Sahel: french african tensions.

Dear friends,

With Security Council ongoing visit to Mali with Keynia its current chair and Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere, of France, there are no alternative to optimism.

The present visit comes at an interesting though turbulent time of multiple tensions.

Ahmedou Ould Abdallah

President of Centre4s

Relations between France and Mali, on the one hand, and between France, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia on the other hand, are going through an area of ​​high turbulence. This weakening is related to the expected strengthening of the military cooperation between Mali and Russia, then to the lukewarm collaboration with Paris of the three Maghreb countries facing an expulsion of their nationals convicted by justice in France. Moreover, Algeria and France are in a disputed understanding of the memorial question or the interpretation of their common history.

Since the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) on August 18, 2020, relations between France and Mali have been strained. Colonel Assimi Goïta worsened this climate by perpetrating a second coup in May 2021, proclaiming himself President of the Transition. Riding on the anti-French sentiments of his compatriots, engendered by « the failure of Operation Barkhane », he set out to strengthen military cooperation between his country and the Russian Federation.

This strategic reorientation involves recourse to the services of Russian paramilitaries from the Wagner Group, in the fields of equipment and training of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA). Already unhappy with the intensification of military ties between the Central African Republic and this same Russia, France intends, this time, to nip in the bud this strong military involvement of Vladimir Putin in its former colonies. In fact, for Paris, the arrival of these « mercenaries » would be « incompatible » with the maintenance of the French presence in Mali.

Apparently, Prime Minister Choguel Maiga is responsible for crossing swords with France on this issue which, moreover, worries member countries of the G5 Sahel, the international community, as well as ECOWAS. And this former student in the Soviet Union, self-proclaimed heir to General Moussa Traoré, the author of the first coup d’état in his country, is coming strong: « France abandoned us in full flight … », he denounced, on the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, in New York, on September 25. That was a clear insinuation to the end of Operation Barkhane. Outbursts of anger from the French Minister of the Armed Forces and then from President Emmanuel Macron followed. « These words are unacceptable », declared the French president. In his anger, he questions the legitimacy of the Malian government, resulting from a double coup. The bidding escalated until the Prime Minister accuses France of having created a terrorist enclave and then trained terrorists in northern Mali. Both sides would forget that, presently, the main preoccupation is the fight against insecurity. It is already rumored that terrorist groups, fearing the possible arrival of Wagner’s elements, are withdrawing to neighboring Burkina Faso. To scare them, will in turn, the latter country has to call on the same Russian paramilitaries?

The dialogue between Paris and Bamako, on the Wagner dossier, seems so difficult that Emmanuel Macron comes to wish to deal with other interlocutors in Mali. To do that, he invited the Transitional regime to keep its commitments, by organizing general elections, in February 2022.

Mali ..a sovereign state.

In this war of words, the Malian authorities can count on the support of Algeria for whom « Mali is a sovereign state ». Indeed, Algiers itself feels offended by Paris, on a double level. It all started on September 28th. To protest against Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia refusal to issue the consular passes, necessary for the expulsion of their nationals, in delicacy with French justice, to their countries of origin, France then announced the following visas reductions to their citizens: 50% less for the first two and 30% for the third. The figures published in support to retaliation measures are notable. France Ministry of Interior confirmed that between January and July 2021, Algeria has delivered only 31 consular laissez-passer for 7,731 ‘’Obligations to leave French territory (OQTF)’’ pronounced by the courts. Of these 31 confirmed cases, only 22 evictions could be carried out, that is an execution rate of 0.2%! Algiers takes offense and speaks of a “disproportionate” and “unfortunate” decision. Then, in early October, Emmanuel Macron met Harkis, those Algerians who, having fought alongside the French army during Algeria liberation war, were then evacuated to France. During an official visit to France, the late Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika called them « Collabos » (allies of the country enemy).

In the current France pre-electoral context, the candidate president is loose, according to statements reported by the newspaper Le Monde on October 02. Characterizing the Algerian regime as a « politico-military system », he accuses it of maintaining a « memorial rent », by serving its people an « official history » which « is not based on truths ». President Macron also said: “The construction of Algeria as a nation is a phenomenon to watch. Was there an Algerian nation before French colonization? That’s the question (…) There were previous colonization”. It seems that these latest assertions particularly offended the Algerian authorities, who, on the same day, decided to immediately recall their Algerian ambassador to France. It may be recalled that the then candidate Macron, in February 2017, said in Algiers: « Yes, colonization is a crime against humanity », drawing the anger in part of the French electorate. The candidate flirted with the 20,000 French citizen registered at the French consulate in Algiers, as well as with the 1.5 million dual nationals, French – Algerian, present on French soil and then millions of French people with links to Algeria.

And the Montpellier summit.

Subsequent to its response, Algiers, also a Russia’s military partner banned French military planes of the anti-jihadist operation Barkhane, from flying over its territory without official notification. Irritated by Macron’s latest blunder, the organization of the France – Africa summit, October 7 to 9 in Montpellier. African heads of state were jubilant. The summit brought together young Africans from civil society organizations, the private sector, the world of culture and politics, numbering three thousand, to debate about the overhaul of the relationship between France and the continent. Their selection will be made on the discretionary basis of the Presidency of the French Republic, and with differentiated support: plane ticket and breakfast for some, full board including per diems for others. Symbolically, in many African contexts, when a « leader » stoops to discuss with « children » he devalues ​​himself, due, among other things, to the discourse they adopt.

On the occasion of this new format summit, there was no shortage of language disrespect with regard to President Macron. Disrespectful remarks about African heads of state, « bypassed », were made by Macron as well as by « young people ». Finally, the results maybe slim. While the French president has treated certain heads of state as “old people” and “out-of-date”, the conference has made proposals qualified in identical terms, by the French researcher, Jean-François Bayart: the construction of a « House of African Worlds and Diasporas », the establishment of an Innovation Fund for Democracy with a budget of 30 million euros, the promise of another fund to support the reception of ‘exhibitions and circulation of African works …

Algeria France: always strained relations.

The present diplomatic tension between France and Mali is likely to continue. The military in power in Bamako went too far in the Wagner dossier to reverse their position. Russia has already delivered to them one hundred tons of equipment as well as two combat helicopters of the Mi-171 type on September 30. Malian public opinion is prepared for the arrival of the Russian paramilitaries, with however the exception of the Coordination of Movements of Azawad. The former independence rebellion believes that Wagner’s elements would cause too many civilian deaths.

Difficulties are also foreseeable between Mali and ECOWAS, the African Union and other partners including also France because of a possible postponement of the general elections, initially set for February 2022. Indeed, the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdoulaye Diop, suggested during a visit in Rabat, Morocco, on October 11, that the presidential and legislative elections of February 2022 could not be held, « if the security situation is not taken care of ». According to him, « a security challenge has come with the disengagement of the French partner which risks creating a security vacuum that the Malian state must fill ». Internally, the junta is already facing an outcry from political actors against the Transitional regime because of this delaying of the Transition and also due to the lack of progress in the fight against Insecurity.

The Transition authorities have just appointed the High Islamic Council to negotiate with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and with all the jihadist leaders. Terrorists control 80% of Malian territory. Will they accept these « negotiations »? Two hundred and four (204) jihadist prisoners were released against three Western hostages and the leader of the Malian opposition in early October 2020. A ransom, estimated at fifteen million Euros, or nearly ten (10) billion FCFA, is said to also have been paid. The Transitional government had been paid in ‘’monkey money’’ since, as soon as the hostages were enlarged, the same jihadists had taken up arms again. Not to mention that this reorientation constitutes another casus belli between Mali and its partners, and first and foremost France. That is also true of Operation Tabuka, made up of Special Forces units from the European Union.

Tension between France and Algeria has a great career ahead of it. By his words, Emmanuel Macron transformed his country into a consensual foil in Algeria. A cord on which the regime of President Abdelmadjid Tebboune could pull, at will, in order to rally his compatriots around the government. Media report partial funding by Algiers (between 50 and 70%) of the deployment of Wagner in Mali, as if to better disavow France on this delicate issue.

In the coming months, Franco-Algerian and Franco-Malian diplomatic relations risk being summed up in this slogan: « From tension to high tension’’!

André Marie Pouya

Journaliste et analyste