Col Assimi Goïta wore full military dress uniform when he swore on Monday to uphold the republican regime and democracy in Mali. Goïta has led two military coups in the west African nation of 20 million souls in the past nine months.
The first coup, against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta last August 18th, was not unfavourably viewed in France, the former colonial power. The five colonels who carried out the coup were considered a serious junta with whom France could do business.
But relations soured when Goïta had the civilian president and prime minister arrested on May 24th because they did not consult him before planning a cabinet reshuffle that excluded two of his fellow colonels.
The 5,100-strong French anti-terrorist force Barkhane is now in its ninth year in Mali, fighting local groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda. Fifty-five French soldiers have lost their lives, and the operation costs close to €1 billion annually. President Emmanuel Macron made a campaign promise in 2017 to wind down the operation. Instead, he last year ordered a "surge" that added 600 more French soldiers.
"The French government is worried because results are insufficient and the general situation is deteriorating," says Elie Tenenbaum, head of security and defence studies at the French Institute for International Relations (Ifri). "When Macron was elected, he said he wanted concrete objectives and a way out. There is no way out. [Chief of staff General François] Lecointre said in February that French forces could be in the Sahel region for another 10 to 15 years. That is not acceptable for the Élysée."
Some sources believe Macron seized upon the latest coup as a pretext for drawing down troop numbers in Mali, because he does not want engagement there to be an issue in his re-election campaign. Public approval of the French intervention has fallen from 73 per cent in 2013 to 49 per cent this year, according to an opinion poll published by Le Figaro.
Macron's attitude towards the latest coup in Chad, where the headquarters for Barkhane are located, contrasts strongly with his stance in Mali. When Idriss Déby, who had been president of Chad for more than 30 years, and was France's man in the Sahel, was assassinated in April, Macron attended his funeral in N'Djamena and sat beside Déby's son Mahamat, Chad's new president.
Macron told the Journal du dimanche that he went to the funeral "to show that we would not let Chad be threatened". He feared that Islamist groups moving southward from Libya would create anarchy in Chad.
Critics accuse Macron of a double standard, for tolerating Mahamat Déby’s dynastic coup in Chad while threatening to punish the colonels in Mali by ending the Barkhane mission. Many doubt the Malian military could resist an Islamist offensive without French help.
“If things go in that direction [of an Islamist takeover],” Macron said, “I will pull out. For the last three years, I’ve been saying in defence council meetings that we should think about leaving . . . we have no vocation to stay there forever.”
The French had objected to negotiations with al-Qaeda-linked groups even before the last two coups. They are nervous about the influence of Imam Mahmoud Dicko, who has attempted to mediate between Islamists and the government.
Experts believe that France is nonetheless condemned to remain in Mali, to which it granted independence in 1960. "France cannot afford to leave Mali," says Tenenbaum of Ifri. "There's a strong historic relationship, and beyond Mali itself is the question of the security of friendly countries where France has much stronger interests, such as Senegal and Ivory Coast. There is a negative evolution with the expansion of the jihadist threat towards those countries."
Over the past two to three years, Ireland has become increasingly engaged in the Sahel. Thirty-four members of the Irish Defence Forces are present in Mali, 20 with the European Union training mission in Bamako, and 14 with the United Nations peacekeeping force Minusma in Gao.
France suspended military co-operation with Mali on June 3rd in protest at the coup, though the defence ministry stressed the suspension was probably temporary. The EU did not stop its training mission, or cease funding preparations for elections that are supposed to take place next February. Embassies in Bamako showed their reservations about Goïta’s coup by sending lesser-ranking diplomats, not ambassadors, to his investiture on Monday.
France and the EU demand that Goïta appoint a civilian prime minister and a civilian government, that he enforce the 2015 Algiers peace accord with Touareg rebels, and that he hand over power following February’s elections. “I would like to reassure . . . the international community that Mali will honour all its commitments,” Goïta promised in his inaugural address on Monday.