France's Military Presence in Africa Faces Reality Check As Mali Cuts Ties

The collapse of France's military ties with Mali has signaled a blow to the influential European nation's modern ambitions in the continent over which it once exercised considerable control, but where it now faces significant backlash.

Monday's decision by the military-led government in Bamako comes after long-deteriorating relations with Paris, and could have wide-spanning ramifications for both nations and the restive Sahel region, where a common goal of battling violent militants has taken a backseat to a burgeoning feud with roots both colonial and contemporary.

"I believe that France has made considerable mistakes in its foreign policy in the Sahel and fails to look it in the mirror," Kamissa Camara, senior adviser for the Sahel at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington D.C., told Newsweek.

Camara previously served as Mali's foreign minister, and later as minister of the digital economy and planning and chief of staff to former President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, until his 2020 overthrow in the first of two coups to beset the West African nation in the past two years.

She pointed to both a difficult history between the countries and present-day issues that defined the downturn in their relations.

"The century-long relationship between France and its former colonies is one that has needed a makeover for a very long time," Camara said, "and we should not forget that France retains the largest military presence in Africa of any former colonial power."

This presence has been a source of debate in both Europe and Africa, something acknowledged by French President Emmanuel Macron upon his election in 2017.

Camara notes that Macron "promised to revamp that relationship, while acknowledging that African countries should be partners rather than tools to exert French influence abroad."

But the results have been mixed.

"While Macron managed to carve France a new image in Sudan, Ghana and elsewhere," she said, "[France] has considerably failed to redefine its relationship in the Sahel, where its former colonies are overtly looking for other partners that will put them on equal footing."

French, military, Operation, Barkhane, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa
A French soldier of Operation Barkhane carries the French flag, lowered from the flagpole, at the end of a handover ceremony of the Barkhane military base to the Malian army in Timbuktu, on December 14, 2021. French President Emmanuel Macron announced in June 2021 a phased ending of French involvement in the nearly seven-year multinational campaign, and then announced in February 2022 a six-month withdrawal of French troops. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP/Getty Images

In its official communique announcing the move, the Malian Foreign Ministry cited France's earlier "unilateral" steps last June to suspend joint operations with the Malian Armed Forces and end Operation Barkhane, a French-led multinational military campaign launched in 2014 against insurgent groups operating in the Sahel.

Other grievances expressed included alleged violations of Malian airspace by French aircraft and a lack of progress in relitigating bilateral defense treaties established nearly eight years ago. It was the latest in a series of increasingly harshly worded warnings to French troops still operating in the country.

In response to Macron's February announcement of his intention to withdraw troops over the course of six months, the Malian Foreign Ministry argued that the country's initial request for military assistance a decade ago, conducted under the moniker Operation Serval, "would not have been necessary had NATO not intervened in Libya in 2011."

That intervention supported an insurgency to overthrow longtime Libyan leader Muammar El-Qaddafi, destabilizing the North African nation. It also created fertile ground in the otherwise harsh Sahara for various militant groups, including jihadis and Tuareg separatists that have taken up arms across borders since the Libyan conflict.

"This intervention, which has fundamentally changed the security situation in the region and in which France has played a leading and active role to the great dismay of Africans," the Malian Foreign Ministry said in February, "is at the root of the current security problems in Mali in particular and in the Sahel in general."

Newsweek has reached out to the Malian Foreign Ministry for comment.

France, for its part, has rejected the narrative that it was to blame for the erosion of relations with Mali, a country once home to one of the world's wealthiest empires prior to regional wars that brought its downfall in the late 17th century, the advent of French colonialism as part of French Sudan in the late 19th century and independence in 1960. France's influence has continued to loom large, although it is now threatened by blowback that helped fuel the latest saga.

"France considers the Malian decision to be unjustified," the French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in a statement shared with Newsweek. "France formally denies any violation of the bilateral legal framework attributable to the Barkhane force."

The statement promised an "orderly withdrawal" to be done in coordination with the Malian armed forces, while cautioning against "any attempt to manipulate information," and emphasizing France's " determination to ensure the safety of its soldiers and the European soldiers engaged alongside it during this disengagement phase."

And while Camara was critical of France's approach to its former colony, she also argued that "Mali continues to isolate itself diplomatically and militarily."

"This situation will surely be disastrous for the Sahel, where regional and coordinated efforts between all countries is necessary to counter the growing terrorist threat," Camara said. "Mali's military isolation from its neighbors and from the rest of the world is a considerable setback from both the regional and international military, diplomatic, development efforts deployed in the Sahel over the past 10 years."

The developments come at a time when fellow members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have suspended the country's membership and imposed sanctions in response to recent coups and the absence of elections.

France, Operation, Barkhane, Sahel, map, December, 2021
A map and graphic shared by the General Staff of the French Armed Forces shows the span of Operation Barkhane as of December 2021, including 4,800 personnel, six drones, seven fighter aircraft, 20 helicopters, 5-8 tactical and strategic transport aircraft, 260 heavy armored vehicles, 350 logistics vehicles and 170 light armored vehicles deployed across the Sahel nations of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. General Staff of the French Armed Forces

A draft proposal was put forth to the United Nations Security Council in support of these sanctions in January, but the motion was blocked by China and Russia, which have expanded their influence in Mali and other regional countries as France's clout waned.

China has invested heavily in Mali as part of President Xi Jinping's global Belt and Road Initiative, which has taken a particular interest in Africa, a continent that has received special attention from Beijing for decades. The People's Republic is also among the largest contributors to U.N. Peacekeeping missions, and has more than 400 personnel posted under the banner of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) as of February.

"Chinese peacekeeping forces have brought with them peace, security and the light of hope and warmth to people in war-torn areas, gaining wide acclaim," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a press briefing last month.

He added that since 2013 his country "has dispatched nine peacekeeping units to Mali, where they carried out duties including armed patrols and armed escorts," claiming that they were conducted "with such excellence that they earned the reputation of 'des troupes d'élite'" of MINUSMA's East Sector.

Reached for comment on the potential impact of Mali's decision to sever security relations with France, MINUSMA spokesperson Olivier Salgado told Newsweek that the U.N. Peacekeeping mission was "of course, aware of these developments," but had "no specific comments."

"Our activities have always been in line with the mandate given to us by the Security Council," Salgado said. "MINUSMA is therefore continuing its activities and the implementation of its Mandate in support of the Malians, while adapting, if necessary and within the framework defined by the Security Council, to developments on the ground."

And he noted that France will still have an important role in the region going forward.

"French forces are also mandated to provide support to MINUSMA, and at its request, in the event of a serious and imminent threat," Salgado said. "We highly appreciate this support, which is an important aspect of the mechanism to strengthen the security of our peacekeepers and to facilitate the implementation of our operations in support of the Malian population and institutions."

"If the situation evolves in this respect," he added, "there will obviously be consequences that we, and our headquarters, will have to take into account in our adaptation plans."

Russia has also expanded its presence in Africa, and and a key element in that expansion is the presence of the Wagner private military company. The group, first known for its operations in Ukraine, has taken on shadowy combat roles in conflicts as far away as Syria and a number of African nations, including the Central African Republic and Libya.

Carissa noted that Mali's recent demands that French troops leave the country immediately rather than on the Macron's timeline coincided with "growing rumors of the presence of Wagner mercenaries on Malian soil."

Late last month, the French military accused the Wagner group of staging an apparent massacre after drone footage emerged purporting to show foreign soldiers burying bodies near the Gossi base in northern Mali.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement supporting the investigation opened by Malian authorities while warning that French and European media "will be tempted to spread bogus stories in the media, which would be aimed against Malian troops whose achievements in clearing the country of the terrorist threat irk Paris so much as France proved unable to do the same during its years-long presence in Mali."

On Monday, just as Mali declared the end of all military cooperation with France, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov provided a rare acknowledgment of Wagner's presence in the country, telling Italian television station Mediaset that the group was there "on a commercial basis" and "has nothing to do with the Russian state," an explanation he said had already been offered to his French and European counterparts.

J. Peter Pham, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who served as the U.S. special envoy to Africa's Great Lakes and Sahel regions under former President Donald Trump, said he was "concerned about the Russian mercenary presence in Mali and elsewhere in the region, and reports of abuses that they are alleged to have perpetrated are both credible and worrisome."

However, he noted that Russia's ability to make more significant inroads into Mali was limited, particularly while it is mired in a devastating conflict with neighboring Ukraine.

"I have seen no evidence that Russia, even before the mauling its military has taken in Ukraine, is capable of deploying forces, private or otherwise, in the numbers necessary to replace the departing French and other forces," Pham said.

Mali, protest, Russia, Wagner, France, military, withdrawal
Protesters holds a banner reading "Thank you Wagner", the name of the Russian private security firm present in Mali, during a demonstration organized by the pan-Africanist platform Yerewolo to celebrate France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on February 19. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on the group over allegations of human rights abuses. FLORENT VERGNES/AFP/Getty Images

But this could also result in Mali ending up largely on its own in its fight against insurgents.

"This means that, ultimately, the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) must take ownership of the fight to defend and, indeed, retake their country from the jihadists who have run amok," Pham said.

"In this sense, although it did not happen in anything approaching an ideal transition," he added, "perhaps the silver lining in the abrupt withdrawal of the French-led operation and the insufficiency of the Russian presence is that Malians will have full responsibility for what is ultimately Mali's fight."

Pham spoke of the split between France and Mali in human terms.

"While analogies to human relationships have their limits, they do have some utility in this case," he said. "The breakdown in the security partnership between France and Mali is the inevitable result of the long decay and collapse of their overall political relationship, much as a final judgment of divorce is the unsurprising endpoint at which two people arrive when they've grown apart over the years and one partner refuses to acknowledge anything has changed."

Among the factors that exacerbated the breakup included "the increasingly intractable fight against jihadist groups, the overthrow of Mali's elected president, and turn of popular sentiment against the French military presence."

"The reality is that the trajectory was already there," Pham said. "The reality is that France today has neither the political will nor the capacity to exercise the hegemony it once did over its former colonies, but many senior French officials haven't adjusted their expectations accordingly."

The former U.S. diplomat, who also served on the senior advisory board of the Pentagon's Africa Command, claimed to have personally "witnessed on numerous occasions everything from petty slights to significant undermining in the treatment that French officials have meted out to their Malian and other African counterparts," noting that "the result is toxic."

And he warned that French missteps in Mali be replayed elsewhere in the Sahel as local and geopolitical tensions swell.

"Consequently, the same issues that plagued the French intervention in Mali will follow French forces wherever they redeploy in the region," Pham said. "Earlier this year, we saw protests in Burkina Faso block the transit of a French military convoy through the country."

"I wouldn't be surprised if the withdrawal of French and European forces from the Barkhane and Takouba operations to Niger won't bring with them new challenges to what has hitherto been one of the more solid countries in the region," he added.