Crunch time nears as Mali’s junta defies France

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Demonstrators hold up a placard that reads, ‘Death to France and its allies’, during a mass demonstration against sanctions imposed on Mali and the junta on January 14. AFP

As relations between France and Mali sour rapidly, Paris is wondering whether it is time to stop providing military backup to a country run by a junta that has defied the international community.

France, which first deployed troops in the West African country nine years ago to fight a jihadi insurgency, has spent around $1 billion a year on the fight that has cost 52 French soldiers their lives.

More than 4,000 French forces are stationed in the Sahel region of west Africa, most of them in Mali, one of the world’s poorest nations.

Paris has already started reducing its presence, hoping to halve the contingent by the summer of 2023, and asked its European Union allies to provide more support.

It also said it would keep bases in Gao, Menaka and Gossi.

But that was before ties really deteriorated in the aftermath of a coup mounted by strongman Colonel Assimi Goita in August 2020 and a subsequent tightening of the military’s grip on the country.

Mali’s relations with its neighbours have also nosedived. The 15-country (ECOWAS) block has imposed sanctions on the country, a move backed by the France, the US and the EU.

France’s chief complaint is the regime’s refusal to organise early elections to bring in a civilian government.

Another is Mali’s alleged hiring of the Wagner group of mercenaries believed to be close to Russia’s leadership, a deployment French government ministers have called “unacceptable”, and “incompatible” with any continued French military presence.

But neither the pressure from the West, nor the sanctions imposed by the regional ECOWAS bloc, have had any visible effect on Mali’s new rulers.

The French government has said it will not take any quick decisions on pulling out as long as Wagner are not operating in the same areas as the French army.

Analysts say that may be a play for time by President Emmanuel Macron, who is anxious to avoid a collapse in relations while he fights for re-election at home, and while France holds the rotating six-monthly presidency of the European Union.

“We’re in Mali and we’re staying, but not under any conditions,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters at an EU foreign ministers meeting last week.

Some of France’s European partners have been more explicit, with German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht saying Berlin could transfer its military mission in Mali to another country. “The safety of our soldiers is my first priority,” she stressed.

So far, the Malian junta has not asked French and European troops to leave, but its messages are increasingly hostile, adding to growing anti-French sentiment in the country with Mali’s former colonial master.

Interim prime minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga at the weekend hinted at a possible re-examination of the defence agreements with France.

A French diplomatic source confirmed to AFP that there had indeed been a Malian approach “which we are examining”.

Bamako has already threatened to block military flights in and out of its airspace after accusing France of a “clear breach” of its airspace following the overflight of a French military jet.