France in Africa: Fight against global terrorism or neo-colonialism?

In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval which sent more than 4000 troops into Mali

A sand storm in Mali. Image: Bradley Watson

A sand storm in Mali. Image: Bradley Watson

In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval which sent more than 4000 troops into Mali. The aim of this operation was to fight Islamic militants from the north of the country, who had threatened to take over. At the time, many supporters of this intervention had labelled it a success. Today however, western media has largely moved on without taking stock of the enduring consequences of the French led intervention in Mali.

France has always played a pivotal, and at times, a unilateral role in fighting Islamic fundamentalism and civil unrest in western Africa. This role is compounded by its sorry history of colonialism there, which is also its Achilles’ heel against those who oppose France’s involvement. It is increasingly apparent however that France has tremendous control over these former colonies. There is a whole body of literature on just how chained Francophone West African countries are to their former colonial master. France influences everything from their language, culture, identity, politics – right down to their pockets.

Most recently, France has intervened in the Cote d’Ivoire conflict to unseat the incumbent President whilst imposing their preferred candidate. They were involved in the Central African Republic to stabilise a ‘potential genocide’ and equally in Libya to overthrow a ‘dictator’. Yet, nowhere was their presence as heavily felt as in Mali.

UN peacekeeper from Benin patrols El Farouk hotel where the Mixed Commission is meeting in Bamako. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

UN peacekeeper from Benin patrols El Farouk hotel where the Mixed Commission is meeting in Bamako. Photo MINUSMA/Marco Dormino

In Mali, France’s rationale for military intervention was to prevent Islamisation after radical Islamic rebels with ties to AL Qaeda took control of northern Mali. There was fear that if they succeeded in taking control of the country, then Mali would become another failed state like Afghanistan. This followed the usurpation of authority in the capital, Bamako, from President Amadou Touré by Army Captain Sanogo, which left a power vacuum in its wake.

This sudden intervention was successful in meeting its short-term objectives and since the invasion, there have been several encouraging developments. Although still active, the Islamic group which threatened to turn Mali into a Caliphate, with consequent strict sharia laws on its population, is nowhere near as influential as it was 3 years ago. Mali has since participated in a democratic election, with Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected President.

Smaller scale flare-ups have occurred, most recently with 27 killed in a hostage-taking and attack by militants on a hotel in Bamako, but the chance of an Islamist statelet forming again are seen as next to none.

Bamako, Mali. Image: Lendog64

Bamako, Mali. Image: LenDog64

Critics argue that France’s intervention was nothing more than an illusion. An illusion which France wanted to maintain in order to preserve its hegemonic and strategic interest in the region. This is seen as being done to prevent competition for cheap resources, and to market for its low-cost goods from countries like China and the US who were already seen to be muscling in.

What is even more worrying about the French intervention in Mali is that it may provide a precedent to the legitimisation of ‘neo-interventionism’ in Africa under the guise of fighting global terrorism. This guise of fighting terrorism could be used to intervene in Africa and is an extremely alarming thought as it would legitimise fighting terrorism, as a justification for foreign intervention in a civil war of a sovereign state.

Operation Serval might have exhausted the snake, but it certainly did not kill it

It is imperative to note that when it comes to completely dealing with the Malian crisis, French foreign policy has failed to a large extent. The crisis in Mali was more of a domestic political problem rather than Jihadist terrorism. Operation Serval might have exhausted the snake, but it certainly did not kill it. In other words it might have halted the imminent collapse of Mali, but it did not fix any underlying structural problems that triggered the violence.

It failed to resolve the prior armed conflict between the Tuareg rebels and the government and so the social and economic inequalities between the two major regions still persist and northerners, especially the Tuareg, have long felt that development has favoured the south at their expense.

the jihadist problem was transferred from Mali to its neighbours

Moreover, the Tuareg are spread out within several West and North African states including Niger, Burkina Faso, Northern Nigeria and Algeria. Driving them out, rather than completely defeating them and addressing their grievances, means that the jihadist problem was transferred from Mali to its neighbours. This has strengthened groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.

In addition to all this, structural problems remain in the central government of Mali- nepotism, corruption, graft and many other bad habits. Many of the population, displaced by the disturbances, are still yet to be relocated and there is high insecurity, even if it does derive less from extremist threat. It is increasingly evident within all of this that France continues to play the role of godfather to Mali.

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