Mali’s Islamist Surge and the Future of French Presence in West Africa


The Failed Promise of Stabilization

After a period of non-interference, France re-entered African politics in the early 2010s, launching a series of military interventions in the north and west of the continent. French forces played a decisive role in overthrowing the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast. Hopes of a region-wide wave of liberalization never materialized; instead, French interventions led to a power vacuum, and the spread of terrorism and religious radicalism. The collapse of the Libyan dictatorship rule saw Gaddafi’s former mercenary forces disperse across the region, spilling into Mali, striking alliance with local militias, and setting off a chain reaction of ethnic conflict and fundamentalist violence. By 2013, Malian jihadists seized more than half of the nation’s territory, and came to threaten the capital. France stepped up to support Mali’s government; its intervention, termed Operation Serval, attained remarkable successes. French forces stopped the jihadi advance in its tracks, liberated most major urban centres, and averted the immediate threat to Mali’s government. By the end of 2014, France was hailed as a guarantor of security in its former colonial holdings.

More than nine years on, the second stage of France’s intervention in Mali, Operation Barkhane, failed to deliver on its ambitious goals of uprooting jihadism in francophone West Africa. French forces in the region, which number around 4,000 troops in total, have managed to prevent Islamist forces from gaining a solid foothold, eliminating several prominent extremist leaders in targeted strikes. However, the manpower and hardware committed to Operation Barkhane proved insufficient to ensure broader stabilization, enabling Islamists to retreat into contested territories, regaining strength for renewed attacks. French forces are bogged down in an increasingly hopeless campaign of containment. The lack of progress, coupled with mounting collateral damage, and France’s persistent refusal to pursue a diplomatic settlement with the jihadists, is driving a rapid surge of anti-French sentiment across the region. Operation Barkhane is now seen less as a bulwark against fundamentalism, and more as a covert tool of imperial dominance.


The Dusk of Neo-Colonialism

Macron has taken steps to reckon with the legacy of imperialism, seeking to reframe France’s relations with its former holdings. In the commercial and financial sphere, Françafrique is already a thing of the past. French businesses are increasingly looking beyond francophone countries, and towards the wider region; Nigeria in particular is emerging as a more prominent destination for exports and investment than the whole of francophone West Africa. The French President has flirted with phasing out the CFA franc in West Africa; the currency, whose value is pegged to the euro, has long acted as a pillar of French monetary hegemony, preventing central banks in the region from exercising independent authority. Macron has also pledged to return stolen African art, while publicly acknowledging the crimes of the colonial occupation in Algeria and Rwanda. So far little headway has been made on advancing France’s promises aside from some symbolic concessions. Macron has backed the renaming of the CFA franc to Eco, after the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), while preserving its dependence on the European Central Bank. Restitution schemes were stalled by legislative hurdles in the French Parliament. At the start of Macron’s Presidency, the stage seemed set for the definite end of neo-colonialism. However, as time goes on, France is finding it progressively harder to extricate itself from its former territories.

Macron’s government has seen little success in advancing democracy and institutional reform. The G5 Sahel framework, established to coordinate regional anti-terrorism efforts, leans heavily on the authoritarian regimes in Mauritania and Chad. Despite appeals to a broader program of political reconstruction, France’s presence remains heavily militarized. In its search for allies, the French government turns a blind eye to dictatorial abuses. The elite guard troops of Chad’s President Déby are combating jihadists abroad with France’s support and oversight, while upholding a repressive regime at home. The worsening security situation brought about further democratic backsliding. In Mali, the inability of the French-backed government to halt the spread of jihadism spurred a series of coups, culminating in the rise of a military junta. In January 2022, Mali’s leaders backtracked on the pledge to organize democratic elections, declaring a five-year interim period of dictatorial rule. France’s failure to annihilate the Islamist threat lends power and legitimacy to strongmen, who promise to bring an end to the seemingly endless conflicts.

The swell of anti-French, anti-democratic tendencies in West Africa forced Macron’s government to reassess its regional objectives. Mali’s coup further undermined the nation’s already strained relationship with France. In February, 2022, Macron announced that French bases in Mali were to be shut down before the year’s end. The adjustment period grants some room for a diplomatic restart; however, given the depth of popular dissatisfaction with Operation Barkhane among the Malian population, the hopes for a sudden rapprochement are slim at best.  France’s coming withdrawal from Mali does not mark the end of its counterterrorism efforts in the region. Although Operation Barkhane’s center of gravity has long been located in Mali, where roughly 2,400 troops are deployed, French forces are also stationed in Niamey, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso. France also maintains a permanent presence in Senegal and the Ivory Coast. Instead of a full-scale withdrawal, Macron will likely pursue a reallocation of forces to countries whose rulers are more sympathetic to his government. As one of the few countries in the Sahel, Niger is headed by a civilian administration that enjoys widespread international legitimacy. As such, it is well positioned to assume greater importance as the new cornerstone of France’s presence.


A Looming Security Vacuum:

The termination of Operation Barkhane in Malian territory is bound to strengthen the position of fundamentalist militias, accelerating a broader breakdown of state power. In spite of French efforts, the violence enacted by jihadist groups, such as the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) surged by over seventy percent between 2020 and 2021. JNIM in particular, although unable to dislodge the government from major cities, constitutes a growing impediment to the imposition of central authority. The al-Aqeda affiliate, composed of four lesser militant factions, is tightening its control over the countryside of northern and central Mali, building up a power-base to launch attacks and project influence across the wider region. The Malian junta has already signaled its willingness to negotiate with the jihadis, suggesting a move towards détente that is set to fortify and legitimize Islamist presence. The normalization of Mali’s jihadist groups, if not rooted in a comprehensive, region-wide framework of reconciliation, will enable Islamic militants to pursue a campaign of consolidation along the disturbed border with Burkina Faso and Niger.

In the absence of French support, the advance of Islamism will drive a shift to militia rule in Mali and beyond. JNIM plays into Mali’s demographic tensions, positioning itself as defending the Fulani herders against the Dogons; its rise has the potential to escalate into a vicious cycle of ethnic violence. To counter the spread of jihadist influence, other local factions, such as the Imghad Tuareg Self-Defense Group and Allies (GATIA) will be forced into a state of armed autonomy to defend their interests. In 2020, Burkina Faso’s parliament officially legislated cooperation with self-defense militias, effectively admitting the state’s inability to defend its citizens. In the past, Niger extended support to armed groups along the border with Mali to stem the spread of Islamism; with the surge in regional instability, this policy, abandoned due to its diplomatic sensitivity, may well see a revival. The outsourcing of anti-jihadist containment to non-state actors will inevitably imperil prospective governance reforms, complicating the withdrawal of military force, and constraining France’s room to manouevre with regards to the reframing of its regional presence.

Racing to Supplant France:

The weakening of France’s ties to the Sahel ushered in great power competition in the economic sphere. China’s commercial interests are still predominantly oriented towards other parts of the continent; however, between 2009 and 2019, the volume of Chinese investment grew by 400% in Niger, and by 750% in Chad, reflecting the strengthening of mutual ties. China is also making inroads into war-torn Mali, funding railways or educational institutions, although its schemes are undermined by the worsening security situation. In February 2022, the EU pledged to provide €150 billions in aid to Africa to counter-balance China’s Belt-and-Road initiative, and stem the inflows of refugees; much of these funds will be channeled towards francophone West Africa. Other nations, such as Turkey, are also taking steps to establish an economic foothold in the region. Erdogan’s repeated visits to Senegal are paving the way for major infrastructure projects, setting the nation up as a market for Turkey’s steel industry. The Sahel is being transformed into a new battlefield in an emerging era of economic warfare, with France’s ability to exercise an independent policy proving increasingly limited in the absence of an overwhelming commitment.

The prospect of French withdrawal spawned a search for new security partnerships. Russia’s interventions in the Central African Republic and elsewhere on the continent constitute an attractive model for regional strongmen, who prioritize their regimes’ security over national prosperity and stability. Presently, around 800 to 1,000 mercenaries from the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group are deployed in Mali, with their presence set to grow as France pulls out of the country. Wagner Group acts as an extended arm of Russian business interests, oriented in large part on securing key resources; its involvement entails a promise of military assistance, devoid of the uncomfortable liberalizing pressures associated with French presence. Simultaneously, the deployment of Wagner troops has been associated with flagrant human rights violations. The strengthening of Russo-Malian ties is set to exacerbate governance issues and accelerate the rapid surge in indiscriminate violence. China is also bolstering its security presence in Mali as part of its attempts to militarize Sino-African ties. China operates within the UN framework, contributing troops to the roughly 15,000-strong Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In the near-term, the intensification of China’s presence in Mali beyond peacekeeping operations is unlikely. However, in the long-run, the Sahel could well turn into another testing ground for the integration of economic, political, and security mechanisms in the advancement of Chinese influence abroad. So far, no great powers have committed enough military force to displace France from West Africa altogether; nevertheless, the French Army will be forced to operate in an increasingly crowded and complex security landscape.


Françafrique at the Crossroads:

The transition in France’s relationship towards its former African colonies provides new opportunities for multilateral cooperation. Operation Takuba, launched in 2020 to complement counter-terrorism efforts in Mali, involves a joint special operations task force of approximately 600 troops from France, Sweden, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. Takuba provides a template for the likely near-term future of French presence, with coalition forces engaged in limited-scale containment efforts, targeting key jihadist leaders and installations. Macron already outlined plans for a joint counter-terrorism group, formed from — among others — US and South African troops. France also proposed a ‘Europeanization’ of Operation Barkhane, and called for the US to join Operation Takuba alongside other NATO members. So far, French appeals for expanded American support have fallen on deaf ears, as US involvement in Africa remains largely limited to support missions. However, Takuba provides a promising precedent with regards to more active engagement from European forces. Indeed, with the mounting push for remilitarization and continental strategic autonomy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sahel provides a useful theater for European troops to gain real combat experience within integrated command structures, developing a capacity for independent power projection.

To mitigate its break with Mali, France will seek to more actively engage its remaining African allies. France’s current regional posture is largely reactive, shaped by the ebbs and flows of Islamist violence. The spread of jihadism into other francophone countries, such as the Ivory Coast or Benin, will put pressure on Macron’s government to bolster its local presence. The threat to their stability will force coastal West African states to bear an increasing burden of counter-terrorist containment, providing opportunities for France to build upon the G5 Sahel framework to construct a broader anti-Islamist coalition. The ebb in domestic support for France’s African presence will inevitably drive Macron to give up hopes of liberalization. The only way to halt the spread of Islamism without putting more boots on the ground is by allowing for the consolidation of the military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and beyond. However, in the past, the practice of propping up West African dictatorship to ensure short-term stability and pro-French alignment produced exactly the conditions that France’s troops were called upon to resolve in the early 2010s. France is faced with a stark choice; either attempting to resolve the region’s governance and development deficits through an overwhelming deployment of military power and large-scale programs of economic development and institutional reform, or abandoning the notion of Françafrique once and for all. Until France makes its final decision, it will be forced to confront the same challenges as it has for the past sixty years, time and time again.



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Author: Matyáš Knol