The role of France in Mali’s complex political, economic and humanitarian situation

Article by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt


The political, economic and humanitarian situation in Mali is very complex. After a second military coup in less than a year, Mali’s political instability has further increased. In reaction, France first threatened to withdraw troops if “political instability leads to greater Islamist radicalism” and then implemented the threat by temporally suspending French troops from Malian territory (BBC, 2021; Vincent & le Cam, 2021). The military coup further isolated the landlocked state as international organisations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced to suspend the country (Berry, 2021). In this article, I will analyse the political, economic and humanitarian situation and elucidate the role of the international community in the conflict resolution.

Political background

In 1960, Mali became independent from France. The new socialist one-party state had a rough start suffering from “droughts, rebellions, a coup and 23 years of military dictatorship until democratic elections in 1992” (BBC, 2021). The military coup in 2012 significantly worsened the situation as Islamist militias started occupying Northern Malian towns (BBC, 2021). After the military coup Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta won presidential elections in 2013 and 2018 (Burke, 2020). According to BBC (2021), President Keïta “proved unable to unify the country”. People increasingly protested against “government incompetence, endemic corruption and a deteriorating economy” (Burke, 2020). In August 2020, Keïta was overthrown in the context of a military coup (BBC, 2021). ECOWAS then helped to introduce a transition government appointing a new civilian President, Bah Ndaw, and a new Prime minister, Moctar Ouane (World Bank, 2021).

Recent political development

Assimi Goita, leader of Mali’s most recent military coup, fired and detained President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane causing a storm of protest from the international community (Deutsche Welle, 2021). Last week, Mali’s constitutional court approved Goita’s position as new interim president (Deutsche Welle, 2021). Goita justified the coup by saying that the former government has shown a “demonstrable intent to sabotage the transition” (Deutsche Welle, 2021). Furthermore, he promised to hold elections next year, which, however, remains to be seen (Al Jazeera, 2021).

Factors increasing political instability

An important factor increasing the political instability in Mali is the lack of territorial control and the spread of Islamist militias in the North and Centre of the country. The state has difficulties to ensure access to basic services as health care, education, water and electricity in many parts of the country (Klatt, 2020). The impoverished population is getting more and more vulnerable to the influence of Islamist militias. Islamist rebels successfully recruit people for their purpose promising an income with drug and arms trafficking (Klatt, 2020).

Climate change further aggravates the situation (Klatt, 2020; Römer, 2021). Droughts increasingly pose an important threat to food security. They impede the population’s food supply, take away people’s income and thus increase the country’s conflict potential (Römer, 2021). A large part of the population still depends on agriculture and livestock farming making climate change a serious threat (Römer, 2021). The fight for resources increases success chances of Islamist militias as people suffering from consequences of droughts are more vulnerable to recruitment (Römer, 2021). The violence of Islamist militias not only threatens Mali, but also Mali’s neighbours. After an attack on Nigerien villages in January 2021, the Nigerien government sent troops to the Malian border region (Der Spiegel, 2021).

Economic and humanitarian situation

The economic and humanitarian situation suffers from the political instability. According to World Bank (2021), the pandemic and the socio-political crisis have led to an economic recession. Unemployment and increasing prices for food lead to frustration amongst the population further increasing political instability (Klatt, 2020). Mali is a landlocked country (a country without access to the sea) which is economically “undiversified and vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations“ (World Bank, 2021). This, in turn makes the country more vulnerable for political conflict creating a vicious circle which is difficult to escape.

Role of France

One year after the military coup in 2012, France started to intervene militarily in Mali to assist Malian troops in the fight against Islamist militias (BBC, 2021). The French intervention was initiated “at the request of the government in Bamako [capital city of Mali] and with the UN’s blessing” (Baig, 2013). Francois Hollande, French President at the time, justified the choice to militarily intervene in the name of the fight against Islamist terror. The intervention was thus framed as counter-terrorist measure (Ganley, 2020). Since then, the French were massively involved in the fight against Islamist rebels in Mali. Until recently, there have been 5000 French soldiers in the Northern region of Mali.

The perception of French troops shifted over the course of time. As already mentioned, French troops started the intervention on request of the Malian government. At first, they were successful at helping Mali to regain the territory occupied by Islamist rebels (BBC, 2021). However, over time, their ability to stop Islamist militias decreased (Wiegel, 2021). In the long run, the situation did not improve, on the contrary, political instability increased and Islamist militias got more and more influential (Schaap, 2020; Wiegel, 2021). In the last months, the French have increasingly been perceived as “occupiers with a hidden imperialist agenda” (Ganley, 2020). People even protested on the streets against French troops. According to Ganley (2020), they “carried signs decrying the former colonizer”. 

The role of international organizations

As response to the military coup, the African Union and ECOWAS suspended Mali (Berry, 2021). Furthermore, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres increased pressure on Goita calling for the release of (former) President, Bah Ndaw, and (former) Prime minister, Moctar Ouane (BBC, 2021). The UK demanded the same and condemned the military coup (Deutsche Welle, 2021). In the context of MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), not only French troops were in Mali, but also troops from other UN-members as Germany. Despite the French troop withdrawal, Germany announced keep supporting Mali (Der Spiegel, 2021).

In conclusion, the political, economic and humanitarian worsened as a result of the military coups Mali experienced. The effect of the international pressure and the French troop withdrawal, however, remains to be seen.

person in camo attire near other people at daytime

Photo by Clovis Wood Photography published on Unsplash


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