The people of Mali inflict a defeat on French imperialism

Recent protests in Mali / Yarga Idrissa

By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor

On 18 February, at the AU-EU summit in Brussels, President Macron ended his Operation Barkhane in Mali and announced the withdrawal of French troops.

The withdrawal is a defeat for French imperialism’s attempt to use Mali as a base to establish itself in the Sahel region [See map below] and exploit its mineral resources.

The clash between Mali and France reached a climax in October 2021 when Macron categorically opposed the Malian government receiving Russian assistance in the fight against terrorism. France had totally failed to defeat terrorism in nine years of military presence in Mali.

Unexpectedly for France, the Malian authorities did not comply with Macron’s demand.

Enormous demonstrations in Mali showed mass support for the government.

Mali has asserted its sovereignty. The time when France could arrogantly make decisions for Mali is over.

Recent French interference

On 18 August 2020, a military coup in Mali forced the then president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita [IBK] to resign.

In the months leading to the coup, massive demonstrations called on IBK to leave. The Malian people demanded action to end the economic crisis, the endless terrorist killings of civilians, and the corruption at the top of the Malian state. These mass mobilisations pushed a group of five colonels to overthrow the corrupt ruling circles empowered by France since 2013.

The Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS], an organisation of ex-French colonies in West Africa, reluctantly accepted this new government, providing it would organise elections to choose a civilian government 18 months later [28 February 2022].

In May 2021, in the wake of mass anti-government protests, there was a reshuffle in the transitional government, which Macron called ‘a coup within the coup’. It saw the removal of Bah N’daw and his prime minister who were following the Paris agenda.

Subsequently, France and its allies became more vocal against the transitional government. They wanted elections to take place to aid the replacement of the military government with a pro-French civilian one that would not deal with Russia.

France’s hypocritical rhetoric about the return to democracy (given its support to dictatorships) and the illegitimacy of the transitional government provoked an outcry in Mali leading to increased anti-French sentiment in the population.

The people of Mali resist

In December 2021, the transitional government organised Les Assises Nationales de la Refondation.

There were local discussions in ‘Circles’ all over Mali for one month, except in the war regions. These meetings involved 51 ‘Circles’ out of 60, representing 725 of the 749 communes. This process culminated in a national gathering where all of the propositions and grievances were discussed.

It was evident that the deadline of 28 February for new national elections was unachievable due to the widespread disruption caused by terrorism.

The national consultation agreed that elections would take place within six months to five years, depending on the progress towards national stability.

French imperialism only heard the ‘five years’ and denounced the government of Mali as a junta. As a result, ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States], under French pressure, decided on a set of stringent economic sanctions and an embargo that threatened the starvation of more people in Mali.

Immediately, there was a massive demonstration of the Malian people supporting the military government and against ECOWAS, which is seen as a puppet of France. On 31 January, the French ambassador was expelled, marking a further step in separating Mali from its ex coloniser.

The motives of French imperialism

The backdrop to these events is the negative balance sheet of the French military intervention in Mali. 

French imperialism always portrayed its intervention as the best way to bring peace with the rebels and the ‘jihadists’ in the North of Mali.

But after nine years, it had become clear in the eyes of most Malians that what was at stake was not a ‘war on terror’, but French neo-colonial greed in the Sahel, which includes the north of Mali.

In Mali, many suspected that France was feeding the war to serve its own agenda instead of ending it.

The question of Sahel

To understand the causes of the crisis in Mali, we need to go back to the war on Libya and the assassination of Muammar Gaddafi, which completely destabilised the whole Sahel.

The nomadic Tuareg people live in the desert in North Mali. They fought for their national rights after Malian independence in the 1960s, but they lost.

Consequently, many Tuareg men went to join the Libyan army. But after the destruction of Libya, they came back to North Mali, still having their never forgotten national demands. This time, they were armed, experienced warriors. France favoured their return, as an independent North Mali would provide greater French access to the Sahel, a region with many not yet exploited mineral resources. They even met the Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad [MNLA]. Azawad is the name under which the MNLA calls the North of Mali.

Meanwhile, different ‘jihadist’ groups, including Al Qaeda in Maghreb Islamique [AQMI], joined the MLNA to pursue their agenda.

They launched a joint attack on 17 January 2012. Within two months, they had taken the whole northern part of Mali, and were heading to the centre of Mali.

The Malian authorities officially asked for France’s help, which allowed French imperialism to have its first troops in Sahel through Operation Serval.

Only Algeria opposed Operation Serval as it includes part of the Sahel within its borders.

Operation Serval won victories in two towns in the north, Timbuktu and Gao but failed in Kidal. However, suspicions grew that France was playing both sides for its interests, most notably with its unofficial support to the Tuaregs.

In 2014 Operation Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane. Once again, France decided on an action without asking Mali. Operation Barkhane, apart from France and Mali, also included Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

Another point of disagreement later was how to deal with all the different ‘jihadist’ groups. The leadership of Mali was in favour of trying to set up negotiations with some of them, but France was categorically opposed to it. France’s public approach was : you don’t discuss with terrorists, you get rid of them.

The French military intervention was not motivated by a defence of Tuareg rights nor against ‘jihadist’ terrorists: it was for control of the natural resources of the Sahel.

North Mali lies between Niger to its east and Mauritania to the west. The French companies Areva operate in Niger and Total in Mauritania. By controlling North Mali, France would be able to consolidate its economic interests and continue to supply cheap uranium to the French nuclear industry which is the primary source of electricity in France.

The sovereignty of Mali

As a sovereign state, Mali has made a military alliance with Russia despite the demonisation of Russia by western propaganda.

This development caused a severe crisis with French imperialism, which continues to lose ground in its ex-colonies.

Macron was also obliged to withdraw from Mali because of the growing anti-French feeling in the Malian population, which is also the case in many other ex-French colonies whose independence in the 1960s has been purely on paper. In fact, they have remained under the yoke of France economically, militarily and politically within Francafrique.

Presidents Hollande and Macron never admitted French military intervention was a complete failure. They kept talking of the continuous advance and progress of Barkhane. Macron now does not want to recognize France was forced to leave. He is saying that French troops are leaving because the conditions to stay no longer exist.

The truth is that these developments in Mali are a big defeat for French Imperialism, a defeat imposed by the courage and determination of the Malian people. This comes in the context of French presidential elections due this year and the defeat of US imperialism in Afghanistan.

The provisional government has insisted that France leaves immediately. France must not be allowed to undermine that decision by tricks and deception.

The Malian People have written a page of history against French imperialism which may be followed by other African states where the populations are rising against France,  their ex-coloniser.

Recommended further reading: Opposing Macron’s imperialism in Africa.