Written by Sarah Osei-Bonsu, Staff Writer
On 5th April 2018, thirty Islamic State (IS )militants were reported killed in clashes with the French army in Mali. This followed intelligence of an armed terrorist group of an estimated sixty individuals positioned three kilometers north of the Nigerian border. This area has been a suspected haven of the IS and the French operation was allegedly an intervention to chase out these jihadist offshoots. The successful operation was not an isolated operation; in recent years the French army has expanded its military presence in Africa stating the primary objective to be fighting radical Islam. There are currently about 4,000 French troops stationed in Mali alone, and although their stated intentions might be good, their actions say otherwise.
The increase in terrorist attacks in Europe has generated a lot of public awareness and concern about radical Islamic terrorism manifested in Jihadist groups such as the IS. With France being one of the countries hard hit by terrorism – with the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan attacks in 2015 – it has also become one of the most decisive players in fighting radical Islam at its core, unafraid of using military action to do so, notably in the Sahel region of Africa. Under this pretense, France has led several military operations in the countries where it has military bases on the continent. It established Operation Barkhane in Mali in 2012 as a reaction to a Jihadist insurgency, but this has grown into a permanent counter-terrorism effort across Mali and several of its neighboring countries. This means that since 2012 there has consistently been French military action in the region. These kinds of operations are largely successful at fighting terrorism, however, even though they are seemingly for altruistic reasons, this French military presence has a darker connotation of a colonialist legacy and foreign disruption in Africa.
France’s colonial presence in Africa dates back to the sixteenth century. French imperialism and colonialism were very severe for those living in its African territories both in hard power and in soft power. Colonization ended in most of Africa in the mid-20th century, and decolonization in most Francophone countries had an understandably anti-France tone. Despite this, France maintained a military presence in many of these states, and continued to intervene in African states over the years following decolonization, with their military presence intensifying recently. This increased presence is often seen as a form of peace-keeping in that it claims to serve the interests of the local people by protecting them against Islamist groups. However, this is not wholly the case. Many locals support these militants as legitimate political groups because they often represent cultural minorities and oppose the (French-backed) government. At the same time, these operations are killing Malian civilians. French writer Raphael Granvaud, spokesman for the NGO Survie, says “It is clear that France’s military operations in Africa led to civilian casualties […] The French army is doing everything it takes to hide civilian casualties, this is why we do not know the exact number of civilian casualties caused by the military operations by France.” And Granvaud claims these are not the only crimes France covered up during its military presence in Mali, alleging that many cases of sexual and physical assault by French soldiers have also gone unreported. French claims of blamelessness have gone unchallenged by both the media and major international organizations.
As problematic as these allegations are, France’s military presence is supported by the United Nations and a wide network of bilateral military and defense treaties with African countries. It should be noted that these were initially given in isolated crises, for instance after Mali’s Tuareg rebellion in 2012. Six years later, it seems France has overstayed its welcome. In the name of fighting terrorism, French troops have remained in Mali and through continued military operations France is gaining (or shall I say regaining) political influence. This isn’t counter-terrorism, it’s neo-colonialism.
France does not have the leverage that it had on Mali in colonial times and the immediate post-colonial period, but it wants to remain a major player in the region. Counter-terrorism gives France a geostrategic stake in Mali once again. While there is a genuine interest on France’s part to fight terrorism in its military missions in Mali and neighboring African countries, this form of intervention coupled with the Franco-African history is worrying. Despite the increased military presence being supported by politics of ethics and diplomacy, these kinds of intrusions in the form of long-term ‘aid’ are damaging to Mali and the continent as a whole.
The French presence is actually destabilizing the region, by making local governments more dependent on their military support. While France’s counter-terrorism operations in the north of the country were in the best interests of the current regime, the government is suffering now as a result of it. Due to the fact that France is undertaking operations across the Sahel region, Mali is now feeling the spillover effects of insecurity, such as refugee flows. In Mali there have already been makers of destabilization like escalating levels of corruption, unemployment and low living standards. Incoming refugee populations place additional pressure on these infrastructures and systems in Mali, which are already deplorably weak. Many Malians are themselves being externally displaced because of these conditions, according to the UNHCR, the number of Malian refugees peaked to 145,000 people in 2017. And in 2018, Mali is the 27th most fragile state in the world. This insecurity keeps France in a powerful position in Mali and Africa. These states are becoming increasingly unstable while France progressively increases its presence; this looks more like occupation and re-conquest than neutral intervention.
What French intervention in Africa demonstrates is that good political intentions can often produce adverse effects. The bigger issue is about more than French military action in Mali; it’s how Africa has been, and continues to be, the playground for the West. African lives are lost as a result of this and the media doesn’t talk about it because it falls within the bigger picture of the West’s vendetta against Islam. Africa offers a spectacle for the moral endeavors of the West but we don’t stop to look at the long-term consequences of such intervention, and refuse to acknowledge that Africa is still being subjugated because of it. The problem is not that France has returned to upset the power balance in former colonies, but that it never left. This perpetual presence of the former colonizer means decolonization never completely removed the top-down power structures, and that France still has the power to do whatever it wants in Africa.