French Troops in Mali: Boon or Bane?
June 17, 2019 | Expert Insights
The Republic of Mali, located in West Africa, is the 8th largest nation in the continent. The land-locked country’s economy is fueled by agriculture and mining. The former French colony achieved independence in 1960 following which it was under a military dictatorship for 23 years. Mali held its first democratic elections in 1992.
In January 2012, there were violent clashes between Mali’s northern and southern provinces. Separatist groups in the North wanted independence from the government and greater political autonomy over a region they wished to rename Azawad. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) captured several northern cities with the help of Islamist group Ansar Dine and declared their independence. The two groups eventually ceased to see eye to eye and the NMLA began to fight against jihadists in the region. The NMLA was expelled by groups such as AQIM, AAD, and MUJAO who imposed strict Sharia law in the region. In 2013, the NMLA had lost control in Northern Mali and French and Chadian troops were deployed to help them regain lost territory. A peace accord between the separatists and the Mali government was signed in 2015 marking the end of a 3-year conflict. Despite the peace treaty, violence in Mali has persisted.
Over the years, Islamist groups in Mali have sown the seeds of ethnic discord by pitting one community against the other in an attempt to keep Mali politically vulnerable. A fragile government coupled with widespread internal conflict makes Mali an ideal breeding ground for jihadist groups. These groups, which are believed to be supported by ISIS and al-Qaeda, have been thriving in conflict zones all over Africa and threatening the stability of the entire region.
Ethnic rivalries between the Fulani and Dogon communities in Mali’s Mopti region have been escalating over the past few months. The Fulani are nomadic cattle breeders and traders while the Dogon are primarily sedentary farmers. The mostly arid region has forced these two groups to compete over resources, especially water.
Dogon ‘protection groups’ have emerged with the goal of protecting their community against armed extremists. In March, a Fulani village called Peuhi was attacked by a protection group called Dan Na Ambassagou, killing around 157 people and completely destroying the village. The Fulani community is primarily Muslim and Dogon protection groups believe that raids on Fulani villages will draw out jihadists. In early June, a Dogon village called Sobane-Kou was raided at night killing at 95 villagers with several others reported missing.
The attack came soon after the resignation of Mali’s Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and his entire cabinet. The former PM came under heavy criticism for failing to address the nation’s pressing security issues. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita recently appointed former finance minister Boubou Cisse as Mali’s new Prime Minister.
There are currently 14,700 peacekeeping troops deployed in Mali by the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and over 4,000 French troops based in neighboring Chad. French forces in the region have been undertaking peace-keeping and counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel region of Africa since 2011.
It is our assessment that while France has the opportunity to step up its Military efforts in Mali, an increase in foreign intervention might not be the best option. Granted, as a former African colonial power, France has the required experience and cultural understanding to carry out extensive military operations in conflict-ridden Mali. But we predict that if France decides to prematurely increase its military presence and run interference with the Mali government, all hopes of stability might be lost.
We feel that France’s interests in Mali are mostly economic, with Mali being a predominant source of uranium and oil. A massive 75% of France’s electric power is generated by nuclear plants which are fueled by uranium extracted in Mali. French troops are also trying to protect an oilfield which spans an extensive 1000kms across Mauritania, Mali and into Algeria. Several international mining companies from France, UK, South Africa, and Australia have interests in the region since Mali is Africa’s 3rd largest producer of gold.
Despite being so rich in mineral resources, more than half of Mali’s population lives under the poverty line. Desertification in the north as a result of climate change has significantly hurt the agrarian sector of Mali’s economy.
The appointment of a new Prime Minister in Mali is a step towards economic and political stability in the country. We feel that strong leadership could capitalize on Mali’s vast resources and bring the country together using the platform of economic progress. But for this to happen, we need to give the newly formed government some time. We think that increased French military intervention in Mali would impede upon the ability of the newly formed government to act independently. A prolonged French presence in Mali could make it dependent on its former colonizer. In the event that France pulls out, the nation will be left in the lurch and once more vulnerable to radicalization.
While an increase in French military intervention might not be the best move, complete military withdrawal isn’t necessary either. The French have a stabilizing presence in the region due to their counter-terrorism operations. ISIS isn't necessarily the only problem. French troops are mainly fighting AQIM, a group that is backed by Al-Qaeda. ISIS and Al-Qaeda have had a recent ideological break and certain factions of the organizations are fighting with each other resulting in additional conflict. These organizations are using pre-existing ethnic tensions to incite conflict and destabilize the region making it easy for them to swoop in and take control. French forces in the area can help counter these terrorist groups, giving the new Mali government some time to regain the people’s support and establish political control.