Chad and Mali, two African nations located in the Sahel region which had once been colonised by France, have recently been witness to political unrest and unconstitutional coups. The region has been a hotbed of political violence for which the officer corps, trained and equipped by the French, are being held responsible. The Sahel region is not a stranger to violence, which has been a constant feature for the past three decades. The violent tendencies saw an upsurge following the regime change in Libya in 2012, which was backed by the West. Radical Islamic elements have made their presence felt since then. France played an instrumental role in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi from Libya and had even convinced the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) to play an active part in it. Following Gaddafi’s demise, the situation in the already volatile region deteriorated further.
The incidents of violence have increased in the past few months, with the latest deadly attack taking place in the first week of June.160 innocent villagers were murdered by the Islamic radicals in Burkina Faso. The area is located at the country’s borders with Niger. The long-running conflict has compelled more than a million people to flee their homes as their lives and livelihoods are increasingly coming under attack from groups who owe their allegiance to extremist Islamic groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
THE CASE OF MALI
The fall of Gaddafi and the ensuing Libyan crisis ensured that the large number of arms acquired during the tenure of the Gaddafi government fell into wrong hands, including of those who were allies of Al Qaeda and IS. Mali was the host to the first big crisis. Mali got its independence from French colonization in 1960. The polity of the country has largely been dominated by the stronger southern ethnic groups. The inhabitants of the north, who are in minority, always felt alienated from the rest of the country. Back in 2013, the assault of the northern rebels on south was intervened by the French military. Otherwise Bamako, the capital of Mali, and other important southern cities might have fallen to the rebels. The Tuareg leadership later gave way to radical Islamic militants. Recently, the Tuareg separatists attacked the northern regions of the country and occupied places of historical importance like Timbaktu and Gao. They were aided by fellow tribesmen and militants owing allegiance to Islamic radical groups. The French military launched a counteroffensive which compelled the Islamist groups to flee from the northern cities. However, they still enjoy the support of the local populace in the region. To counter the increasing threat of the jihadis, France stationed more than 5,000 soldiers in Mali under “Operation Barkhane”.
Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania have also been witness to rise of jehadi activities after the end of the Gaddafi regime, forcing France to deploy its military there too. The Mali government had signed a peace agreement with the northern rebels in 2015. Following that event, the United Nations (UN) has stationed 14,000 peacekeeping troops in the nation called the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). It was entrusted with the responsibility of implementing the agreement and stabilising the north. However, the UN troops are not allowed to intervene in case violence erupts. This has resulted in the continuation of attacks on the troops, with March 2021 seeing three UN peacekeepers getting killed.
The long-running conflict has seen almost a million people being forced to flee their homes and over 6,000 losing their lives. The French military has also lost more than 50 soldiers. The Islamist forces have grown popular even in the central cities as of late and have been engaged in targeting both the civilians and the security forces. These groups have taken advantage of the volatile political situation in the country caused by poor governance of the civilian government and frequent coups engineered by the military. The French forces have only been able to prevent a full-scale war in the country.
Even though majority of the Malian civilians were initially welcoming of the French army, the continuous presence of the military on Mali’s soil has resulted in severe resentment among the people. The French army had been instrumental in throwing the rebels out of the territories they occupied. However, the rebels have now regrouped and are becoming stronger day by day with the Malian politicians and civil society openly expressing their desire to see the French leave as they believe that the stationing of troops is “neo-colonial” in nature. The Malian people are also unhappy with the fact that France has not accepted to take responsibility for the killing of Malian civilians. As per a recent UN report, the French military was behind the killing of 19 people attending a wedding ceremony in a remote part of Mali, the first French military atrocity in Mali. The French military believed that those people had militant links.
However, the French have not received any sort of criticism from the military-dominated Mali government that has been in power since last year. The US officials have also realised the threat of jehadi forces emanating from Africa and have decided to increase their footprints in the Sahel region. The US military has a small outpost in Gao, with the Pentagon’s AFROCOM (US Africa Command) being increasingly involved in counterterrorism efforts.
The latest coup in Mali took place on May 25, exposing the fact that the military was all powerful in the polity. This marked the second time that a civilian led-government was overthrown by the military in the last nine months. Colonel Assimi Goita staged a military coup against the elected government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in the midst of anti-government protests that had erupted in mid-2020. The French government, African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) forced the creation of a transitional government which would include the mutinous segments of the army, with new Presidential and legislative elections being scheduled for next year. The Vice President’s post was given to Goita in the interim government. The Cabinet reshuffle held in May by President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane displeased Goita as two military officials who were close to him were excluded from their posts. After usurping power, Goita defended his actions saying that it was his obligation “to act in order to preserve the transitional character and defend the republic”. The constitutional court of the country had approved of the coup and recognised Goita as the new interim President.
It was widely believed that a leader of the M5 movement (as the name the anti-government protest of June 5, 2020 came to be known) would be appointed as the Prime Minister by the military leadership as the 2020 coup was organised during the protests. But international forces compelled the military to share power with the civilians. The M5 was not a part of the power-sharing agreement which led them to be extreme critics of the new interim government. The M5 group even went to the extent of calling the interim government “a disguised military regime”. The May 25 coup saw the M5 shift from its earlier stance as the military offered them a share in power. The M5 has organised huge rallies in the capital to show solidarity with the army in June 2021.
The French government is suspicious of Mahmoud Dicko’s alleged Islamist links. Dicko has worked as a mediator and has been instrumental in making progress in the peace talks between the Central government based in Bamako and the northern Muslim rebels. The M5’s candidate for Prime Ministership, Chougel Maiga, has been vehemently criticising the 2015 peace deal. He rightfully points out that decentralisation of power has not taken place. The northern regions also have not received assistance in developing its economy and infrastructure as was promised by the 2015 deal.
Both the AU and ECOWAS have suspended Mali from the organisations. A high-level ECOWAS delegation had requested the coup leaders for the restoration of status quo as it was before the coup, which was rejected.
The President and the Prime Minister of the overthrown government were released after strong condemnation from France and other regional players. France had declared that it would not go ahead with the joint military operations with the Malian army unless it was guaranteed that the civilian-led government would be put back in power. The present military leaders have explored possibilities of negotiations with the Islamists in hopes of ushering in a long-lasting peace within the country. The French do not wish to see these radical elements get any power as they believe it would endanger world peace.
France’s President Emanuel Macron has announced that all the French soldiers would be withdrawn if Mali heads towards radical Islamism. The West believes the Sahel region will emerge as the new hotbed of terrorism, and as such has taken all efforts to curb the rise of extremists.
THE CASE OF CHAD
The developments in Mali come side by side with the developments in Chad, where President Idriss Deby passed away under mysterious circumstances. Deby , a long-standing ally of the West ,had been installed in power following a coup that was supported by the French in 1990. He ruled with an iron fist since then and even supported the French army in many wars in the region, including the war against Gaddafi-ruled Libya in 1980s. He died fighting against rebel forces as per government claims. The country has grown to become an important player in the region under France’s patronage, often wilfully interfering in the internal matters of neighbouring nations. Chad has been an important constituent of the Joint Task Force, whose creation was necessitated with the rise of extremist groups in the region like Boko Haram. The country also supported Sudanese rebels fighting in the Dafur province.
Idris Deby’s son, Mahamat, was immediately installed in power after the former’s death. The installation, backed by France, violated constitutional norms as neither the Parliament nor the Opposition were consulted. According to the Constitution, new elections must be held within 18 months of an incumbent President’s death. Mahamat took all powers into his own hands by dissolving the National Assembly and declaring martial law for the next 18 months. This forced the AU to demand for restoring constitutional provisions and giving up power in the hands of a civilian government. The French army has historically shielded the Chad government from rebels and has stationed over 5,000 soldiers in the country for the same. Even though the country has significant quantity of oil reserves, it continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world with the wealth generated from the sale of oil remaining concentrated in the hands of the army and the political brass. The French continue to influence the internal and external policies of their former colonies in the region, with only Guinea being a notable exception.