While some analysts fear further destabilisation in a region mired in conflict, others suggest the withdrawal of a largely unpopular foreign military presence could lead to welcome intra-Malian and regional dialogue.
President Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday a pullout of French troops from Mali by the summer, amid escalating tensions with the country’s military junta.
French forces have been active in Mali since 2013 as part of the pan-Sahelian operation Barkhane, which aims to fight Al Qaeda and Daesh-affiliated armed groups in the region. As well as in Mali, troops are stationed in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. 900 special forces in the French-led Takuba task force are also expected to leave Mali in the coming months.
"We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de-facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share," Macron said at a news conference announcing the withdrawal, less than two months ahead of scheduled presidential elections.
France has about 4,300 troops in the Sahel, including 2,400 in Mali, a former French colony. Macron said Paris intends to maintain its military presence in neighbouring countries, and that the “heart” of the French operation will be moved to neighbouring Niger, in the region bordering Burkina Faso.
Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum accepted the deployment of French and European troops in its territory.
“Our objective is for our border with Mali to be secure,” Bazoum said on Twitter.
The announcements were made as leaders gathered in Paris this week ahead of a two-day EU-Africa summit in Brussels. Representatives from Mali and Burkina Faso were not invited as both nations were suspended from the African Union following coups.
The conflict has displaced more than 2.5 million people across the region in the last decade, according to the UN and 13 million are in need of humanitarian assistance. A surge in violent attacks displaced 500,000 people in 2021 alone.
“They will withdraw from Mali, but we are not abandoning Mali,” Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, said in Brussels. “We are not abandoning the Sahel. We are just restructuring our presence. We will continue supporting the people in Sahel and Malian people.”
David Otto, Director of the Geneva Centre for Africa Security and Strategic Studies, believes the idea of operating from Niger is nothing more than a “slow pullout” for France.
“The whole idea for operation Barkhane and Takuba was to have a coordinated operation in the entire Sahel, including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso,” Otto tells TRT World. “To pull out from Mali and then expect that it will succeed in Niger on its own, that becomes problematic,” he added, “I think Niger is also a step towards the exit.”
“The withdrawal is linked to the current situation between Russia and the West, including NATO,” Otto continued.
In December, Mali’s military government said it had signed a bilateral agreement to receive military assistance from Russia, which is accused by the West of deploying “mercenaries” to the region.
“The French find it no longer conducive to operate alongside the Russians,” Otto said, “and for me, this is a stab. If the big countries like France, Russia and the US cannot collaborate, then I don’t see why we should be talking about a global war on terror.”
The paradox of worsening insecurity
In January 2013, France launched a military operation called Serval at the request of the Malian government, aimed at stopping the advance of Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda, which had captured two-thirds of the country.
Operation Barkhane was established the following year, becoming France’s longest overseas military operation since the end of the Algerian war.
"The withdrawal is a terrible admission of their failure to resolve the conflict in the country,” said Oxfam's West Africa Regional Director, Assalama Dawalack Sidi.
“For several years now, Oxfam has sounded the alarm about the inadequacy of a military approach to the conflict which does not address the root causes of the Sahelian crisis,” she added. “As long as inequality goes unabated, marginalized people will continue feeling frustrated by these injustices.”
French presence has been increasingly unwelcome in Mali, where it is seen by many as a foreign occupation. This has contributed to the popularity of military junta leader Assimi Goita, a special forces colonel that led a coup d’etat in August 2020, and then carried out a “coup within a coup” by dismissing the civilian leaders in Mali’s transitional government and seizing power last May.
Tensions between France and Mali’s military rulers have been escalating since then, culminating in February with the expulsion of France’s ambassador from Mali. This has gone hand in hand with a string of military coups throughout West Africa and the Sahel, which have altered the geopolitics of the region in favour of Russia.
“It is a paradox that France went [to the region] to arrest the spread of insecurity, but that insecurity for a variety of reasons has worsened,” Olawale Ismail, a senior lecturer at King's College London’s African Leadership Centre tells TRT World.
“Nowhere in Africa has foreign intervention worked,” Ismail continued, adding that in post-colonial Africa, external actors remain “complicit in the problems of the continent.”
Given the already dire situation for citizens of the region, Ismail believes that while the French pullout could usher in further instability for the region, it could also lead to intra-Malian dialogue.
“It could open the space for a negotiated settlement between the government and armed groups,” Ismail explains, “it could provide impetus for regional institutions like ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] to get involved.”
“It could go both ways,” he says.