In February 2013, thousands lined up along the main road in the historic Malian city of Timbuktu to give a heroic welcome to France’s President Francois Hollande. He was visiting the city after French forces had pushed back armed groups that had captured swaths of Mali and were marching towards the capital, Bamako.
Dancing and waving French flags, locals chanted “Vive la France” as Hollande waved back at them. Even the muezzin of the 14-century mud mosque of Djinguereber, who recites the call to prayer five times a day, flaunted a scarf in the colours of the French flag as he shouted “Vive Hollande”. It was a joyful day in Mali.
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Today, that seems like a distant memory. In Bamako, French flags are now considered a neocolonial symbol and are being burned during anti-France protests. The troops once referred to as liberators are now accused of splitting the country and training militias.
The deafening calls for a French exit from Mali were finally heard in Elysee Palace. On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of the French military and Paris-led European force known as Takuba after nearly a decade of fighting against the worsening uprising. “We cannot remain militarily engaged alongside de facto authorities whose strategy and hidden aims we do not share,” he said.
According to Macron, the military bases in the towns of Gossi, Ménaka and Gao will be shut down in four to six months in an “orderly” manner.
A campaign with no end in sight
France transformed its 2013 military intervention into a complex counterterrorism mission called Operation Barkhane, which has become the longest French overseas military operation since the end of the Algerian War. More than 5,000 troops remain scattered across Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
They have been accompanied by the approximately 15,000-man United Nations peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, the 800-strong Takuba force as well as the EU Training Mission (EUTM) aiming to improve Malian military capabilities.
Despite the presence of these troops, various armed groups linked with al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have mushroomed, exploiting local dissatisfaction and security deficits in under-governed areas of the Sahel to unleash violence across the region.
Armed groups carried out more than 800 deadly attacks in 2021 alone. Thousands of people were killed and at least 2.5 million people have been displaced. As many as 13 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance across the region.
Yet, Macron has refused to accept that the French mission in Mali has failed.
Even though France has made tactical gains by eliminating some high-profile fighters, the violence has spread to the northern borders of other West African states, such as Benin and Ivory Coast. With no end in sight, the counterterrorism operation has become a heavy burden for France despite the involvement of 13 other European countries via the Takuba force.
On the streets, widespread frustration against both the corrupt political elite and France for failing to tackle the security crisis exploded. In June 2020, nationwide protests erupted followed by two military coups within 10 months of each other, in August 2020 and again in May 2021.
“Public opinion in the Sahel states has increasingly become [reluctant] to international military forces”, Dr Boubacar Diawara, associate professor of political science at the L’Université Sorbonne Paris Nord told Al Jazeera.
The crack between Bamako and Paris widened after the latest coup leaders scrapped an agreement to organise an election in February and decided to stay in power until 2025. When French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned Mali’s new leaders as “illegitimate” and “out of control”, Bamako expelled the French ambassador.
The last straw for the West has been Mali’s decision to deploy mercenaries from the Russia-linked Wagner Group. “The junta which is in power after two coup d’etats considers them to be the best partners they can find to protect their power, not to fight against terrorism,” Macron said.
Capitalising on widespread anti-French sentiment and lack of trust in the state, the military seems to have convinced the public that it is better equipped than France and democratically elected officials.
Still, about 80 per cent of the country is plagued by insecurity – 7.5 million Malians need aid, according to the United Nation’s humanitarian agency, OCHA. This month, Mali defaulted on debts of about $92m, as economic sanctions imposed by regional body ECOWAS began to bite.
Dialogue with rebels ‘increasingly popular’
The French pullout could trigger a wider departure of Western forces within the UN mission – which relies on French airports with fighter planes and attack helicopters – as well as from the hospital in Gao, the largest medical facility in northern Mali. Though Macron has said France will continue its support, MINUSMA spokesman Olivier Salgado said that the pullout was “bound to impact” the mission.
German defence minister Christine Lambrecht said she was “very sceptical” that the country’s mission could continue in light of the French departure. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc is considering the future of its mission and awaits “guarantees” from Mali’s military rulers.
Bamako-based Fahiraman Rodrigue Koné, a senior Sahel researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, believes the pullout might not automatically translate to a deterioration in domestic security because “despite the nine-year presence of Western troops, the security situation in Mali has not improved substantially”.
The French withdrawal, Kone says, could also open a door to opportunities to contain violence including dialogue with the armed groups, an increasingly popular idea among Malians.
But across the Sahel, it is feared that the departure of the French troops could worsen violence and further destabilise Mali’s neighbours.
Diawara argues that “Mali remains the epicentre of the crisis”, saying: “If the jihadists manage to strengthen their sanctuary in the north of the country, all the other countries will be further destabilised.”
Takuba forces are now relocating to neighbouring Niger, which could become a key base for France’s counterinsurgency operations, a move that aligns with Macron’s belief that engagement with Sahel countries is crucial for European security.
Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum is well aware of the risk of antagonising anti-French sentiment and is a willing ally, says Delina Goxho, a Niamey-based researcher. The Nigerien statesman is eager to cultivate Western support even as other countries in the region are evaluating their relations with European states.