Troop drawdown tops French minister’s Mali agenda

6 min

FRANCE 24 takes a look at what is on the agenda for French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius when he arrives in Mali on Friday, including the withdrawal of French troops and the kind of political solutions that could stabilise the country.


FRANCE 24’s Leela Jacinto takes a look at what challenges lie ahead for French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius when he heads to Mali on Friday.

What is Fabius looking to achieve during this visit?

Well, to get an idea of Fabius’ agenda, we have to understand what France wants out of Mali – and remember, Paris has all the bargaining chips in Bamako these days following the French military operation and liberation of northern Mali.

First of all, France wants to draw down its 4,000 troops posted under Operation Serval in Mali. The question course is – who’s going to step into the security vacuum?

Of course France will maintain a small contingent in Mali to conduct anti-terror operations in the remote northern mountainous region near the Algerian border.


Right now there are French troops fighting alongside an African-led force that’s known by the acronym AFISMA.

There is a plan, circulated by the UN, of AFISMA troops transferring control to a UN peacekeeping force – they’re talking about 11,000 soldiers. This plan has the backing of Paris and Washington.

What we’re most likely to see in the coming weeks is France and the US working together to table a draft UN-Security-Council resolution that will detail this peacekeeping mission. Now, we’ve had UN peacekeeping missions in the past and the one thing we’ve learned is that if there’s no peace on the ground, there’s no peace to be kept.

And for that, France wants to see a political solution to the Malian crisis. And that, to put it mildly, is a lot easier said than done.

What are the political solutions being considered?

Well, the French may have liberated northern Mali from jihadist control, but it’s still a very divided, multi-ethnic country.

We’re already seen cases of a backlash against the Tuareg community because many Malians blame the Tuareg and the group MNLA in particular for sparking the crisis by declaring the independence of the north, which of course slipped into jihadist control.

So we have the challenge of unifying the country. Last month – after some pushing by the international community - Mali’s transitional authorities set up a National Dialogue and Reconciliation Committee.

This is exactly what the French want to see, so expect Foreign Minister Fabius to make some noises about this committee being a major step toward political reconciliation.

But reconciliation does not happen magically with the formation of a committee.

There are critical issues of who’s going to participate in this committee – because Mali is no stranger to reconciliation committees and talks and accords, but it has never solved the crux of the problem.

The crucial issue is the MNLA. Mali’s transitional leaders have said they’re willing to engage with separatist MNLA figures, but there’s deep suspicion among many Malians about this group.

France also has to tread very carefully on this issue. It’s the former colonial power and many Malians – rightly or wrongly – suspect Paris of supporting the MNLA. They see MNLA spokespeople based in Paris, they see France giving in to MNLA’s demands – and we can talk about that later – and it’s possible that the goodwill generated by the French military operation in Mali could go sour if ordinary Malians perceive France to be favouring the MNLA – it’s a fine balance to be maintained.

But it’s critical to involve all parties in the reconciliation because in a matter of three months Mali will go to the polls in presidential and parliamentary elections – and that’s a HUGE challenge in a divided nation still facing insecurity, instability and don’t forget the logistical challenges of holding elections – the UN estimates around 400,000 people have been displaced by the conflict, voter registration has not begun and the elephant in the room is the military putschists.

Enter Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led the military coup that really sparked this crisis a year ago and nobody’s sure if he will renounce power and influence to a civilian government.

It must be said that a number of analysts and many Malians are not in favor of holding elections as early as July. They maintain that Mali is not ready and [that elections would] exacerbate the underlying political tensions and divisions that have been swept under the table during the military phase.

Why are France and the international community pushing to hold elections by July?

Well, there’s a common view among external stakeholders and the international community in such situations that elections should be held as soon as possible since it’s hoped they will end the conflict, allow the country to transition to constitutional order…with democratic governance in place, foreign aid can resume.

The interim Malian administration has already announced presidential and parliamentary elections in July. The first round of the presidential vote is set for July 7; parliamentary elections are set to take place July 21. And if there’s a presidential run-off, that would be after the parliamentary elections.

The good news is, Mali’s transitional leaders have already stated that they will not run in the July elections – this has been welcomed by France and the international community.

But as I said, there are enormous hurdles to be overcome – not the least in the northern areas like Kidal.

We saw the exclusive France 24 report from Kidal – and as our reporters suggested, Kidal presents plenty of challenges for Malian authorities…

Well, this comes back to the MNLA - or Azawad as the group is referred to. Azawad of course refers to a Tuareg homeland that has long been a dream – but never a reality - of Tuareg separatists.

The fact that the MNLA is called “Azawad” is a very telling slip and as we saw in our report from Kidal, it’s still part of the discourse and many Malians find that very worrying.

Non-Tuareg Malians are also deeply suspicious of France’s relations with the MNLA. They are keenly aware that when France liberated the northern Malian city of Kidal which the MNLA controlled the French military agreed to the MNLA’s demands that they would surrender to the French military and not the Malian army, their traditional foe.

Since the French intervention, the MNLA has basically set up its own administration in Kidal, there’s a local MNLA governor and the Malian army is not in the city.

So, it’s going to be interesting to see how France is going to maneuver this very sensitive aspect of any reconciliation mission in Mali because France – and this is another thing we’re likely to hear during Fabius’ visit – is pushing for elections in Mali in July.


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