France's Defence Minister Florence Parly (2ndR) awards a posthumous Legion of Honour as she pays tribute in front of the coffin of French brigadier-chief Alexandre Martin killed in Mali by a mortar shells attack of the Gao camp, during a national homage in Hyere, southeastern France, on January 27, 2022. - His death brings to 53 the total number of combat deaths suffered by French forces since they first deployed troops to Mali nine years ago to fight an insurgency by Islamic extremists. (Photo by CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU / AFP)
On 14 January, an estimated 60 000 Malians took part in demonstrations in the capital Bamako, ostensibly to protest against sanctions imposed on the Malian transition government by the West African regional bloc Ecowas, for their failure to adhere to an electoral timetable. But the protests were also dominated by Malians demanding an end to French interference in its domestic affairs and the withdrawal of French troops from Mali.
The special relationship between France and Francophone African nations, dubbed “Françafrique”, has remained largely unchanged since it was constructed by the former French president, General Charles de Gaulle, just before France granted independence to its African colonies.
De Gaulle understood it was necessary for France to consolidate its long-standing influence in Africa in order to remain a key player on the international scene. The pillar of this strategy was the signature of bilateral defence and security agreements between France and the newly independent countries.
These agreements allowed France to intervene militarily at the request of the signatory country. In return, France was granted preferential access to strategic mineral resources such as natural gas, petroleum and uranium and permitted to set up military bases as well.
The defence and security accords were glaringly neocolonial, paternalist and self-serving on the part of France, but proved an effective mechanism for achieving French foreign policy and geostrategic goals. The agreements were largely appreciated by pro-French African leaders, who saw them as an insurance policy against potential domestic upheavals.
Recent developments, however, suggest that France’s role as the international security guarantor across Francophone Africa is being contested, especially in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali.
In June, France announced the suspension of budgetary assistance and military cooperation with the CAR. France accused the CAR of being complicit in a Russian-led, anti-French propaganda campaign. France has been the CAR’s foremost international security partner and, since 1960, has undertaken seven military interventions in the historically unstable country. These include Operation Sangaris from 2013-2016, which France initiated to quell sectarian violence after president Francois Bozizé was ousted.
Following the termination of the Sangaris mandate, France maintained a military presence in the CAR to train local forces and currently has 300 troops stationed there. Despite French efforts and the presence of a UN peacekeeping force, the CAR is still beset with security challenges and since 2017, Russia has had a security presence in the country, following a request by President Faustin Touadera.
In Mali, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced in July the withdrawal of 2 500 to 3 000 soldiers from the contingent of 5 100 French soldiers deployed in the Operation Barkhane anti-terrorist mission in the Sahel.
France’s ongoing military presence in Mali and the Sahel began in 2013, when Operation Serval was established to combat the Tuareg rebel movement in northern Mali. The defeat of the rebel groups was followed by the emergence of several violent extremist groups, which necessitated Serval’s replacement with the Barkhane mission.
To palliate the security void created by the French troop scale-down, Mali sought Russian assistance. In September, the Malian transitional government reportedly signed an agreement with Wagner, a private security firm linked to the Kremlin, that would see the deployment of 1 000 security personnel who would be in charge of training the Malian army and protecting high-ranking government officials. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed discussions had taken place between Bamako and Wagner regarding the possibility of signing a defence cooperation accord and, in October, Bamako received four military helicopters, weapons and ammunition, provided by Russia.
On 23 December, 15 countries, including France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement condemning the presence of Wagner mercenary troops in Malian territory. This followed French media reports suggesting Wagner paramilitaries were sighted in the southern town of Segou. The Malian government refuted these accusations and claimed Russian military instructors were in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement.
Mali’s decision to strengthen security ties with Russia is indicative of its deteriorating relations with France, which has been accused of failing to address Mali’s terrorist threat effectively and focusing instead on protecting its geostrategic and economic interests in the Sahel and West African region.
Mali has also accused France of pressuring the Ecowas regional bloc to impose the sanctions it placed on Mali.
Macron and his defence minister Florence Parly have condemned this anti-French sentiment. However, Mali is not alone in alleging that French military intervention has been counterproductive and self-serving.
Similar claims were made in the CAR, before that country, too, solicited Wagner’s services. In November last year, a French military convoy passing through Burkina Faso, was blocked by demonstrators protesting against France’s military presence in that country.
Igor Delanoe, deputy director of the Franco-Russian Observatory, believes the requests for Russian support indicate a growing understanding by the leaders and population of the CAR and Mali that traditional partners, notably France, are not invested in solving their domestic security problems.
We should expect to see other countries within the Françafrique ecosystem seek closer defence and security ties with China, Israel, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, among others. Likely quite soon.
Macron has reiterated the need for African countries to take greater responsibility in addressing their domestic security needs. Still, France understands it can’t afford to lose influence on the continent – a domain over which it has historically exercised a monopoly – especially to a country such as Russia, which is steadily increasing its influence across sub-Saharan Africa.
Wagner’s operations will be highly scrutinised, as there are well-established allegations that it is involved in illicit mining activities and perpetrating human rights abuses in the CAR. These acts could be exported to Mali, which is both rich in mineral resources such as gold and run by military leaders who might not be especially inclined to hold those who abuse civil liberties to account.
The overthrow this week of Burkinabé President Roch Marc Kaboré could also see Burkina Faso’s new leadership seek defence and security assistance from countries instead of France.
In the near-term, we should also expect French political and military authorities to further review the terms of their defence and security engagement in the Sahel and Francophone Africa, amid the growing discontent regarding their presence in the region.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here