Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goita is under intense pressure after French President Emmanuel Macron announced a troop drawdown in the war-torn Sahel, describing the West African state’s strongman as a “putschist”.
On Thursday, Macron said he would wind down the 5,100-strong Barkhane force that has battled jihadists in the semi-arid African region since 2013.
The announcement comes after Goita launched an internationally condemned coup against Mali’s civilian leaders last month — angering the former colonial power France.
France has undergirded the military response to the Sahel’s long-running jihadist insurgency, which first emerged in Mali in 2012 but has since spread and now threatens the whole region.
At a news conference in Paris, Macron stressed that France “cannot be a substitute for political stability.”
Details of the pullback have yet to be made public, but Macron said several hundred French troops will remain in the region as part of the so-called Takuba international task force.
In the Sahel, some are interpreting the announcement as a wake-up call for the region’s ossified elites.
“Assimi Goita and his brothers in arms are going to have to tie their shoelaces tightly,” said Le Pays, a leading newspaper in Burkina Faso, a Sahel country also plagued by Islamist violence.
Goita, who had already led a coup last August, was sworn in as Mali’s transitional president on Tuesday.
Bowing to international demands, the colonel this week appointed a civilian prime minister and stood by a promise made by the leaders he ousted that elections would be staged next February.
By Friday, neither Goita nor his prime minister had publicly responded to news of the French troop drawdown.
– ‘Putschist’ –
Last August, Goita led young army officers in ousting elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after weeks of protests over perceived corruption and a bloody jihadist insurgency.
After the West Africa bloc ECOWAS imposed sanctions, the junta handed power to a civilian-led transitional government, which promised to restore civilian rule in February 2022.
But Goita deposed its leaders on May 24 after they carried out a government reshuffle that sidelined some junta figures, provoking diplomatic uproar.
The African Union and 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) suspended Mali, a country dependent on international partnerships.
One of the world’s poorest states, Mali’s security forces suffer from poor equipment and training.
On Wednesday, Goita appeared to have earned a reprieve after ECOWAS said it had been “reassured” by his promises to stage elections.
But France took a harder line. It suspended military cooperation with Mali pending guarantees that the army would quit politics.
On Thursday, Macron announced the end of Barkhane but also slammed ECOWAS for setting a “bad legal precedent” by recognising a “putschist”.
Ornella Moderan, the head of the Sahel programme at the Institute for Security Studies, said France is not conducting a complete withdrawal from Mali.
Despite the critical tone, “dialogue has not broken down” she said.
– ‘Honourable way out’ –
Mohamed Coulibaly, a Malian security consultant, said the latest coup simply provided a pretext for the French to disengage.
For years, Paris has pushed Western allies to contribute troops to the Sahel in a bid to lighten its burden in the seemingly intractable conflict.
“Faced with the fear of getting bogged down in the Sahel, (France) was looking for an honourable way out,” Coulibaly said.
There are fears that the French move will further destabilise fragile Mali, however.
Thousands of people have been killed in the conflict to date, and hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes.
Alpha Sow, a retired Malian soldier, told bioreports that a French pullback from outposts in the lawless north will “create a big void”.
Seeking to allay these concerns, French Defence Minister Florence Parly pointed on Friday to the increasing capabilities of local troops.
France’s military commitment to the region “will remain very significant,” she also said.
Parly added that French forces had killed “four terrorists” in northern Mali on June 5, including Bayes Ag Bakabo, the prime suspect in the deaths of French reporters Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon in 2013.
– ‘Deaths upon deaths’ –
Aboubacar Siddick Fomba, a politician viewed as close to the military junta, said France’s intervention had failed.
But the way is now open for military cooperation from Russia, China or Turkey, he said.
The sentiment has long struck a chord in Mali, where France’s military involvement has led to protests and is often criticised on social media.
Yaya Koulibaly, a bricklayer in the capital Bamako, said French troops made no difference.
“Every day there are deaths upon deaths, (the French army) can leave without any problem,” he said.
“We will work and defend ourselves,” he said.