Africa & Middle East  •  International

Mali: war on terror or new scramble for Africa?

17 August 2021

By Marc Lassalle

In June, President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of France’s eight year military operations against Islamist insurgents in Mali. 

Codenamed Operation Barkhane, its initial objective was to prevent the fall of its capital Bamako to these forces, and to bolster the other former French colonies of the Sahel region, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. 

All the main political parties initially supported this intervention including those on the reformist left; the French Communist Party (PCF), the Front de gauche and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Only the New Anticapitalist Party and Lutte Ouvrière denounced it as an imperialist project.

Eight years later, the balance sheet for French imperialism is bleak, but it is even worse for the people of Mali. Despite the presence of 5,100 troops in the country, armed with high-tech weapons including drones, the Sahel has become ‘the epicentre of international terrorism’ according to Macron, with the expansion of armed groups into Burkina Faso, Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire.

As well as two coups d’état in nine months and a spill over into Chad, the conflict has killed 8,000 people and displaced two million. Despite the evident parallels with the humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan and the US withdrawal, this is far from the end of French colonial oppression in the area, with new crises and interventions looming ahead.

A Semi-Colony

The Islamist insurgents, the most significant of whom are Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Nurat al-Islam are reactionary and oppressive of women’s rights and fundamental liberties. However, as with the occupation of Afghanistan, democracy and women’s rights only serve as a fig leaf for the real reasons France’s intervention.

France’s interests in the region date back centuries. It first occupied Mali in 1863, after which it was integrated into French West Africa. The colonialists used slave labour in the country’s plantations, principally rice and cotton, and then used the population as cannon fodder in the two World Wars. As with other French colonies, the independence Mali gained in 1960 was in name only. A coup d’état in 1968 put in power a dictator, Moussa Traoré, who remained president until 1991 with French backing. 

Today, the economy is dominated by the French multinationals in the banking sector (BNP-Paribas), infrastructure and construction (Bolloré, Bouygues), telecoms (Orange) etc with a comfortable surplus of €300 million in the trade exchanges in favour of France. Mali, like other former French colonies is completely dependent on France for its currency, the franc CFA. It printed and strictly controlled by France.

In short Mali and the rest of France’s former possession in Africa are what Lenin characterised as semi-colonies, formally independent states but, in reality,  dependent on the imperialist countries. 

Mali is one of the ten poorest and most under-developed countries in the world, with a life expectancy of 53 years and a rate of illiteracy of 69 percent. More than half of the population lives in poverty. The country’s vast natural wealth, particularly its gold deposits, is controlled by foreign companies. Consequently, Malian immigrants constitute a significant component of the French working class, especially in the construction sector, and like all other immigrants are particularly oppressed by the racist discriminatory laws in France.

So, given all this, why is France so concerned about a poor backward country in the middle of Africa?


The first reason, of course, is that Mali, like most other African countries, is seen by French imperialism as a present and future source of raw materials and cheap labour. The north of the country is largely unexplored, but besides gold and oil, other minerals might be present. There are also plans to exploit solar power in the Sahara and export energy to Europe. Furthermore, a large uranium mine lies across the border in Niger, whose operations depend on a stable situation in Northern Mali.

Control of the situation in Mali is also crucial for the control of the routes linking central Africa to the Maghreb. As in the days of caravans, when trade was flourishing across the Sahara, these routes are now heavily used to trade all kind of goods, including cigarettes, hostages, weapons and drugs, as well as for immigration. In summary, Mali is an important link in the French colonial domination of the whole area and French imperialism cannot tolerate the country disintegrating, opening the way for uncontrolled armed groups at the service of other interests. 

After rapid victories against the jihadist groups at the beginning of the intervention, the French army gave control of the Northern part of the country to an armed Tuareg group, MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad). The initial popularity of the French intervention started to evaporate after several cases of civilian killings, with the country more and more under control of armed groups.

Weak state

The problem is that Mali has been a weak state ever since its creation. Like others formed within colonial it is an artificial entity. The north is a desert region mainly populated by the Tuareg, a nomadic people which today is spread over five countries. Further south, the Sahel is inhabited by cattle herders; it is only closer to Niger that agriculture is possible. Tensions, and even civil wars, between the Tuareg and the central Malian state have been a virtually permanent feature for decades.

After independence, the state has been weakened further by imperialist exploitation. Its national debt doubled in the 1970s, with France being the main lender. In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank imposed a harsh policy of debt restructuring (structural adjustment plans), leading to privatisation and cuts in the already meagre public sector, including schools and health services. In many villages, schools are non-existent and health services are limited to traditional medicine. Corruption is rife, including in the military, and the money invested there by Western powers often disappears in the hands of an inept bureaucratic caste.

International geopolitics is also a major source of destabilisation. The French-UK intervention in Libya quickly toppled the regime of Gaddafi but created political chaos as control of Libyan oil was heavily disputed. This in turn led to the creation of armed groups in North Mali: Tuareg soldiers, once part of Gaddafi’s army, escaped to Mali and Libya’s huge stocks of weapons were sold across the whole region. Further it created conditions in which terroristic Jihadist groups could flourish. Also Mali has become a pawn in the new scramble for Africa, where the old links of domination are threatened by rivals, including China.

New mission

Thus despite the end of Operation Barkhane, France will leave 2000 soldiers in the area, on top of the 4000 permanently based in Africa from Cote d’Ivoire to Djibouti. These forces have already intervened 48 times in the region since its independence, almost once per year.

For many years, France has sought to give its unilateral interventions the cover of an international mandate – one which could allows the replacement of French troops by those from other countries. The UN has created a peacekeeping mission MINUSMA (Mission Multidimensionnelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation du Mali), with troops from other African countries including Chad. A special summit ‘G5 Sahel’ has been created with Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina-Faso and Mauretania. European countries have supported Barkhane logistically and allowed funds for the training of the Malian army. Pursuing this logic, France struck a deal with Tuareg forces in the North, most notably the MNLA, using them as a proxy for the French army.

Increasingly, the EU is drawn into intervening politically in the Maghreb and the Sahel, effectively regarding it as its southern border, but recognising French imperialism as the leading force in this task. Through MINUSMA, the EU heads a mission to train the Malian army and police forces. Germany alone has now stationed more than 1,000 soldiers in the country to back French imperialist interests, and to pursue its own. Several EU countries, amongst them France, Sweden, Estonia and the Czech Republic, are sponsoring a new ‘anti-terror’ intervention group named Takuba, whose actions will not be confined to Mali, but back up the whole of G5 Sahel.


No progressive solution can come to the Malian people from the French imperialist intervention, or from any joint missions with its allies, be they under the banner of the UN, the EU or any other ‘peacekeeping’ alliance.

Indeed, the opposite is true. All imperialist forces and their auxiliaries need to be withdrawn from the country. If they are so concerned about the people of Mali, they could just leave their weapons in the hands of labour, women’s and democratic organisations. Only through the self-organisation of workers and peasants, the arming of the people and the creation of workers’, peasants’ and popular militias will it be possible to stop reactionary violence and the oppression of women by fundamentalist Islamic forces, from the Malian army and from other occupation forces.

This form of self-defence and self-organisation has to go hand in hand, with fighting against the iron grip that French and other imperialist powers exert over the continent through debt and so-called ‘restructuring programmes’. If one wants to address the social devastation of the country, one needs to cancel the debt and expropriate without compensation all imperialist companies and the corrupt capitalist class of the country itself who plunder its wealth. Likewise, one needs to address the key democratic issues in Mali and beyond; the right of national self-determination for people like the Tuareg, the defence and extension of women’s rights, the grip of the military and bureaucratic elite, the land question, which has sharpened and is likely to sharpen further because of global warming and the desertification of land.

All these questions need to be addressed in the struggle against the Islamists, the putschist regimes and the imperialists. In order to address these key social and democratic issues and the future of the country, the struggle for a constituent assembly will be crucial to rally the working class, the peasantry, the urban and rural poor, women, oppressed nationalities, the democratic intelligentsia and even sections of the urban petit bourgeoisie. Given the Bonapartist nature of the regime in Mali and of its state, the elections and working of a constituent assembly would need to be controlled by councils of action of the working class and the popular masses, fighting within such an assembly to take power into the hands of a workers’ and peasants’ government, resting on those councils, and an armed popular militia.

In order to bring such a perspective about, the working class needs to take the political lead in such a revolutionary struggle, combining the unresolved democratic questions with the struggle for a socialist transformation in Mali and the whole continent. In order to achieve this task, the working class needs to build up its own party, based on a programme for permanent revolution.

The German and other ‘peacekeeping’ troops are themselves part of the problem, having been themselves engaged in atrocities. Even more, it is the colonial imperialist domination of the country that impoverishes the masses and blocks any real democratic or social development. These troops will be deadly enemies of any real and independent movement of the popular masses in Mali or any other African state.

Therefore, the working class in mainland France and throughout the EU and Nato states should take up the fight against any form of imperialist intervention, not just in Mali but across the whole continent:

Our recommendations are therefore as follows: Safeguards

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