© H Diakiti/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

When the French ambassador to Mali and France’s top military brass in the Sahel had an audience with the new strongman of Bamako last week, it was an acknowledgment of the facts on the ground.

With Mali at the centre of a fight against jihadism that has spread across the Sahel, the former colonial power is there for the long haul no matter who is in charge or how they came to power.

International actors, including France, were quick to condemn the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a French ally, in a coup this month. The African Union suspended Mali, the US and EU suspended training for the Malian military and west African regional bloc Ecowas went so far as to shut Mali’s borders. On Thursday, the junta announced the release of Mr Keita, widely known as IBK.

But all parties, including the junta behind the coup — now calling itself the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) and led by Colonel Assimi Goïta — have said that military co-operation against the jihadist threat will continue. Col Goïta also met EU, US and UN envoys last week.

Map showing Mali’s battle against extremists

France — which has a 5,100-troop counter-terrorism force in the region — is heavily invested. With both sides fearing the impact of a resurgent jihadist force in the area, Mali and France are stuck with each other.

“Neither can afford alienating the other in the current context, especially given uncertainty about the way forward,” Arthur Boutellis, senior adviser at the International Peace Institute, said.

“French politicians will say it’s about the stability of the Sahel, it’s the southern flank of Europe,” said Mr Boutellis. “Some will make the migration argument that the Germans are also making, [and] in France there’s also the terrorism argument,” he said, adding that — despite those concerns — there has never been a terrorist attack on French soil directed from Mali.

A post on the CNSP’s Twitter account showing Colonel Assimi Goïta meeting the French ambassador to Mali © Twitter

While some of those in the M5-RFP coalition who led protests calling for IBK’s departure resent French involvement, the junta needs to keep the most powerful actor in the Sahel on side if it is to maintain power. Leaders of the movement met the junta on Wednesday. “We have been reassured [by the fact] that these troops are soldiers, great intellectuals. Mali, across the entire spectrum, is in a drive to bring everyone together,” Issa Kaou Djim, a movement leader, told reporters.

However Mr Boutellis added: “The political class is divided in Mali over [France’s] presence but some still do recognise that if the French force wasn’t there, the whole country would collapse even more . . . The counter argument is that eight years of French military counter-terrorism have not really improved the situation.”

Billions of dollars, tens of thousands of foreign and domestic soldiers and countless international co-ordination initiatives have done little to quell a crisis that has its roots in a 2012 coup that left a power vacuum that was exploited by extremists.

Instead, the conflict has festered, with brutal violence involving ethnic militias and al-Qaeda and Isis-linked groups metastasising across the Sahel in the seven years since French forces intervened to crush an Islamist insurgency that had captured northern Mali.

Roughly 4,000 people were killed last year in Mali, making it the deadliest year since the crisis began in 2012. This year is already on track to be even worse. The violence has spread to other countries. To the south in Burkina Faso — once relatively stable — wide swaths of the country are now ungoverned.

Niger, to the east, has fared better in part because of the large concentration of western military forces there, but the tri-border region between the three countries has become the centre of the crisis.

French President Emmanuel Macron on a 2017 visit to French soldiers in Gao, northern Mali © Christophe Petit Tesson/AP
CNSP leader Colonel Goïta arriving for transitional talks with Ecowas in Bamako © John Kalapo/Getty

As part of its efforts to secure the region, the UN spends $1.1bn annually on Minusma, its 14,000-troop peacekeeping force in Mali. France spends $800m a year on Operation Barkhane and another $130m of mostly international funding goes to the G5 Sahel Force made up of local soldiers, according to a tally by World Bank security adviser Paul M Bisca. Millions are spent on training and equipping domestic forces with a well-earned reputation for abuses, including civilian massacres.

A Minusma human rights report released this month found that jihadist groups in Mali committed 123 incidents of human rights violations — from kidnappings to massacres — during the three months to June 2020. But ethnic militias committed nearly twice as many, and Malian security forces perpetrated 126.

“The scenes of collective joy in the streets of Bamako that followed the stepping down of President Keita speak to the general dissatisfaction of Malians towards the way in which the country was managed,” said Ornella Moderan, the Bamako-based head of the Sahel programme at the Institute of Security Studies.

“It seems Mali’s international partners have misjudged the extent of this dissatisfaction and the level of dysfunction of Malian institutions that prompted it,” she added.

For many, the focus now is on the transition. The junta has outlined a three-year timeline before it hands over power to an elected government. Both Ecowas and France are pushing to accelerate that. “The transition must be done quickly, power returned to civilians and that there is a political agenda put in place to allow this country to find political stability,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTL Radio on Thursday.

The fear is that the coup will only make things worse. The al-Qaeda-linked JNIM group has already told its followers to exploit the instability. Ethnic militias, which have been responsible for even more violence, could also be emboldened. “While collective attention is focused on the management of a transition in Bamako, there is risk that other forms of insecurity will thrive in the country,” said Ms Moderan.

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