On 17 February 2022, Paris and its allies, involved in the fight against Islamist militias in Mali since 2013, will withdraw their troops from the African country after almost a decade. This was announced by President Emmanuel Macron at a press conference in Paris. The decision was based on deteriorating relations with the coup d’état in Mali, a country suspended from ECOWAS precisely because of the military coup.
Mali has witnessed two coups in less than nine months. After the removal of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August 2020, following many popular protests, on May 24, 2021, the Council led by Colonel Assimi Goïta started influencing Mali’s national politics again with military means.
A government reshuffle was attempted, in order to balance the civic powers of the National Transitional Council (NTC), an entity whose scope was to help the country towards free elections (initially scheduled for February 2022). This reshuffle was the spark for the military actions by Goïta’s men. Armoured vehicles were now back in the streets of Bamako. Many politicians, activists and citizens who oppose the authoritarian turn the Council took were incarcerated. The international community, the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), France and the United States strongly condemned the coup and threatened sanctions. France and the USA, first in line in the fight against the Sahel’s new Jihadist terrorism, suspended military cooperation with Mali. 5,100 Barkhane French regional mission soldiers and about 3,000 American soldiers from AfriCom were stationed in their bases, waiting for developments. Two weeks before the coup that brought Goïta back in charge of the NTC, the European Union had preventatively frozen the funding allocated for the Mali State budget. A general strike later erupted in Bamako, started by civil servants who were reclaiming months of outstanding wages.
What’s happening in Mali is another unexpected, stalled situation that might worsen the already precarious national stability, already threatened by the serious socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. This impasse could also be exploited by the jihadist groups, increasingly active in the Liptako-Gourma area – the so-called “three border region” between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. In fact, the centre and the North of the country keep evading the control of Bamako and confirm themselves as the fief of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM, Malian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
To complete an already grim picture, the constantly growing armed groups, such as the Tuareg separatists and the self-defence ethnic militias, subdue the populations of the centre and the North of Mali, forcing them to suffer violence and harassment daily. This is the same violence that has been perpetuated since 2013 on the civilians by the hand of the national army, as reported by international organizations such as the International Crisis Group.
What is being fought for
The control of natural resources, which are scarcer and scarcer due to the worsening of the harmful effects of climate change (most notably, the advancing desertification) is the main reason for the conflicts between semi-nomadic shepherds of Peul ethnicity and the Bambara and Dogon settled farmers: these clashes are continuously shedding blood in Mali. Historically, these conflicts were resolved by traditional chiefs, who nowadays have lost their legitimacy among the populations of the centre and North of the country. This power vacuum, worsened by the chronic absence of the central State in the peripheric areas, has been filled and exploited by new Jihadist groups, warlords, drug traffickers, and self-defence ethnic militias. These groups continue to grow in the country and caused the stall of the peace negotiations with the Tuareg armed groups – a process that had started with the signature of the Algiers Agreement in 2015.
The control of the regional drug, weapon, and human trafficking routes (especially the South American cocaine and opiates in transit from Asia to European markets) is one of the strategic objectives of Jihadist groups. Meanwhile, the hoarding of Mali’s enormous riches (especially the mining ones, such as oil, uranium, gold, natural gas, but also water and cultivable land) is at the origin of the growing militarization of Mali and the whole central Sahel, along with Niger and Burkina Faso. A country and an entire region now aggressively returned at the centre of the global geopolitical scene.
Mali has been independent from France since September 22, 1960. There are more than 19.5 million people living in a vast territory which is mostly desert and inhabited by different ethnic groups such as Bambara (34.1%), Fulani/Peul (14.75%), Sarakole (10.8%), Senufo (10.5%), Dogon (8.9%), Malinke (8.7%), Tuareg (0.9%) and others (6.1%). Over 90% of the population is Muslim. More than 40% of the population is concentrated in urban areas while the majority of Malians lives in rural areas. Illiteracy is over 65%, in a country where the average fertility rate is 6 children per woman, mortality in children under 5 years old is 10‰ and the average life expectancy is 60 years old. 47% of the population lives under the poverty line, which is whythe Human Development Index puts Mali at 184th place over 189. Rich in natural resources (gold, oil, natural gas, phosphates, kaolin, salt, limestones, uranium, chalk, granite), Mali has deposits of bauxite, iron, tin, and copper that are not yet fully exploited. Mali’s external debt is close to 5 billion dollars.
This is, in short, the serious situation in which is growing Mali’s layered conflict, mostly caused by the fall of Libya’s Muhammad Gheddafi. Orphaned of their master, a sizeable group of Malian Tuareg soldiers came back to the motherland with part of the Rais’ secret arsenal, along with a renewed irredentist sentiment towards Bamako. After having unilaterally declared the independence of the Azawad, a desert region in the North of Mali, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) built alliances with drug traffickers and jihadists from Algeria and Mauritania mostly. The nine months of the occupation of the northern two-thirds of the country, including the regions of Timbuctu, Gao and Kidal militarily controlled by the jihadists, were interrupted at the beginning of 2013 by the French-Chadian intervention to support the Malian troupes. The subsequent deployment of French soldiers in the Barkhana Operation, with bases, soldiers, and drones scattered from Mali to Chad, and of more than 13,000 blue helmets from the Minusma ONU mission (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali) did not bring peace back to the country. Despite the efforts and the killing of some key jihadist leaders (such as the emir of Aqmi Abdelmalek Droukdel, killed by a French raid in June 2020), the jihadist presence expanded to the centre of Mali and, since 2015, to the neighbouring countries, in particular in Niger and Burkina Faso. Terrorist attacks against military objectives and civilians, the kidnapping of western citizens and retaliations in rural areas have been detected in these Sahel countries as much as in the Ivory Coast, Togo and Ghana. Behind such violence is the face of the Sahelian new jihadism, fomented by the increasingly worrisome exportation of Wahabism and neo-Salafism from areas of Arabia and Qatar. Powers active in the region such as China, India, South Africa and others are attracted by the hoarding of the riches of the weak States which, in order to face the growing instability and chronic economic crisis, look for new military and commercial partners to break free from the old colonial masters. The recent growing anti-French sentiment among the Malian (and regional) population is opening breaches in the much critiqued Françafrique. Russia and Turkey have forcefully made their way into this power game as new competitors of Paris. They are particularly interested in the rich prospects of military cooperation (supply of arms, ammunition, military assets and training programs) that have been opened by the war to jihadism.
The local population is finding itself between a rock and a hard place. They are on their knees and seek protection from mercenary groups and self-defence ethnic militias who are shedding blood in the North-centre area of the country. Here, the humanitarian situation has strongly deteriorated because of a seemingly endless war. A crisis inside the crisis, that has already cost the closure of thousands of schools and, according to UNHCR data, the displacement of more than 370,000 people due to the conflict. The Malian situation is a perfect storm that has been worsened by the May 2021 coup and by the subsequent Bamako political stall, with the concrete risk that the jihadist forces will gain ground and new audiences for their proselytism.
Key figure or organization
Assimi Goïta is Mali’s new strong man. He headed two coups in less than nine months. This young colonel is an expert in anti-terrorism and firmly guides the “revolutionary” Council that, since August 2020, has taken power in Koulouba, centre of power in the Bamako capital. Since the first months of the creation of the NTC, Goïta, who is not well regarded by France but courted by Russia and Turkey, placed emissaries of his Council in key political and economic seats, attracting the wrath of Mali’s western partners.
The coup of May 24, 2021, though, made him come out from the shadows where he was hiding, and signalled his de-facto acceptance by the whole international community. The lack of economic sanctions and serious diplomatic measures (except the mere formal condemnation) for the coup made Goïta the undisputed leader of an almost adrift country.
FOCUS 1 -The Italian Mission in Mali
Voted in Parliament in July 2020, the Italian participation in the Takuba Task Force (from the name of a specific Tuareg sword) is still partially a mystery. Technically, 200 Special Forces units, 20 military ground vehicles and 8 attack helicopters are stationed in Ansongo, the heart of Liptako-Gourma, to support Malian and French troupes in the fight against the Sahelian terrorism.
The mission is part of Paris’ request to its European partners to share the burden of the military commitment against jihadism in Mali. After several delays, the Italian deployment (for which 16 million euros had been spent in 2020 only) has officially started in March 2021. What remain secret, though, are the specific objectives, the rules of engagement, the total costs, and the expected duration of the operation in which special departments of the Italian army, navy and aeronautics are involved. The prospects of military cooperation and the sale of training programs, weapons, and armoured vehicles to the authority of the Sahelian countries are the reasons that pushed Rome towards a more diplomatic involvement in Mali, where soon a new Italian embassy will be built.
FOCUS 2 – Is France withdrawing?
Paris is in a rush to leave the Mali chaos (and the Sahelian scene), but they are aware that an overly-quick withdrawal would look like a defeat and could leave the field open to jihadist forces to spread. A situation that France cannot afford in its sphere of influence. In fact, the president Emmanuel Macron is seeking European partners who, by deploying contingents in Sahel, could “cover” his gradual withdrawal from the Barkhane Operation.
The other path undertaken by Paris is the handover to the Force G5-Sahel. However, since its creation in 2017, this regional organization suffers from insufficient international funding and weak determination by African governments.