In a recent report, the UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), concluded that French warplanes had struck a crowd attending a wedding on 3 January in the remote village of Bounti, killing 22 of the guests. According to the findings based on a thorough investigation and interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses, 19 of the guests were unarmed civilians whose killing constitutes a war crime.
Unlike the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and other countries, France’s war in Mali receives little coverage outside the limited scope of French-speaking media, which has been successful in branding it as a war against Islamic militants.
What is interesting about the Mali story is the fact that, despite its centrality to the geopolitics of the Sahel region in Africa, it is framed within disconnected narratives that rarely overlap. However, the story has less to do with Islamic militancy and much to do with foreign interventions. Anti-French sentiment in Mali goes back over a century when, in 1892, France colonised the once-thriving African kingdom, exploiting its resources and reordering its territories as a way to weaken its population and break down its social structures.
The formal end of French colonialism in Mali arrived in 1960. It might have brought the chapter to a close, but it was definitely not the end of the story itself. The French maintained a presence in Mali, in the Sahel and throughout Africa, defending their interests, exploiting the ample resources and working jointly with corrupt elites to maintain their dominance.
Fast forward to March 2012 when Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the nominally democratic government of Amadou Toumani Touré. He used the flimsy excuse of protesting against the failure of the government in Bamako to rein in the militants of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the north.
Sanogo’s pretence was quite clever, though, as it fit neatly into a grand narrative designed by various Western governments, prominent among them France and, almost inevitably, the United States. All viewed Islamic militancy as the greatest danger facing many parts of Africa, especially in the Sahel.
Interestingly, although not surprisingly, Sanogo’s coup may have angered African governments but it was accommodated by Western powers, and this made matters much worse. In the following months, northern militants managed to seize much of the impoverished northern regions, continuing their march towards Bamako itself.
The military coup in Mali was never truly reversed but, at the behest of France and other influential governments, it was simply streamlined into a transitional government, still largely influenced by Sanogo’s supporters.
On 20 December, 2012, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2085, which authorised the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali. Armed with what was understood to be a UN mandate, France launched its war in Mali: Operation Serval. The Mali scenario replicated what had just transpired in Libya when, on 17 March, 2011, the Security Council passed Resolution 1973, which was conveniently and immediately translated into a declaration of war by international powers.
Both scenarios have been costly for the two African countries. Instead of “saving” them, the interventions allowed violence to spiral even further, leading to yet more foreign interventions and proxy wars.
France declared on 15 July, 2014, that Operation Serval was accomplished successfully, and provided its own list of casualties on both sides. There was very little international monitoring. Yet, less than a month later on 1 August, it declared another military mission, this time an open-ended war: Operation Barkhane.
This war was spearheaded by France and its own “coalition of the willing”, dubbed “G5 Sahel”. All former French colonies, the new coalition consisted of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The declared goal of France’s indefinite intervention in the Sahel is to provide material support and training to the “G5 Sahel” forces in their “war on terror”.
However, according toDeutsche Welle, the “optimism” that accompanied Operation Serval completely vanished with its successor. “The security situation has worsened, not only [in the] the north but [in] central Mali as well,” the German news agency reported recently, conveying a sense of chaos, with farmers fleeing their land and with “self-defence militias” carrying out their own operations to satisfy “their own agendas”.
In truth, the chaos in the streets merely reflected the chaos in government. Even with a heavy French military presence, instability has continued to plague Mali. The latest coup in the country took place in August last year. Worse still, the various Tuareg forces, which have long challenged the foreign exploitation of the country, are now unifying under a single banner. The future of Mali hardly looks promising.
So what was the point of the French intervention? Certainly not to “restore democracy” or “stabilise” the country. “France’s interests in the region are primarily economic,” wrote Karen Jayes in a recent article. “[Its] military actions protect [French] access to oil and uranium in the region.”
To appreciate this claim more fully, one only needs a single example of how Mali’s wealth of natural resources is central to the French economy. “An incredible 75 per cent of France’s electric power is generated by nuclear plants that are mostly fuelled by uranium extracted on Mali’s border region of Kidal,” Jayes pointed out. Hence, it is unsurprising that France was ready to go to war as soon as militants proclaimed the Kidal region to be part of their independent nation-state of Azawad in April 2012.
As for the bombing of the Bounti wedding, the French military denied any wrongdoing, claiming that all of the victims were “jihadists”. The story is meant to end here, but it won’t as long as Mali is exploited by outsiders; and as long as poverty and inequality continue to exist, leading to insurrections, rebellions and military coups.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.