“There is no doubt that, for the French government, this was (and still is) a military intervention launched under the necessities of the global war on terror; a war or an intervention which was often compared to Afghanistan. And since the Malian army had been unable to face it, and African regional organizations were slow in responding, the French military was the assumed ‘normal’ alternative in the context of Francophone Africa”Bruno Charbonneau – Distinguished scholar and Sahel specialist
On the 11th of January 2013, the French President François Hollande launched “Operation Serval”, as the Malian operation is generally called by French officials, which lasted until the July 15th of the following year, when it was renamed Operation Barkhane. Here are some elements to understand the reasons behind this armed intervention.
The State of Mali
Bamako is the capital of Mali, the eighth-largest landlocked State in Africa. In the 19th century, France took control of the country once home to the Mali Empire (that at its peak was twice the size as France). Mali became independent from France in 1960 but it was only in 1991 that the country got its first democratic constitution.
The Sahel Region
The Sahel is a biogeographic zone of transition in Africa. It is enclosed between the Sahara desert to the North and the Sudanian savanna to the South, and it stretches between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Sahel includes parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, the extreme north of Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad, central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, and the extreme north of Ethiopia.
The Tuareg People
The Tuareg are a large barbaric ethnic confederation: a semi-nomadic Muslim people which have been historically influential in the spread of Islam and its legacy in North Africa and the adjacent Sahel region.
What happened in Mali in 2012
In 2012 the Malian state was in a political and social turmoil. As a consequence of the recrudescent Tuareg secessionist rebellion in northern Mali, political stability in the capital Bamako was lost. President Touré was overthrown by Captain Sanogo’s coup d’état that took its legitimacy from the regime’s inability to face the rebellion in the north. But after Sanogo’s coup, Tuareg rebels declared an independent Tuareg state of Azawad and the situation worsened.
Shortly after, Captain Sanogo was urged by economic sanctions and a blockade by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to yield control of the country to Dioncounda Traoré that would act as ad interim Prime Minister until new elections could be held. However, Traoré’s authority was never fully recognized by the military and on the 21st of May 2012, he was beaten unconscious by pro-coup demonstrators. Traoré was flown out to France where he could recover from his injuries.
It is in this context that Traoré wrote to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) asking for a deployment of military forces that became effective on the 12th of October 2012.
The reasons behind France’s intervention
According to the French constitution, the sole actor who can approve a military intervention is the French President, with no additional parliamentary requirements, and when such military interventions are undertaken, they are often presented to the public as “inevitable” and “necessary”. But the two French Presidents that succeeded one another in 2012 took very different stands on the Malian geopolitical issue. The intervention, considered superfluous by President Sarkozy, was initially thought as unnecessary by President Hollande – who at the beginning of his presidency had declared that “no French boots would be on the ground in Mali.” Suddenly, however, the Malian intervention acquired utmost importance in the eyes of Defense Minister Le Drian and of Hollande himself.
What results in the signing of a single person on a Government bill, is in reality the result of many factors that in the end determine which “threat to security” around the world is more convenient to be acted upon. However, it is important to keep in mind that France is a country that often turned to military intervention in its history, “between the end of the Franco–Algerian War in 1962, which officially terminated the French colonial empire, and today, France has launched more than 35 military interventions abroad – all of them in Africa.” But “France’s quests for grandeur and its colonial past are a constant condition which cannot explain specific intervention decisions” (M. Hencke 2017). On the other hand, what can explain French interventionism is intervention entrepreneurs – that is to say “geopolitical stakeholders” like Minister Le Drian, who in Operation Serval saw an opportunity to restore the political relevance of the French Defense Ministry in general, while focusing on economic interests in the region in particular.
In the Malian case, many interests converged in favor of a military intervention: Le Drian’s ambition, the fact that France hosts the largest Malian immigrant community in Europe, neighboring African Presidents favoring a French-led military intervention to prevent the spreading of Islamic rebellions in the region, and perhaps more importantly, the estimated 5,200 tons of untapped uranium sources in Mali.
A War for Uranium
The Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali posed a threat to France’s energy security in two ways. First because of the importance of the estimated uranium sources that lay under the areas now controlled by the Tuareg, but second and most importantly because northern Mali borders with Niger, which has been France’s primary uranium trading partner in the region. For instance, France feared that rebel forces would attack the most important Nigerian mine, roughly 200 miles away from the Malian border, and take hostages.
It is in this context that France decided to intervene in the Sahel region to secure its energy supply interests, even if the military intervention was presented to the public as a war against “groups djihadistes terroristes” that could threaten French People in their national borders, focusing on the terrorism angle. It is for this reason that the conflict – that diplomats tried to stop intensively – gained a lot of consensus among the general public.
An interesting and important side note to the uranium supply security narrative is that the Tuareg rebellion in both Mali and neighboring Niger appears to be the consequence of undetectable actions on the behalf of both Malian and Nigerian governments. Both of which prior to the conflict had been troubled by fervent demonstrations against AREVA, a French multinational group specializing in nuclear power and renewable energy, which may have instigated the otherwise dormant Tuareg rebellion and in turn instigated linkages with Islamic extremist groups like Al-Qaeda.
A War of Choice
These different motives are not to be seen as conflicting and concealing one another. More realistically, it is this intricacy that determines which African geopolitical turmoil becomes a military intervention and which does not. Bearing in mind that most of these foreign interventions are never inevitable, the reasons behind them lie deep in the interests of firms, governments, “intervention entrepreneurs” and in the end, they all are “wars of choice”.