Deciphering the diplomatic crisis between France and Mali: Should we rethink the future of cooperation between the two countries? – Boubacar Ba

In Mali, one wonders how the security crisis of 2012 has degenerated into a diplomatic crisis in recent days. Faced with Mali’s transitional government, are France and the European countries up against the wall?

 Is this the moment of truth? Should we rethink the future of the French and European military in Mali? Is this a turning point in cooperation after eight (08) years of intervention through Serval (2013), Barkhane (2014) and Takuba (2020)?

There is a turning point with various upheavals in the sub-region: two coups in Mali (2020 and 2021) in Guinea (2021) and recently in Burkina Faso (January 2022).

The main question is what led to the expulsion of the French Ambassador to Mali on Monday, January 31, 2022. The Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said afterwards: „I would like to remind you that the dispute we have with France does not affect French nationals who are in Mali or French companies. They can go about their business as usual. The French are still welcome in Mali, so there is no problem between the French and Malian populations. There is just a political dispute. As long as France and all our partners continue to promote dialogue.

It should also be noted that for the past few months France has been gradually withdrawing from certain bases in northern Mali (Kidal, Tessalit, Timbuktu) and intends to concentrate on the Liptako Gourma region (the three border zone between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger). It should be noted that since December 2021 a diplomatic war has been waged between the transitional government and the French government. On the one hand, the Malian government, through the Prime Minister, has made it known to the UN that Mali has been abandoned in mid-air by France. On the other hand, the French government, through the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, has not stopped calling the Malian junta irresponsible and illegitimate.

Since then, the situation has worsened with a dialogue of the deaf between the two countries.  And in the midst of all this, the suspicion of the arrival of Russian paramilitary forces has come to dynamite things and harden them.  We have reached a new stage with the expulsion of the French Ambassador Joel Meyer on January 31, 2022. This is a first in the history of relations between France and Mali.

For a member of the National Transitional Council of Mali interviewed on a French television channel: „It is time for Mali to be respected. We must show France that we exist. Mali fell as a result of the engagement of France and NATO in Libya in 2011 leading to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. It is time for us to remain Mali and the African people. We are a sovereign people.

We recall that in February 2020, Mali’s Ambassador to France Toumani Djimé Diallo made remarks considered shocking before the French Senate in these terms: „I’ll tell you frankly, in these forces there are officers, there is the normal army, but there are also foreign legions and that’s the problem. (…) I tell you, looking you straight in the eye, that at times, in the „Pigalle” of Bamako, you find them tattooed all over their bodies, giving an image that is not the one we know of the national army of Mali. It is frightening, intriguing and raises questions.

 Was the Malian ambassador to France aware of the diplomatic incident that he had just triggered by pronouncing these few sentences during a hearing before senators?  The Malian ambassador was speaking in 2020 as part of a hearing of the ambassadors of the G5 Sahel countries before the French Senate’s Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces Committee.

Source:, public domain

The usual reading of several French leaders with this current crisis is simple. The objective, according to them, is humiliation.  It should be noted that it is the decision to expel the French Ambassador to Bamako that is the object of such diplomatic exacerbation and the birth of a crisis of confidence between the two countries.

With hindsight, it can be noted that the verbal escalation between France and Mali began with President Macron’s declaration on June 10, 2021, announcing the end of Operation Barkhane and the reorganization of the intervention in the tri-border area (Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger). For Malian researcher Bakary Traoré, questioned in a debate, this withdrawal proposal did not take into account 3 major facts:

– The plan to withdraw Barkhane was initiated in the context of a change of government in Mali with the coup d’état of May 2021 and the removal of the President of the transition Bah Ndaou and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. It should be noted that it was the government of Bah Ndaou that negotiated this process with the French government;

– The repercussion of Prime Minister Choguel Maiga’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021, announcing that France had abandoned its commitment in mid-air;

– The diversification of the military cooperation partnership that has resulted in the arrival of Russian instructors, particularly in the air support and intelligence sectors. This cooperation seems to have brought changes in the geopolitical situation in Mali.

These multiple questions raise the question of whether this presence and the relevance of Operation Barkhane should be called into question. François Hollande’s Timbuktu speech in 2013 went from enthusiasm to disappointment among Malians. This support from Malians eventually turned into anger and then hostility against the French authorities.

Kalilou Ouattara, vice-president of the Defense and Security Commission of the National Transitional Council of Mali (CNT), which serves as the national assembly, states bluntly: „From now on, Mali will deal bilaterally and multilaterally with all other states without intermediaries. It is not a question of denouncing the military cooperation treaty between the two countries. But it is a question of France giving up its title of intermediary which allowed it to speak on behalf of Mali.

Another major development was the statement made on 1 February 2022 in the National Assembly by French government spokesman Gabriel Atal, who said that Paris was studying the possible withdrawal of Barkhane in Mali. Several reactions were recorded, among which the French communist deputy Jean Paul le Coq said that despite their courage, French soldiers had failed in Mali.

Is this a huge failure and should we leave? Some do not hesitate to compare this failure to that of the Americans in Afghanistan.

For the journalist Grand Reporter Regis Le Sommier, interviewed in a recent debate, recognizes in these terms: „the purpose of Operation Serval in 2013 was to stop the progression of the columns of armed Tuareg groups towards the south of the country. As time went on, Barkhane’s mission in 2015 was expanded to cover Mauritania to Chad with 4,500 soldiers along with more than 10,000 MINUSMA soldiers. This is not much for a huge and rather vast area. There is a sense of failure in securing the Sahel. The problem is not so much the effectiveness of the coalition against the insurgent groups, but their presence, which has not allowed the Malian army and public services to return to the field. A large part of Malian territory has fallen into „fallow” status.

Some French officers admit to a feeling of failure in securing and pacifying the Sahel region.

A major point of contention between France and Mali is related to Task Force Takuba, created in March 2020, which is a coalition of European forces engaged in supporting the Malian army. On paper, its objective is to eventually replace the French operation Barkhane, which was created in 2014 following the French military intervention in January 2013 to halt the jihadist advance in Mali. But Takuba is more than just a strategic issue. The mission also represents Paris’ desire to involve its European partners in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.  For Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS). „France has involved its European partners and it must keep its partners informed of the decisions to be taken. In reality, Takuba relies on the confidence of member states in Paris and not in the Malian state. The Malian state has expressed reservations about the weak point of the commitment and intends to control this commitment. It is why the Malian state wants to limit this commitment and even deduct it by not seeing a strategic interest in it. With the political tension between the two countries, Mali could weaken France’s position in relation to its European partners. This is illustrated by the request to withdraw the Danish contingent in January 2022. Norway has decided not to send its contingent. France could accept the withdrawal of Barkhane in Mali and reposition it in Niger. This will allow France to maintain control over the Sahel.

The Russian paramilitary group Wagner has arrived in Mali. According to several sources in the Western press. It was the French government itself that announced this, issuing a statement signed by some fifteen European countries that are partners in the Sahel in the fight against terrorism. France and some European countries believe that this deployment is incompatible with the presence of the Barkhane force and its allies in the Sahel. European countries, like Mali’s ECOWAS neighbors, continue to pressure the Malian state to organize elections in 2022 very quickly. But the elections scheduled for next February 2022 seem difficult. Malian authorities are citing crucial security issues and reforms recommended by the December 2021 National Consultation for Refoundation.

The Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, Dimitri Polenski, told Security Council members that the alleged implementation of the Wagner paramilitary groups is the sole responsibility of the Malian government. He said that the group is not supported by the state. Mali is not an exception. There is governmental cooperation between Mali and Russia. This intervention by the Russian diplomat has a meaning

Some see it as a failure of diplomacy which has aggravated the crisis between France and Mali. Others, on the other hand, see a possible solution by objectively examining the reason for this crisis in terms of a win-win cooperation.  This crisis must not be allowed to continue in a sub-region increasingly marked by chronic instability.  There is an increase in the number of putsches that is snowballing in West Africa. This is the case in Guinea (2021) and Burkina Faso (2022).

In 2019 Russia and Mali concluded a military cooperation agreement signed by their respective defense ministers. In November 2021 visiting Moscow, the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs and his Russian counterpart discussed the main lines of military cooperation between the two countries.

The two countries are considering „major projects” on the basis of defense agreements to fight terrorism in Mali with military equipment and training of Malian military cadres. The U.S. Center for International Strategic Studies recently published a report on the arrival and activities of the Wagner group in Mali, accusing the Malian state of engaging in this way. Mali is suspected of providing $10 million per month to the Wagner group. This suspicion is based on information confirmed by Western sources.

For the Malian state, Russia’s objectives and actions in Mali consist of supporting the war against terrorism with substantial air support and intelligence.

This support could compensate for and eventually replace the mission of the Takuba Task Force, namely the fight against jihadism and Islamic extremism.

In response to the sanctions imposed on Mali by ECOWAS and WAEMU on January 9, 2022 at the extraordinary summit held in Accra, Ghana, the Malian people in all their diversity went out on Friday, January 14, 2022 to respond to the sanctions, according to various Malian sources, which are „unjust, unjustified, teleguided, and instructed by these two sub-regional institutions under the orders of France. When asked, a Malian civil society leader said: „this meeting will respond to the patriotic call to defend our sovereignty, our unity, indivisibility, our dignity.

In an article on „Geopolitical reconfigurations in Mali: what path is Mali taking? Caroline Roussy, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IRIS), recently stated that „the ECOWAS sanctions are heavy. They have galvanized the population into a sovereignist impulse. For Ornella Moderan et al in 2022, Sahel Program, Sahel Security Institute – Bamako stated in a recent article that: „The sanctions have aroused the anger of many Malians and awakened a patriotic feeling.”

Ambassador Chéaka Aboudou Touré, former special representative of the President of the ECOWAS Commission in Mali, did not fail to react on this issue: „The sidelining of Mali with ECOWAS sanctions in recent weeks has accelerated the hardening of the transitional government. If we read the ECOWAS Heads of State communiqué carefully and intelligently, we will not fail to read and reread the paragraph that says that the sanctions will be lifted gradually as soon as a consensual timetable is available and whose implementation would indicate progress. It would have been enough for the transitional government to submit to ECOWAS on January 10 a draft discussion on the priorities to be agreed upon and the new reasonable timeframe for returning to constitutional order with fundamental political and institutional reforms that would lead to the drafting of a breakthrough constitution laying the foundation for MALI Koura. Because, undoubtedly, it is the constitution that reflects the nature of the state and the mode of governance to be perfected over decades.

In view of the evolution of this crisis, one is tempted to question the theory of the revolutionary war developed by French strategists such as officers Pierre de Villiers, Charles Lacheroy, Gadula, Vincent Deporte, Christopher Gomard and especially Trinquier Roger, author of the book „La guerre moderne”. The French strategy of war is articulated on three (03) levels: strategic (destruction of the enemy), operational (multiple maneuvers) and tactical (management of combat and control of the axes of combat). These three (03) levels must be translated on the ground by coercion, stabilization and normalization. In short, if this vision and doctrinal approach to war is real, the Franco-Malian crisis should not drag on forever.

Boubacar BA


Center for Analysis on Governance and Security in the Sahel (CAGS) NGO Eveil

Bamako, Mali

February 2022