Late last January, French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that Mali's new authorities was "illegitimate and takes irresponsible measures" describing the military government in Bamako as "out of control." By 1 February, Mali declared French Ambassador, Joel Meyer, persona non grata, giving him 72 hours to leave the country.
Relations between France and its former colony in West Africa have deteriorated after the Malian military took over the government in August 2020, citing lack of security in the country. In May this year, the new rulers reshuffled the newly formed cabinet but the French government described that as another coup, further irritating the Malians.
Notably, thousands of Malians took to the street to celebrate the expulsion of the French Ambassador, voicing their support for the military government and leader, Assimi Goita.
Herman Cohen, a former United States Under-Secretary of State for African Affairs, in a MEMO interview, described the situation as unprecedented and "very significant and it never happened before." Indeed, never before has any former French colony publicly denounced France in such a harsh and humiliating way.
On top of that, the new Malian leaders have asked France to withdraw its troops from the country. Since first deploying forces in Mali, in 2013, France has maintained nearly 5,000 troops across the Sahel region countries in an operation code named "Barkhane", to fight "jihadists" and rebels who swept the northern part of Mali and were closing in on the capital, Bamako.
What started nine years ago as a French military intervention has become an EU-wide military operation, involving military presence from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Italy and Germany. The strategy, then, was to eradicate the militants and "jihadists" across half a dozen countries, including Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. Instead, things got worse.
After nine years of French-led military intervention, the security situation in Mali has worsened and attacks on civilians and desert population centres have increased.
In a conference in Abidjan, Ivory Coast in 2020, many Malian academics and military officers told me that France is not honest about its aims in Mali. They even accused Paris of secretly collaborating with the rebels in the north, particularly with the Tuareg, who are the majority in the town of Kidal, in Northern Mali. Kidal, the capital city of Azwad region in North-Eastern Mali bordering Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, first came into prominence when the Tuareg launched their rebellion against the government in Bamako, starting in 2012. The region is said to be rich in natural resources, including gold.
After the Western-led military intervention in Libya, many extremist and ethnic groups benefited from the flourishing illegal arms trade, starting in Libya, and spreading across the region. The situation escalated further when terror group, Daesh, started to establish itself in Libya only to, later, join Al-Qaeda which was already present in the Sahel area.
Moustafa Traore, in an interview with MEMO, said the Malian action against France came as a direct response to "public demands" that French troops and their EU allies should leave the country because they "failed in nine years" to improve the security situation in Mali. The Paris based Malian academic even accused France of helping the rebels in the North, in order to justify its military presence in the country. Back in 2012, the Malian government asked France, according to Mr. Traore, to provide air support while the Malian military would fight on the ground but, instead, Paris launched a full military "unpopular" military intervention. He also pointed out that the French military never supplied weapons and other equipment to the Malian army, which means the training they provided to the Malian troops is "worthless."
Many EU countries like Denmark and Germany have been training Special Forces, not only in Mali but also in other Sahel countries like Burkina Faso.
While EU troops, led by the French, are leaving Mali they are being replaced by the Russians, further enraging the EU which was financing the entire mission in the area. This prompted Germany's Defence Minister, Christine Lambrecht, to comment that the idea of training the Malian army "to work with Russian mercenaries, is unthinkable." In 2019, Mali and Russia signed a military cooperation deal, but the deployment of Russian military advisors only became public in early January.
Frustration with how the war is being fought and the deteriorating security situation are two reasons behind the Malian military takeover in Bamako last year. According to Mr. Traore, the new military government in his country "listens to its people", and Malians have long been demanding the expulsion of the French and their EU military allies.
The Malian reaction towards France is not only unprecedented, but also an indication that France, which has dominated its former colonies decades after independence, is losing clout and influence, and might soon be completely kicked out of Africa.
Moscow, Beijing, and Ankara are now the new players in Africa. Russia and Türkiye maintains troops in the troubled Central African Republic and in Mali, while China is reported to be building a permanent military base in Equatorial Guinea on the Atlantic coast. China, for decades, has been making huge economic investments across the continent.
Most former colonial Western powers, like France and the United Kingdom, have exercised some kind of control over their former colonies, even after becoming independent nations. But France, in particular, has been doing it in a very clumsy and direct manner, angering Africans.
During a 2017 visit to Burkina Faso, French President, Emmanuel Macron, said that it was time to "stop lecturing" the region. While acknowledging the "crimes of European colonisation" of Africa, he told his hosts that he did not come to tell them about France's Africa policy because that is a "past that needs to pass," and a new Africa-wide French approach is starting, in which France will look at the "continent" straight in the face. Whatever this approach might be, it does not appear to be working.
Is Mali leading an all African anti-French revolt or it is just a once in a life-time fallout between Mali and France? Moustafa Troare thinks it is the first, and it will be a trend across former French colonies, sooner than later.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.