What Went Wrong in Mali? — The Uncertain Future of France’s Presence in the Sahel

Written by | Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

The question is no longer whether France will remain militarily involved in Mali, since the constant deterioration of its relationship with the Malian authorities has forced it to leave the country. The question now is whether and how it will be able to remain involved in the Sahel.

ACCUMULATING POLITICAL TENSIONS — The withdrawal became inevitable in light of Mali’s desperate and unreasonable efforts to decouple French military intervention from both the political context and the diplomatic relationship. In this regard, it is important to remember that although tensions between the French and Malian authorities reached their peak following the second coup d’état in May 2021, political differences have in fact continuously accumulated since the beginning of the crisis. Those divisions were initially based on the issue of northern Mali (when the French military did not allow the Malian army to enter the city of Kidal), and later on the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation by the Malian Government. Major disagreements then focused on the question of opening talks with the leaders of the Al Qaida affiliate JNIM, Iyad Ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. The holding of elections in February 2022, in accordance with the commitments made by the new Malian civil-military authorities towards ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has been an additional source of tension. Finally, the diplomatic crisis culminated with the alleged arrival of the private military company Wagner as part of the renewed partnership between Mali and Russia. In fact, a profound divergence of strategic perspectives has gradually emerged between the solutions favored by successive Malian leaders on the one hand and by the French authorities on the other.

A DETERIORATED SECURITY SITUATION — These major disagreements, coupled with failure of the the Barkhane Force – the anti-insurgent operation led by the French military against Islamist groups in the region – to convert its tactical successes into a strategic victory, have laid bare the inability of France – and of other Sahelian and international actors – to stem the inexorable deterioration in the security situation in the Sahel. As France has decided to focus primarily on fighting terrorism, its interventions have consequently had a limited impact on the global security context of the Sahel region, which in addition to jihadi insurrections is also deeply destabilized by other equally devastating dynamics that are expected to worsen. These include the proliferation of militias and self-defense groups; the exacerbation of tensions between certain communities; the proliferation of criminal actors; and of course, the deep governance crisis, with two coups in Mali, one in Chad, and most recently one in Burkina Faso in January as only some of the most visible symptoms. This governance crisis is now paralyzing the G5/Sahel. Initially strongly supported by France, this organization now has three out of its five member states governed by military juntas allied to civilians and has proven unable to mobilize sufficient funds to support its Joint Force.

The military withdrawal of France through the departure from Mali of the Barkhane Force and its European partners engaged under its command in the Takuba Task Force will clearly leave a security void, which will weigh on the future of MINUSMA and particularly on its mission to protect civilians. The premature departure of French and European forces will also weaken the tri-border region: the closure of the military bases in Gao, Gossi and Menaka will be a serious matter of concern, especially for Niger. This departure may also have consequences on the increasing influence of the Cadre Stratégique Permanent (CSP), which organizes relations between the signatory armed groups of the 2015 Peace Agreement, under the cautious or even unfavorable eye of Bamako. Since March 2022, fierce fighting has seen the CSP – and particularly the MSA-D and the GATIA armed groups – pitted against ISGS (Islamic State in Great Sahara) combatants around the Mali-Niger border, with horrific human abuses perpetrated in Tamalat and Inchinanane.

More broadly, the evolution of the situation in Mali will depend on the following three essential parameters: First, the results achieved by the offensive undertaken by the FAMA (Malian Armed Forces) with the support of their Russian allies (whose ability to show more convincing operational performance than that of other external partners is yet to be demonstrated) whilst international CSO’s accumulate charges of massive human rights violations and abuses in central Mali; second, the outcomes of the violent clashes between jihadist groups JNIM and EIGS, which have been fighting one another since 2020; finally, the future of negotiations with jihadi leaders.

FRANCE STILL AIMS AT MAINTAINING A PRESENCE IN THE SAHEL — Although strategic disengagement from Mali has become inevitable, France nevertheless affirms its determination to remain deeply invested in the Sahel, albeit with a lighter footprint. According to French officials, the French military presence in the Sahel as well as in West African coastal countries should be more focused from now on air support, reassurance and intelligence, with as light a footprint as possible. Nevertheless, the scope for maneuverer available to France – and its European partners willing to follow it – to redeploy elsewhere in the Sahel or in the West African region appears to be as small as it is fragile. A redeployment in Niger represents a considerable political risk for President Mohamed Bazoum. A reorganization of the French military presence in Burkina Faso will again raise the question of the untenable inconsistency of France’s diplomatic posture, which endorses the military regime in Chad, while condemning in an ever more virulent way the illegitimacy of the Malian leaders who also emerged from a coup d’état. Moreover, the tradition of independence, if not of firm reticence, affirmed by the successive Burkinabe authorities regarding external military assistance will certainly be a brake. Moreover, the leaders of Niger and Burkina Faso have both indicated their willingness to enter in dialogue with some jihadi groups, an option still rejected by France. The increased mobilization of French forces in Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire may seem logical in a context of worsening security in countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea. However, such an option could also come up with the violent expressions of a rejection of France, as was the case in Côte d’Ivoire in the 2000s.

LEARNING FROM PAST MISTAKES — In fact, for such a redeployment to be more successful than the Barkhane and Takuba operations, France and its partners will have to draw sincere lessons from their previous nine-year engagement in Mali by seriously considering the four following “revenges” it has tended to overlook. First is the “Revenge of Contexts” that shows how the implementation of standardized approaches and imported models in the security, development and social engineering fields has been overwhelmed by the complexity of the formal and informal power relations that structure the Sahelian security environment. France’s mistakes in the Sahel are undeniably due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of the societal, social and anthropological dynamics that characterize the region.

Secondly, the “Revenge of Politics”. France’s handling of the crisis was essentially treated as an operational issue, largely embodied in the “war on terror”, thus reducing the enemy to its mode of action and denying it the status of a political actor. No clear political vision was consequently opposed to the conceptions of the state, society and morality promoted by jihadist groups. Moreover, French leaders seem to have underestimated the ability of their Sahelian partners to amplify dissenting voices not systematically aligned with France’s principled positions. Finally, this revenge of politics has manifested itself via the eruption on the Sahelian stage of the military as a fundamentally political actor: the coups in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso have shown that the military can no longer be seen as an essentially apolitical actor, as postulated by the classical approach of civil-military relations underpinning the French (and international) conceptions of cooperation and intervention in the field of defense.

Thirdly, the “Revenge of Geopolitics”. France has managed to anticipate the arrival of Russia in Mali and warn about the dangers of such an alliance, which has become even more perilous since the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the massacres against civilians that accompany it. Nevertheless, all the Sahelian countries, and more broadly those of West Africa, are very openly demonstrating their desire to diversify their international partnerships: consequently, a crucial issue for France will be to impose its presence among international actors perceived not as allies or mere competitors but rather as adversaries or as enemies. In this regard, the growing rapprochement between Niger (the pillar of France’s redeployment in the Sahel) and Turkey (one of the countries that France has been confronting in other theaters in the last past years) invites French authorities to rethink their presence and cooperation in a regional environment invested by powers that it considers as competitors or even adversaries in global geopolitics.

Finally, the “Revenge of Public Opinion”. An increasingly essential parameter of the Sahelian strategic environment, long underestimated or even ignored by the French authorities but proving to be decisive for France’s continued commitment in the region, is public opinion in the Sahel itself – namely the hostility that Sahelian public opinion is showing against France’s African policy. Even if some Sahelian and West African leaders continue to call for support, the French military presence is increasingly seen as a risk or an unnecessary burden by local populations, as opposed to a guarantee of security. Even if a growing number of activist movements is undoubtedly stirring up anti-French feelings, it would be a mistake to regard the animosity of the populations against French foreign policy in the Sahel as essentially manipulated by nationalist political authorities or by external powers such as Russia. It is indeed important to realize that Sahelian populations now oscillate between democratic disillusionment and security exasperation: such a deep anger can easily degenerate into spontaneous and unpredictable explosions, likely to hinder and endanger both the withdrawal of French from Mali but also its future deployments in other countries.

‘What Went Wrong in Mali? The Future of France’s Presence in the Sahel’ — Commentary by Niagalé Bagayoko — Italian Institute for International Political Studies / ISPI.
(The Commentary can be downloaded here:

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