Hollande stopped 'in extremis' the fall of the Malian state into the hands of the insurgents. A decade later, the crisis in Bamako has spread to the other Sahel capitals

10 years after France's military intervention in Mali

AFP/ETAT MAJOR DES ARMEES - Soldiers from the French military mission in the Sahel known as "Barkhane" folding a French flag at an undisclosed military installation, amid the French military withdrawal with troops leaving the last bases in Mali

Ten years ago today, French troops stormed into Mali. The then occupant of the Elysée Palace, François Hollande, addressed the nation and the international community to announce that, at the request of Mali's interim president, Diocunda Traoré, and "in compliance with the United Nations Charter", France had pledged to support the Malian armed forces "in the face of the terrorist aggression that threatens the whole of West Africa". A decade later, that military operation in extremis, which was greeted with cheers and a widespread sense of relief, has ended up exacerbating the crisis in a country and, by extension, in a region that has yet to get back on its feet. 

In all this time, Mali has experienced a Tuareg separatist revolution, the expansion and consolidation of jihadism, the continuous outbreak of communal violence and, as a result, up to three coups d'état, the most recent in May 2021. General Assimi Goïta, the protagonist of the previous coup, executed nine months earlier, once again led the putsch, this time against the transitional government that had been set in motion by the military junta he headed. Today, a decade after the intervention, the same question still hangs in the air: what was France's responsibility in all this? 

Hollande acts 

"Mali is facing an assault by terrorist elements from the north, whose brutality and fanaticism are known throughout the world," declared the ever indecisive Hollande. The former president waited until the last moment to make his move. The constant pressure from the defence establishment made no impression on the socialist leader, who postponed the decision as long as possible. He did not respond to the rapid advance of Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents in northern Mali, nor when they seized two-thirds of the country, nor when they imposed a strict interpretation of Sharia law in the areas under their control. It reacted at the wrong time, after the fall of the city of Konna, a strategic enclave in central Mali.

Francois Hollande

The wave of the Arab Spring and the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya had brought with it the biggest secessionist challenge in the history of the Malian state. The decomposition of the Jamahiriya led to the return of hundreds of Tuareg rebels who had served as the eccentric dictator's guard, armed with large quantities of looted weapons. Enlisted in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and in alliance with jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Din and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), they declared independence and launched an insurgency campaign against the fragile Malian army. 

Almost a year passed between the rebels' declaration of intent and the French military intervention. Hollande argued that Mali's existence as a state was under threat, expressing the need to protect its own population and the 6,000 French citizens residing in the country. From the outset, the former French president intended to deploy a rapid and surgical intervention that would bring the insurgents to heel and "recover the territorial integrity" of Mali. To stabilise the country and buy time to facilitate the arrival of international aid. 

The prestigious Malian writer Manthia Diawara felt the intervention "as a dose of realism that had to be taken with a lot of humiliation, even shame, because I thought my country was different from what I considered banana republics, where the West always has to come to help, where the people, on seeing the white soldiers arrive, rejoice like children at the sight of Father Christmas". This is precisely how his compatriots welcomed the first French soldiers, whom they perceived as liberators after the atrocities of the insurgents.

Emmanuel Macron

But Hollande's plan was cut short. The so-called Serval operation eventually branched out into Barkhane, a regional mission that still extends to several Sahelian countries and involved its allies. Paris spent 2 billion euros on the latter, four times more than the annual amount of humanitarian aid destined for the countries in the region. More than 600 million per year, according to official sources. This does not take into account civilian expenses or the maintenance of permanent bases. 

The lack of concrete progress in the fight against terrorism has caused Mali to become for France a desert version of Vietnam or Afghanistan for the United States. A quagmire from which it is impossible to emerge unscathed. Thousands of Malian soldiers and 60 French soldiers have lost their lives. Far from stopping, the jihadist insurgency has spread not only across Mali, but also into its regional neighbours. Islamist groups continue to swell their ranks with young men from rural areas. In areas marginalised by the state they find their breeding ground. The process has become increasingly complex. It is not easy to distinguish between a rebel, a jihadist or a simple villager. 

Latent insecurity and diplomatic breakdown 

Growing insecurity and the ineffectiveness of French troops, who were kept away from the civilian population and confined to their bunkers, fuelled discontent among the local population. Eventually, mass protests against the unpopular government of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, alias IBK, considered a close ally of France, led to General Goïta's first coup d'état. The military who seized power quickly turned against France, which was also singled out for its colonial record, and in particular the incumbent president, Emmanuel Macron, who was unable to manage a diplomatic crisis that resulted in the expulsion of his ambassador and the subsequent severing of bilateral relations.

Francia Mali

In February 2022, the Elysée announced the definitive withdrawal of troops from Mali in the face of escalating tensions with Bamako, a decision that would take effect in mid-August. On Monday afternoon, the last unit of Operation Barkhane established at the Gao base left the country for Niger, from where it is now conducting its anti-terrorist mission. The military compound was quickly handed over to the Wagner Group, the private military company linked to Kremlin interests. Months earlier, Russia had made its military incursion into the Sahel effective through mercenaries led by the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

Analysts almost unanimously agree that the main mistake was to try to resolve a multifaceted crisis, caused by multiple factors that had taken root in the different Sahelian societies, by military means. This is something that, by the way, the uniformed forces in Bamako are insisting on hand in hand with Wagner's troops, who are implicated in numerous human rights violations in Mali and elsewhere in Africa. 

"If Barkhane had been a failure, the jihadists would have taken over several towns in the north and eventually Bamako," said Nicolas Normand, France's former ambassador to Mali, in an interview with Atalayar. "Defeat was avoided, but victory is impossible without the Malian authorities acting to occupy and administer the territories liberated from the jihadists, who can then return, and without addressing the causes of the evil: regions and populations abandoned by the power in Bamako, young people on the rise without training and with a future blocked in relation to the demographic explosion. In this context, the radicalisation of part of the youth is inevitable".