not a defeat, and that it cannot be compared to the US chaotic retreat from Afghanistan last August, all indications point that France is, indeed, being expunged from one of its most prized ‘spheres of influence’. Considering that a similar scenario is currently underway in the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), France’s geopolitical concessions in Africa can aptly be described as unprecedented.
While Western countries, along with a few African governments, are warning that the security vacuum created by the French withdrawal will be exploited by Mali’s militants, Bamako claims such concerns are unfounded, arguing that the French military presence has exasperated – as opposed to improving – the country’s insecurity.
The particular parallel between Mali and C.A.R. becomes even more interesting when we consider media and official reports suggesting that the two African nations are substituting French with Russian soldiers, further accentuating the rapid geopolitical shift in the continent.
Though Macron continues to argue that the shift is induced mostly by his country’s own strategic priorities, neither evidence on the ground, nor France’s own media seem to believe such claims. “It is an inglorious end to an armed intervention that began in euphoria and which ends, nine years later, against a backdrop of crisis,” wrote Le Monde on February 17.
The truth is that an earth-shattering development is under way in Mali and the whole of West Africa, ushering in, as argued in the NY Times, the “closing chapters of ‘la Françafrique’,” the centuries-long French dominance over its ‘sphere of influence’ in the resource-rich Africa.
Though ‘la Françafrique’ is possibly coming to an end, the geopolitical tussle in Africa is merely heating up. While some powers will benefit and others will lose, the West African populations are unlikely to reap many benefits from the ‘scramble’ over the region’s resources. Caught between corrupt elites and greedy global powers, African nations will not be enjoying real security or economic prosperity any time soon.