Dauda Yillah: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 February 2022:
France announced last week that it was pulling its troops with immediate effect out of Mali, where they were deployed in 2013 with the aim of helping to roll back the tide of jihadi insurgency that threatened to destabilize the entire Sahel region and beyond.
President Macron claimed that Mali’s military authorities had become a pain in the neck, a stumbling block, hampering his country’s and its European and West African partners’ joint counterterrorism operations. He added that France and its other contributing partners were now moving their operational base to Niger, focusing still on the Sahel region as a whole but also on the Gulf of Guinea.
Advocates of African independence and sovereignty may argue that the attitude of Mali’s military rulers serves France right: its military presence there and in its other former African colonies including Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon, smacks of neo-colonialism: its continuing neo-imperial posture in those black African countries it still sees as its legitimate, not to say, indisputable ‘pré-carré’, that is, its exclusive preserve or sphere of influence.
To such advocates, Mali’s military leaders are simply asserting their country’s independence and sovereignty and should as a result be applauded for quite rightly leaving their erstwhile French colonizers with no option but to pack their bags and leave.
These critics of France’s neo-imperial military interventionism may further state that that country’s decision to end its counterterrorism operations in Mali has a hidden, not to say cynical, political motive. As we are in a French presidential election year, President Macron, who is seeking a second term, may have acted out of sheer political opportunism.
His decision to withdraw French troops from Mali may therefore be no more than a short-term strategy, aimed at garnering support from those French voters opposed to what they see as their country’s protracted military engagements abroad. In short, in the eyes of critics of France’s neo-imperial posture, as soon as President Macron has his second term in the bag, he will work out a way of keeping Mali once again under French eyes.
However, if President Macron’s action has been prompted by electoral motives, why has he not taken his troops directly back home? As for the question of Mali’s assertion of its independence and sovereignty, that is all well and good. And yet is that really the case here?
The point is that Mali’s military strongmen seem rather keen on replacing one form of neo-imperial subjugation with another. While being all too ready to see the back of French military interventionism, they are equally all too ready to enlist the services of Russian fighters – mercenaries? – to fill the void left by the French and its contributing partners.
One cannot help wondering just how much the Russian state itself is involved in the new military operational arrangement Mali’s military authorities seem so desirous of putting in place. Indeed, what does Putin’s Russia stand to benefit from it all? A specifically post-Soviet Russia’s sphere of influence in West Africa? In that case, where then are Mali’s independence and sovereignty?
As it happens, Russian fighters are currently operating openly or covertly in such other African theatres of war as the Central African Republic and Libya. These operations may not be unconnected with a Kremlin strategic foreign policy objective, namely, making Russia a countervailing force in world affairs – a bulwark against NATO‘s geopolitical ambitions, agendas and actions. The current crisis in Ukraine comes readily to mind.
Colonel Assimi Goïta and his men wrested power from Mali’s civilian authorities on the grounds of misgovernance – those civilian authorities’ allegedly corrupt rule, in particular their mishandling of the war being waged against jihadism. But the truth is, rather than bringing that war to an end since taking power some eighteen months ago, they have presided over an ever-worsening situation, thus proving to be just as incapable of effective governance as the civilians they ousted in the first place.
It is clear that in kicking against France’s continued military presence in their country, Colonel Goïta and his team are simply trying to consolidate their own hold on power. After all, did they not recently ask for an extension of up to five years of the period of transition to democratic rule?
It is safe to assume that ECOWAS and the French political leadership strongly disapprove of what is to all intents and purposes an interminable period of transition. Naturally, ECOWAS, France and other European countries involved in the war against jihadism are not seen by the junta as people they can do business with.
Given its very dubious democratic credentials, Putin’s Russia is unlikely to hold Colonel Goïta and his men to account, much less pressure them into returning to their barracks. What further damage will the unity, cohesion and stability of Mali and its immediate Sahelian neighbourhood suffer as a result?
In the final analysis, never trust the men in kaki in our subregion, especially those of them that have tasted political power. Getting them to relinquish such power willingly is certainly never a given.
To ECOWAS and the African Union, I have only this to say: as bulldogs, it is time to grow real teeth and bite to restore our countries’ individual and collective dignity, stability and prosperity.