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Thursday, April 18, 2024


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Mali : Barkhane, the French force, between the hammer and the anvil

“Liberator” for the populations, in 2013 with the Serval force, today the French army is more than ever contested in Mali where it is regularly accused of “contributing to the destabilization of the Sahel”.

Sit-ins in Bamako to denounce “its blurred role in the Malian conflict”. Demonstrations in Kidal, in the north where it conducts anti-terrorist operations, to demand its departure. The Barkhane force is between the hammer and the anvil.

In the city of Kidal, slogans hostile to the French force skirts walls: “It is France the terrorists … Barkhane thief … France flouts human rights … Enough is enough, Macron your army is terrorizing us …”. And its patrol vehicles are now the target of stone throws inside the city. It all began two weeks ago when the French military conducted a heavy search at Mahamadou Ag Rhissa’s house, a wealthy businessman from the city who was very involved, according to local sources, in transporting migrants and smuggling fuel. He was arrested along with six other people, and three vehicles were burned during the assault.

Demonstrations followed and the camp that houses Barkhane has even been the subject of “intense stone throws”, according to local sources. The French force reportedly used tear gas to disperse the crowd. “What makes people disgruntled is not the arrest of Mohamed, but the way things happened. We prefer to be killed than to be humiliated publicly”, says a local source. “Anti-terrorist operations and raids are rarely without violence. The people of Kidal are legitimately angry”, says Kamissa Camara, a researcher at Harvard University and Founder of the Sahel Strategic Forum.

“The demonstrations in Kidal are not spontaneous”

In the Kidal region, if the French army relied on ex-rebels of the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) to track down terrorists, it has never really succeeded in gaining the support of populations. Especially after the death, in late November 2016, of a child of twelve years following air strikes in the Adrar des Ifoghas.
In February 2017, France promised to make public the results of the investigation into the incident. But it never really officially recognized its responsibility. “We’re fed up. Their planes make our animals flee without which we can’t live. And when you go looking for them away from the city, you are at risk of being taken for terrorists”, a resident of the Abeibara circle told in 2016.
Several observers agree that the recent hostilities with regard to the French force in the Adrar would be “manipulated” and not “spontaneous”. This is the case of Moussa Mara, the former Prime Minister of Mali: “The demonstrations of the populations, notably in Kidal, are not necessarily spontaneous. Dark forces in the north have an interest in Barkhane not being there”.
Remarks that remind the demonstration “against foreign forces” in April 2016, still in the town of Kidal after Barkhane arrested some alleged terrorists. At the time, HCUA vehicles, a movement close to Iyad Ag Ghaly, were seen carrying demonstrators near the Kidal airport, which had been ransacked by the crowd.
According to a source that has requested anonymity, the recent demonstrations will also be the work of Cheick Ag Awissa’s widow, Zeina Wallet Illady. This military leader of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) was killed in the explosion of his car on Saturday, October 8, after leaving a meeting with the UN mission in Kidal.
Post-colonial presence
However, in the country, resentment against the French force is general. And that, since the day after Operation Serval, where France was accused of blocking Kidal’s access to the Malian armed forces after the war of conquest in other parts of northern Mali, and establishing MNLA there, which the dominant opinion considers to be the craftsman of all the evils of the country and who also sowed terror in Gao and Timbuktu during the first hours of the jihadist occupation.
“As far as Bamako is concerned, a majority feeling of France’s ambiguity about certain subjects is present among the Malians, but they also know that French forces are unavoidable”, adds Moussa Mara.
Andrew Lebovich, an American researcher and a specialist of the Sahel, situates the problem elsewhere. “There is always a great deal of confusion about Barkhane’s status and operations, partly because it is sometimes done without explanation, which is fairly normal for military operations”, he said. But I think it’s mainly because of mistrust of France, which stems from its post-colonial presence in the Sahel”.

At the end of the term of former French President François Hollande, 4 000 French soldiers were still present in the Sahel. Officially, this figure has not decreased. This strong presence, under the official motive of the fight against terrorism, is nevertheless badly perceived by the ordinary citizen.

Thus, in August and September, sit-ins took place before the French Embassy at the initiative of the “On a tout compris, Wati Sera”, to “defend Mali against all forms of secessionist inclinations fomented and supported by foreign forces with as leader France”, reads the press release dated September 13. Is the Barkhan force between the anvil of the populations of the north and the hammer of those of the south, especially of Bamako?

“It is Mali which lies between the hammer and the anvil, between Barkhane, thus France, and the danger of being swallowed by pseudo-jihadists and traffickers of narcotics if the international forces left the Sahel-Saharan zone”, says a French security source. The question of whether a departure of Barkhane is to be expected, calls for other questions: is Mali strong enough to resist the djihadists and the other bandits? Why should the G5 Sahel force, which is searching for financing and therefore will take time to be operational on the ground, be better able to defend the Sahel-Saharan territory?

“I believe that if the G5 Sahel force could replace Barkhane, Macron would withdraw his troops because any intervention abroad costs very dear to the French budget. If the purpose of “external” operations is to get hold of the subsoil, there are other economic means to do so, which would be “all benefits” for French multinationals without digging up the national budget”, explains the other source, who also wonders if Idriss Déby would welcome Barkhane’s departure while headquartered in N’Djamena and profiting politically and financially. “And the last thing, but which is a powerful argument: how can we claim to be able to overcome the jihadism in the Sahel-Saharan zone, whereas in the West the governments are incapable of overcoming it in their own territories, it concluded.

Sidi Ahmed S. & Moussa Touré