France in Mali: the End of the Fairytale

Whew, Mali. French air raids against Islamist positions in Mali began Thursday night, and the dust hasn’t settled yet. The news is changing fast, but, three things emerge from the haze. First, fierce fighting in the North and the East, with French forces in the lead, will open up a whole new set of dangers. With Islamist forces on the attack, foreign intervention was necessary, and many Malians at home and abroad welcomed it enthusiastically. Still, this remains a dangerous moment all around. Second, while the latest crisis might not break the political deadlock in Bamako, it has already changed the dynamic. And third, despite the sorry state of mediation efforts to date—both within West Africa and beyond—savvy diplomacy is needed now more than ever.

First, the fighting. The French have come in hard and fast, with fighter jets flying sorties from southern France over Algerian airspace, helicopters coming in from bases in Burkina Faso, and special forces and Legionnaires from Côte d’Ivoire, Chad, Burkina, and France. There are indeed French boots on the ground, fighting alongside what remains of the Malian army and troops from neighboring countries. So far it is the air assault that has garnered headlines, chasing the allied Islamist fighters from the positions they had taken last week, as well as from most of their Sahelian strongholds (as I write, no reports of fighting in or around Timbuktu). Konna, Douentza, Gao, Léré, Kidal… : ça chauffe.

Three things on that.

The intervention was necessary. The drama of the Islamist offensive should not be underestimated—a successful assault on Sevaré would have meant the loss of the only airstrip in Mali capable of handling heavy cargo planes, apart from that in Bamako. The fall of Sevaré would in turn have made any future military operation a nightmare for West African or other friendly forces, and it would have chased tens of thousands of civilians from their homes. These would only have been the most immediate effects. After Sevaré, nothing would have stopped an Islamist advance on Segu and Bamako, although it is unclear to me that the Islamists would have any strategic interest in investing Mali’s sprawling and densely populated capital. Still, many Bamakois feared an attack, and had one occurred the human costs would have been astronomical. Malians remember well that only a few months ago, insurgent forces ejected the army from northern Mali as if they were throwing a drunk from a bar. Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal fell in a weekend. The army collapsed, and it has only been weakened by internal fighting since. Any other story is a fairytale.

The enemy is formidable. French officials expressed some surprise at the level of sophistication of the Islamist forces—well-armed, well-trained and experienced. In an early wave of the French intervention, one helicopter took heavy fire from small arms, and a pilot was killed; another French soldier remains missing. Malian casualties were heavy, and likely remain under-reported. Sources from Mopti refer to dozens of deaths among the Malian ranks, and there will be other casualties to come. In short, last week’s Islamist offensive put paid to the argument that the Malian army itself was capable of defending the country from further attack and of liberating the territory over which it had lost control.

This is not a neo-colonial offensive. The argument that it is might be comfortable and familiar, but it is bogus and ill-informed. France intervened following a direct request for help from Mali’s interim President, Dioncounda Traore. Most Malians celebrated the arrival of French troops, as Bruce Whitehouse and Fabien Offner have demonstrated. Every Malian I’ve talked to agrees with that sentiment. The high stakes and the strength of the enemy help to explain why the French intervention was so popular in a country that is proud of its independence and why the French tricolor is being waved in Bamako. That would have been unimaginable even 6 months ago—and probably even last week. More important than how quickly it went up will be how quickly it comes down; this popularity could be ephemeral. One tweeter figures French President François Hollande is more popular than Barack Obama right now. I’d wait for Hollande’s face to go up on a few barbershops before making that call, but the comparison gives a sense of the relief many felt when French forces came to the rescue of the Malian army.

Not everyone is in favor of the intervention. Let’s count some of the more vocal opponents—Oumar Mariko, Mali’s perpetual gadfly; French ex-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who argues that it would be better to wait for the lions to lie down with the lambs; Paris-based Camerounian novelist Calixthe Beyala, plagiarist who argues that those Malians who would prefer not to live under a crude faux-Islamic vigilantism suffer from a plantation mentality; and some truly reprehensible protesters at the French embassy in London, who refuse to believe that most Malians are Muslims and don’t need religious instruction from Salafists. It’s hard to imagine a leakier ship of fools.

Second, fighting in the north has already changed the political dynamics on the ground in Bamako. The pro-junta movement MP-22 and Mariko, one of its most prominent leaders, opposed the French intervention just as they’ve violently opposed the possibility of ECOWAS help (this is the same crowd that nearly lynched the interim president last spring). Their position not only contrasts sharply with public sentiment, it also puts the movement at odds with Mali’s largest political coalition of the moment, the FDR, which had joined MP-22 in calling for a national conference in the days before the Islamist offensive. Since then the FDR has declared that now is not the time. What to make of this? First, as for MP-22, the dogs bark, but the caravan passes. Second and more importantly, although the question of the national conference might be bracketed for the moment, it will come back soon.

Three important changes have already occurred in Bamako:

First—and strikingly—even Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who led the coup in March and who still holds a great deal of political power, has welcomed the arrival of French troops. This is important: he had been forced to abandon the argument that his troops could go it alone. His fierce opposition to the idea that ECOWAS troops—still less French ones—would come to Mali’s aid had been only gradually been whittled down over the last several months, but it withered completely in the face of the recent Islamist offensive. Now, he has had to reverse course. When he made a lightning trip to Mopti-Sevaré over the weekend, it was hard to avoid the impression that he was struggling to remain relevant to both Kati (the garrison) and Kuluba (the presidential palace).

Second, virtually unremarked upon with all eyes in the East, several hundred French soldiers are deployed in Bamako to protect French citizens—of whom there are reportedly some 6,000 in Mali, of whom expatriates are a minority (press: please note). In the current emergency while the French troops are there ostensibly to protect their citizens and other civilians from terrorist attack, they implicitly secure the civilian government against its own military and against mobs like those ginned up by MP-22 and other radical associations. Meanwhile, soldiers from ECOWAS nations are arriving by the hundreds, although it is not yet clear what role they will play or where they will be stationed.

Third, their presence puts President Traore in a stronger position. In months past, both the junta and the anti-globalization Left have been allergic to the idea of any foreign troops in Bamako itself, and they have used violence and intimidation to secure their argument. Now Traore has proven strong enough both to ask for military aid and to receive it. Neither he nor his new Prime Minister Django Cissoko remains prisoner to the threats of the military or the radical opposition.

Still, especially given all that’s happened over the weekend, it is important to recall to that the political situation in Bamako remains unstable. Dioncounda Traore’s “interim” presidency is long past its constitutional sell-by date, and the rest of Mali’s political class—including its once-young angry Left—have hardly failed to notice that. Last week, before the offensive, a broad coalition formed to demand a “national consultation” (often bruited, sometimes scheduled, never held), Traore’s resignation (to be replaced by whom?), and the launching of a military campaign to retake the north (which, coincidentally, they got, even if it was not the Malian-led initiative they wanted). On Wednesday demonstrators burned tires, blocked traffic, and shut down two of the three bridges across the Niger. Some men in masks reportedly fired guns in the air and carjacked trucks and 4X4s. In response, Traore closed all schools in Bamako and in the garrison town of Kati. If he was attempting to keep the students from joining the fray, he failed. In addition to opening Traore up to a certain amount of Twitter ridicule (Twittercule?), Traore’s edict brought the students’ union out on the streets on Thursday. They broke into high schools, chasing out students who were sitting exams (bad luck: apparently the questions were easy). At the moment, schools are open again, but the President has declared a state of emergency. In short, Bamako remains uneasy, and the “sacred union” of the last few days can only be temporary.

Third, what all this suggests is that the Mali crisis—which long ago became the Sahel crisis—needs diplomatic intervention every bit as urgently as it needed military intervention.

To date, West African meditation efforts have been manipulated by Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré, whom ECOWAS has dubbed its mediator in the conflict. Few Malians take Compaoré as a legitimate interlocutor, and no one believes that he has the country’s interests at heart. After profiting from hostage-taking by negotiating ransoms with AQMI, Compaoré was until recently harboring dozens of MNLA fighters while attempting to manipulate ex-Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra by remote control. The military threw Diarra out of office in December, and a steady campaign to tarnish his image irreparably has accelerated since then, as he stands accused of diverting funds intended to aid the refugees to finance his political party. As for Compaoré’s guests from the MNLA, it’s said that he asked them to leave Burkina after they refused to keep a low profile. Several dozen have since turned up in Mauritania. In response to the latest round of skirmishing, which compelled the postponement of further negotiations in Ouagadougou, Compaoré’s lead diplomat Djibril Bassolé called on both sides to stop firing and hold their positions, as if this was a legitimate request to make of a national army defending its own territory and civilians, and as if he himself had anything better to offer than the prospect of further degrading the situation.

As for the UN, although after much discussion the Security Council has authorized the use of force by ECOWAS to re-establish Mali’s territorial integrity, the organization’s Secretary General seems to be running, as ever, on empty. Ban Ki-moon named Romano Prodi his emissary for the Sahelian crisis, leaving some to wonder if he had not got his dossiers shuffled. Prodi, a former Prime Minister of Italy, knows nothing of the Sahel and speaks none of its languages, only stumbling along in French. He is scarcely qualified for the job: in 2008, he led a UN-African Union panel on peacekeeping. More to the point, perhaps, he once helped to negotiate for the release of hostages held by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet the narrow lens of the hostage conundrum is precisely the wrong way to examine the Sahelian crisis (see: Nicolas Sarkozy), and this is not a peacekeeping scenario. At an event in Paris back in June, Manthia Diawara made the very good point that if Mali’s friends and neighbors take the country’s crisis seriously, they ought to be delegating some serious mediators to it. Compaoré and Bassolé, on behalf of ECOWAS, and Prodi, on the part of the UN, don’t make the grade. Could Presidents Yaya Boni of Benin or Macky Sall of Senegal, for instance, step in where Compaoré has failed? Africa is not short on diplomats, elders, and people of experience. President Traore—and Secretary-General Moon—should be writing to them as well.


The situation is changing very quickly, and much of what is written here may soon be outdated.

For lack of a better term, I use “Islamist” to refer to the alliance of AQMI, Ansar Dine, MUJAO, and other foreign movements. Other terms are inadequate (“terrorist”) or inaccurate. I reserve the terms rebels or insurgents for the host of anti-government forces, which includes the MNLA, a movement now at odds with its former allies Ansar Dine.

More on the medium / long-term stakes of foreign intervention in another post…



Gregory Mann

Gregory Mann is Professor of History at Columbia University. He is author of two books, ' Native Sons' (2006) and From Empires to NGOs in the West African Sahel (2015).

  1. Thanks so much for this, Greg. I’ve found all your blog posts on the unfolding situation very helpful.
    Has anyone had the occasion to discuss these events in the classroom, with undergraduate students- especially in the context of a course on African history? If so, can you recommend any good approaches or resources? As the semester approaches, I’m trying to think through how I will help my students make sense of this.

    1. Emily, the most obvious resources that I’m sure you’ve already accessed are Bruce Hall’s book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960, and perhaps Baz Lecocq’s, Disputed Desert Decolonization. Plus, all of these blog entries from Greg Mann, Bruce Whitehouse, and Peter Tinti. Having the students read Hall’s JAH article, then some more recent, well-chosen, blog entries might be a good start. It might also be fruitful to have them listen to Terry Gross’s interview with Adam Nossiter and then to read Whitehouse’s critique.

  2. Excellent article. It will be interesting to see if Sanogo can weather this storm. As usual, his policy position has been proven wrong. And with foreign boots on the ground, he can no longer hold Bamako hostage so easily (although imagine the diplomatic problem for France if he decided, say, to have Diango Cissoko or, worse, Dioncounda Traore, arrested). As always, though, he benefits from antipathy toward the interim government — something he himself helped orchestrate. (If you’re pulling strings from behind the scenes, better to have something of a faceless bureaucrat as PM than a famous ‘interplanetary navigator’.) Dioncounda, as you mentioned, is still a focal point of public frustration. Still, the French intervention looks dire for him, and I’m tempted to say there’s nothing Sanogo can do now to maintain his king’s court in Kati. Then again, it’s not the first time I’ve had such a thought and been mistaken…

  3. Brilliant overview and assessment of our situation here. As you points out, things are definitely moving fast though and tough to make any calls in terms of play-outs and outcomes. ‘Segu’ should ‘Segou” btw.

    1. Unless you’re going by the phonetic Bamanankan spelling… And who called the orthography police anyhow? Don’t y’all have more important things to worry about???

      1. Segu is the anglophone spelling; Ségou the francophone; I don’t have the font for the Bamanankan spelling

  4. Thanks a lot for this informative article. As this subject is new to me, I was unfamiliar with the abbreviations used. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it.

  5. Excellent piece Greg. One tiny detail, largely irrelevant to your analysis: the 80+ MNLA who arrived in Mauritania were not the same as those not lying low in Ouaga, but a small group holding out around Léré where Ansar Dine told them to pack up and leave in preparation for their offensive last week. @Emily C on articles for undergrads: may I recommend Bruce Whitehouse’s excellent article in Africa Spectrum 2-3/2012 on Sanogo’s apparel? I’m going to use that one myself next year.

    1. Thanks. Re. MNLA, source is‐‑des-‐‑femmes-‐‑de-‐‑wabaria-‐‑contre-‐‑les-‐‑islamistes/
      (scroll down).
      Le Reporteur (Burkina) and other sources reported the movement as well.

  6. An “Islamist” is technically a scientist concerned with the study of Islam (like “Orientalist”). Also, this title can be read by their supporters as a validation of their claim to be representatives of Islam and Muslims in general (which they are not). How about “Fundamentalist”?

    Otherwise really great article! Best,


    1. Since the comments are already full of pedantry, the word for specialists in the study of Islam is “Islamicist.”

  7. Thank you very much for this great work ! I really agree with the necessary diplomatic efforts to be made by ECOWAS and UN about the people they choose for mediation. The African Union is not moving with any concrete action but only issuing declarations and congratulating themselves…

  8. Greg, hold your horses. The test of the pudding is in the eating…lets see how the short and long term aftermath of the French intervention will be. As Mbembe said last year, not one foreign intervention in Africa was positive. The Islamists are not my kind, but what will this military ‘adventure’ bring?

  9. Very interesting that this writer seems to be ignorant of the game of realpolotik being played here. France will always see west and north africa as it’s provinces, propping up dictators and destroying nations that don’t toe the line. This invasion or intervention as the writer calls it was not necessary, when international powers intervene in internal country problems then you should always know that there is an agenda.

  10. I think one of the points that Greg is making is that while intervention is what many in Bamako are calling for, given the urgency of what is going on, the medium-term and long-term effects of what this actually means for Mali remain to be seen. This applies not only to security and daily life in Mali, but political formation and allegiances — the political leaders who will emerge, the parties that will be formed, the potential puppet strings and pressures that will come into play with so much foreign defense support. It is not necessarily the bombardment and intervention itself that is neocolonial, but Francafrique may ride again.

  11. Mr Mann, thank you for a well written and interesting overview of recent events in and around Mali. This said, I have some misgivings about the French intervention.

    Living in Bamako myself I am fully aware that many people in this country were in danger of further, grave deteriorations of their lives while many were already suffering from sever inhumane treatment. There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Bamakois and Malians feel relieved and happy that the French military have stopped the advance of the extremists.

    However, it is difficult to judge if this intervention is value for money until the bill has been presented or rather, until all benefits and costs (intended and collateral) have been calculated. Let’s wait and see; as you write yourself: The situation is changing very quickly, and much of what is written here may soon be outdated.

    As for the use of the word “islamist”, I think this is not a trivial point, as the French Muslim Council notes: Le CFCM s’élève contre l’usage abusive des termes “islamiste” et “islamisme” ( Perhaps the term “shariaist” would be appropriate as the movements have in common the intention to impose the sharia.

  12. You’ll notice that the article is not in French. The term ‘Islamist’ has a slightly different charge in that language. Still, it’s true that Salafists or jihadists/jihadis might be more appropriate. However, the former only gives the appearance of more precise–there are non-violent salafists. As for the latter is overused, often pejoratively (and of course, if you want to go deep enough, the jihad of the heart and the mind is not a violent one…)
    “Lesser jihadists” anyone?

  13. An excellent article, Greg. Thank you.
    Other than staying as informed as possible, is there anything we on the sidelines can do to help? (Yes, I realize that’s a bit of a naive question.) As a doctor with some experience in West Africa (and a bit of experience in Mali) is there anything I can do personally….there?

  14. I’m not even a doctor or a nurse but I wondered the same as Doc Levine. We have family there. I wonder what can be done by us that would be helpful?

  15. Islamism is unstoppable at this point in history. Maybe twenty or thirty years ago it may have been containable, back when they were skyjacking airliners on a regular schedule. Now, however, the need for allied action is as necessary as it was against the Axis powers. There will otherwise be an Islamic world power, sharia law imposed upon all. And you think diplomacy will be effective? Even Hitler managed to use diplomacy to his advantage. World War is imminent whenever the Islamic world secures enough material resources and, most critical, an Islamic bomb. The western world MUST respond as France has.

    1. Almost too silly to respond to….but I’ll try. First, does your signature indicate a mirror image of a salafist? Second, where are the Hitlers, Mussolinis and Tojos of the Salafist movement? Where is the Berlin or Tokyo? Ideas are fought by presenting a more believable — if not better — alternative.

      1. Your Tojo, Hitler, and Mussolini strawmen and simplistic solution are likewise too silly and smug, Doc, and yet I’ll also try to respond. Islamism is highly decentralized and egalitarian, and yet is unified by one powerful ideological concept against which more “believable ideas” are impotent: There is no God but Allah, Mohammed is his prophet, and the Q’uran is Allah’s sacred word. You may be a smart person (at least you smugly seem to think so), but stick to what you know.

      2. Abu Islam, you completely misread my post and its intent. Try again.
        There are many thoughts, ideas, and directions within Islam. The Salafist direction is not the only one. There are other more “believable” directions, insh’Allah.

  16. very nice, greg, I share the quasi-totality of your analisys. I would just like to add a remark, which I shared with my friends after reading your article: even if the (French) military campaign will be successful and even if, afterwards, the diplomats will manage to politically restabilize Mali (fulfill the 2 conditions seems utopic), the sad thing remains: Mali is yet another example of country whose identity is assured by the military before anything else (humanity, culture, society, politics), and even worse, by the military power which once colonized them. I’m personally afraid this will add to the already traumatized psyché of Malians.
    and then there is the ethnic tensions, and the tuareg claims…

  17. Per a friend who arrived Bamako yesterday, the perception seems to be that AQIM were headed for Bamako and would have been there by now if not for the French intervention. Whatever the result in the long run of the former colonialist power sticking their spoon back in, the immediate effect seems to be that they have saved Mali…so far.
    Now, if Mali can save Mali from itself remains to be seen.
    Perhaps the hostage-taking in Algeria will prompt them to get active!

    1. That AQIM – or rather, Ansar Dine (?) was heading for Bamako remains a speculation. Perhaps the occupation of the strategic airport and the millitary camp of Sévaré was all the jihadists were aiming at. But once again, this is speculation. The spectacular attack of jihadists in Algeria suggests they have many more ambitions then just controling the desert part of West Africa.

  18. Ce commentaire est la triste realité que le commun des mortels feint ne pas voir, je trouve en cela une vision de cassandre.

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