French soldiers in Africa's Sahel region Image Credit: AFP

In a recent report, the United Nations Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, concluded that, on January 3, French warplanes had struck a crowd attending a wedding 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 other wars in the region, the French war in Mali receives little media coverage outside the limited scope of French-speaking media.

Mali's colonial past

However, the story has less to do with Islamist militancy and much to do with foreign interventions. Anti-French sentiment in Mali goes back over a century when, in 1892, France colonised that once-thriving African kingdom, exploiting its resources and reordering its territories as a way to weaken its population and to break down its social structures.

The formal end of French colonialism of Mali in 1960 was merely the end of a chapter, but definitely not the story itself. France remained present in Mali, in the Sahel and throughout Africa, defending its interests and working jointly with local elites to maintain its 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 Bamako’s failure to rein in the militancy 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, lead among them France, who saw Islamist militancy as the greatest danger facing many parts of Africa, especially in the Sahel.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, Sanogo’s coup, which angered African governments, but was somehow accommodated by Western powers, made matters much worse. In the following months, northern militants managed to seize much of the impoverished northern regions.

The army coup was never truly reversed but, at the behest of France and other influential governments, was simply streamlined into a transitional government, still largely influenced by Sanogo’s supporters.

On December 20, 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, under the title of ‘Operation Serval’.

It is worth mentioning here that the Mali scenario had just transpired in Libya when, on March 17, 2011, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973, which was conveniently translated into a declaration of war. Both scenarios proved costly for the two African countries as the interventions allowed violence to spiral even further, leading to yet more foreign interventions and proxy wars.

Operation Serval

On July 15, 2014, France declared that ‘Operation Serval’ was successfully accomplished, providing its own list of casualties on both sides, again, with very little international monitoring. Yet, almost immediately, on August 1, 2014, it declared another military mission, this time an open-ended war, ‘Operation Barkhane’.

Barkhane was spearheaded by France and included Paris’ own coalition, 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 to Deutsche Welle, the ‘optimism’ that accompanied ‘Operation Serval’ completely vanished with ‘Operation Barkhane’. “The security situation has worsened, not only (in the) north but (in) central Mali as well”, the German news agency recently reported, conveying a sense of chaos, with farmers fleeing their land, “self-defence militias” carrying out their own operations to satisfy “their own agendas”, and so on.

The bedlam in Mali

In truth, the chaos in the streets merely reflected the government’s own bedlam. Even with a heavy French military presence, instability continued to plague Mali. The last coup in the country took place in August 2020. Worse still, the various Tuareg forces, which have long challenged the foreign exploitation of the country, are now unifying under a single banner. 

So what was the point of the intervention, anyway? Certainly not to ‘restore democracy’ or ‘stabilise’ the country. Karen Jayes elaborates. “France’s interests in the region are primarily economic,” she wrote in a recent article.

To appreciate this claim more fully, one only needs a single example of how Mali’s wealth of natural resources is central to France’s 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.”

Therefore, 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, the French military denied any wrongdoing, claiming that all of the victims were ‘jihadists’. The story is meant to end here, but it will not — as long as Mali is exploited by outsiders, as long as poverty and inequality will continue to exist.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and Editor. He is the author of five books.