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After months of rising tensions between Bamako and Paris, France and its European Union allies finally announced that they will withdraw forces from Mali. This marked a new low point in the ever-deteriorating relations between Mali and its former colonial master – a point of no return.
Extremist insurgency in Mali rose to new heights in 2012 and since then it has spilled to neighboring West African countries. The most affected countries include Niger and Burkina Faso because of the international links that extremist groups command, the conflict is also global in its outlook. The biggest worry is how peace and stability will be achieved given the gaps left by European forces.
One question runs throughout much of Western media – “who will fill the security void left by Mali’s biggest ally?” It is a question that everyone has to ask, except that from a Western perspective, it is often devoid of context and nuance, and points to one fundamental fact: that Western powers refuse to acknowledge their responsibility in having caused the conflict in the first place.
However, the unavoidable fact is that this has been a huge defeat for French neocolonialism, which still maintains a stronghold over the entire West Africa. The fact that France and its EU allies are withdrawing their troops lays bare the inescapable truth that Operation Barkhane has been a dismal failure that only served to aggravate the security crisis in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
In the decision-making process to withdraw troops, France, Canada, and European states highlighted “multiple obstructions” by Malian authorities, citing that “political, operational, and legal conditions are no longer met to effectively continue” military intervention “in the fight against terrorism in Mali.”
The process to withdraw troops will be a concerted, gradual one – and “French bases in Mali are expected to be closed within six months.” French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed this against the backdrop of the sixth EU-Africa Summit.
Colonel Souleymane Démbelé, (the spokesman for Mali’s government) urged Malian citizens to remain hopeful. He added that while European forces intervened in Mali, “terrorism engulfed the entire Malian territory.”
In 2012, a resurgent Tuareg nationalist uprising against the state (ably supported by an organized attack on the state by the international movement Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM – and local Jihadi-Salafi movements) that was followed by the spectacular capitulation of the Malian army forces triggered a serious political crisis in which President Amadou Touré was ousted from power in a military coup.
The Tuareg rebels and jihadi extremists were emboldened by their military experience from the Libyan political crisis in August 2011, meaning that they had vast supplies of heavy weapons as well as logistical conveniences. The fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a delicate security situation across the entire Sahel region – and the most effects have been felt in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
With West African nations ill-equipped to deal with the rising tide of separatist and jihadist movements, they had no option except turning to foreign intervention, where France assumed a leading role with untamed neocolonial ambition in 2013.
The military intervention, in collaboration with other regional forces in West Africa, started as Operation Serval before it was transformed into Operation Barkhane in August 2014. The number of French troops under Barkhane peaked “at just 5,100 troops” with almost half deployed in Mali.
In assessing why French liberal intervention in Mali has been a failure, and why France has turned from being Mali’s ally into its chief nemesis, it is salient to take “locally grounded historical perspectives”, politically poor strategies, and structural features into consideration.
France failed to understand separatists and jihadists as the embodiment of “sociologically complex insurgencies” with ideologically-driven factors – instead, it simply branded them as “terrorists”. For instance, the diverse population of northern Mali has been always characterized by local ideas relating to ethnic, linguistic, and racial differences – ‘white’ Tuaregs and Arabs, and ‘black African’ Songhay and other communities.
The Tuaregs staged rebellions twice against the Malian state, 1963-1964, and between 1990 and 1996. In the 1990s, Songhay nationalism also rose against the state, in a counter-ideological war against Tuareg nationalism. This should be viewed in the wider context of perennial underdevelopment and poverty in northern Mali.
The state has always been “relatively absent” in northern Mali. Social divisions in northern Mali always portend war and conflict – and post-colonial Mali has failed to address this underlying cause of conflict, which in the contemporary has spilled to other countries. Internal divisions within separatist movements have in recent decades birthed Salafi mujahideen or jihadist movements and these are largely anchored by trans-continental networks of organized crime such as narco-trafficking.
A new approach for establishing peace and stability in West Africa and the Sahel should pay attention to these local historical factors, which continue to be the factors driving conflict. This should be complemented by countering neocolonial overtures and influence – even if it means countering newfound solace in Russian private military contractors – in order to create people-centered democratic values ensuring an egalitarian society.