Posts Tagged ‘Opération Serval’

A tunnel with two dead ends

June 17, 2019

It’s only six-and-a-half years ago when Malian citizens came out in their numbers waving French flags and saluting the then president François Hollande during one of the few truly triumphant moments he must have felt in the course of his otherwise depressingly dreary presidency.

The occasion was of course the relatively quick and easy success of Opération Serval, principally designed to ensure that a jihadist fighting force that occupied Mali’s North and had just crossed a vital line at Konna, in the centre of Mali, never reached Bamako where it could abduct, kill and maim a potential of 7,000 French residents, take hold of the airport and send young men to France with ideas and plans to bomb cafes.

I am, to this day, absolutely convinced that Malians never figured in the president’s calculations.

Fast forward to 2019 and that feeling of adoration Malians felt towards the French has entirely evaporated. Earlier this year a 30-years-old French medic was killed in the border region between Mali and Burkina Faso; Facebook exploded with joy. “Good riddance” and “Allah be praised” were among the mildest reactions. What has changed?

The answer to this question is: too little. Back in 2013 there was an expectation that the French army with its superior firepower and sophisticated reconnaissance capabilities would put an end to this jihad nonsense in short order and that would be it.

Well, they didn’t. Instead, the Opération Serval has morphed into Opération Barkhane, which covers the entire Sahel Region, not just Mali and is headquartered in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. This is a country that has been ruled for almost thirty years with an iron fist by Idriss Déby Itno, installed by the French secret services and kept in power by Chad’s battle-hardened troops and on three occasions (2005, 2008 and 2019) by swift French military action.

Opération Barkhade has been joined by a UN stabilisation mission with the longest name (MINUSMA) and highest death toll in UN history and a regional anti-terrorist force called G5. Also count in the support and training (and perhaps even combat) missions by the European Union, the United States and heaven knows who else. So, as a Malian citizen you are seeing thousands upon thousands of foreign soldiers entering your country and for all you know they are simply overseeing a situation getting progressively worse. What are you going to make of it?

You are going to think that they might be here for different reasons. This, for instance, is a placard that was carried in one of the numerous anti-French demonstrations happening in the Malian capital and covered in the June 14 edition of the news site Bamada.net

No, there is no evidence for this, as usual. But the sentiment is real, it’s all-pervasive and it is due to the fact that what all these foreign missions actually DO has no visible relationship with what it says on the tin. Add to this the blunders committed by operatives of Opération Barkhane, which now get splashed across the pages of the digital media, and you can easily see that whatever goodwill French military operations had in Mali and beyond has gone, probably for good.

And there is more.

Not only is France now the object of undiluted hostility coming from many a Sahelian country (to the extent that demonstrations are allowed; in Chad the government stops demonstrations with a single SMS message sent to everyone who owns a cellphone) but the French presence is also the object of an entire raft of conspiracy theories, one even more outlandish than the other. Two of the most persistent are that French troops are looking for minerals in the North of Mali (one such story used French troops clearing landmine material in the Central African Republic as evidence) and that France is behind the most recent spate of horrific mass killings that have shocked the nations of Mali and Burkina Faso. One highly prolific twitter account delights in sharing links with stories about French misfortunes and misbehaviours, often using spin that freely crosses the border between information and fake news. A terribly ineffective way to get France out of Africa, if you ask me.

Not lacking in clarity. From Bamada.net

The reason for this wave of outright hostility, and more often than not coming from digital media savvy youth, is history. There is a huge shipload of stories about crimes committed by France, also covered on this blog, for instance its deliberate and destructive negligence in the Central African Republic and its disguised and downright criminal support for Biafra in Nigeria’s civil war. And, of course, who can forget Ivorian writer (now editor-in-chief of the country’s state newspaper Fraternité Matin) Vincent Konan’s deadly satirical Afro-sarcastic Chronicles, which I reviewed here?

There are other issues I have not covered, but which have been written about in books like La Françafrique, le plus long scandale de la République by the late François-Xavier Verschave. Indeed (if I may), my own book on Guinea deals with the French shenanigans in that country at length. So there is more than enough historical fuel for anger against the one former colonial power that seems unable to just pack its bags and go.

And present fuel, too.

One of the things that irks people from Dakar to Niamey is the arrogant attitude that seems to come from too many European individuals who stay in this part of the world. I saw a little example of that many years ago and I have no doubt that there are many more. (In nominally Francophone West Africa everyone who is white is automatically assumed to be French.) One by one, they may seem insignificant incidents but together they add up and too often you see a distinct lack of self-reflection on the part of white people ordering black people about as if it is 1949, not 2019. That definitely must stop.

And the other thing is…opacity. Nothing fuels rumour mongering more than lack of credible information about why you are here and what it is that you do. The many bland statements from French ministers do not fill the information gap. These days, every report about how Opération Barkhane “neutralised” 20 or 30 or 50 (supposed) jihadists is met with complete and utter derision and instructions to “get the H*ll out of my country”. It also renders any rational debate about why France is here and what it actually does, completely impossible.

It is, for instance, rather difficult to discuss France’s role on the continent with someone who is utterly convinced that France will collapse the day it pulls out (or preferably gets kicked out) of Africa when trade statistics put the contribution to French external commerce of the entire continent at 5% with none of the former colonies playing a major role: Nigeria, South Africa and Angola are France’s top three trading partners. Of course, a number of French companies would face difficulties if they withdrew (the logistics and media empire of Bolloré, oil major Total, the uranium company Orano, beverage king Castel and the infrastructure emperor Bouygues being obvious examples) but most if not all of them would survive.

Vessels off Las Palmas, not so long ago a major destination for migrants from West Africa and located on the nearest Europe-controlled Atlantic islands off the African coast.

What we have, in the end, are two sets of unhealthy fixations between the two: most French care about Africa in two ways: immigrants and terrorists and how to keep them out. One of France’s most prominent politicians, Marine le Pen, has successfully managed to conflate immigration and criminal behaviour to create a thoroughly racist and xenophobic political platform that threatens to engulf the nation’s body politic. The majority of people in the Sahel countries see absolutely no good coming from whatever France does and want to see the back of the former colonial power, pronto. These two viewpoints reinforce one another.

Any light at the end of this two-side dead end tunnel? For the time being: not really. Both viewpoints are informed by an obsessive tendency to divert attention away from issues that should be in clear focus: a lack of perspective for too many citizens, the marginalisation of too many citizens and the obscene inequalities both within individual countries (thanks to the destructive neo-liberal project that has captured all these nations) and between the northern and the southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. These are things that need obsessive attention, so we can finally turn away from pointing fingers and constructing conspiracy theories – and start working towards solutions that have a better chance to succeed.

Here’s to the triumph of hope over experience, as fellow curmudgeon Oscar Wilde would say.

Mali. Again (part four of six)

August 8, 2016

Yes, you noted that correctly. Inevitably, as a piece like this develops and new ideas come up, it gets longer. And I don’t want to bore you to tears with endless screeds, so I cut it up one more time. This one’s a bit longer than the others but the last two will be brief – again. Here goes: 

Now, let’s take a closer look at events in the place where the Dutch have their camp. Gao.

Not looking promising and there is little hope that the end is in sight. We are still not entirely clear what caused this particular outburst but previous experience tells me that Minusma will not have a clue. The military are often dilligently unearthing info they deem relevant – only to find it gathering dust in a civilian drawer. An age-old UN problem. In addition to that, those that are supposed to do the gathering should master five or six local languages; Dutch and English will not do. (But then the Dutch government does not tell its citizens why it is in Mali. I refer my Dutch readers to some of the observations made by Mali veteran Aart van der Heiden in that respect.)

***

Then there is Kidal, north of Gao, where the CMA (the Azawad independence movement’s umbrella) is in a precarious standoff with a pro-government militia called Gatia, after a series of deadly clashes in July. This was not the first time Kidal burst into flames.

In May 2014, Prime Minister, Moussa Mara made a tactically sound move to prove to the world that the Malian state was in charge of all its territory. This was, after all, the job that Minusma had come to do: help Mali in its effort to regain control of all the terrain inside its formal (be it colonial and deeply flawed) borders. The Malians had put General Alhaji ag Gamou in charge of the storm troops headed for Kidal;. Not a wise move: Gamou does not like Kidal and those who run it, which, as it happens, was the Tuareg independence movement MNLA at the time. Gamou decided to take them on, on behalf of himself (first and foremost) and Mara (second).

The result was a rout. 50 Malian soldiers dead.

Kidal sees frequent clashes between groups that hold differing allegiances and have different opinions about whether or not an independent Azawad is possible or even desirable. At the same time, there are tensions among family-based tendencies within the Touareg community (the Ifoghas are in charge of Kidal and Imghad like Gamou want to capture the town) and almost inevitably these outbursts are also manifestations of clashing business interests. Some of this can be traced back all the way to French colonial shenanigans last century.

***

Ah oui, les Français! Let’s talk about them for a bit.

When jihadists crossed the line at Konna in central Mali, French president François Hollande ordered Operation Serval. This was in January 2013. Serval was warmly welcomed and restored some semblance of order.

Its objectives were to: (1) secure Bamako and the French citizens living there and (2) ensure that nobody (in principle) departed from Mali with the intent to throw bombs and shoot people in France. It succeeded in the first objective; the jury is out on the second. Still – and this is the point: having secured Bamako and French passport holders, Serval should have been on the next plane home.

Instead, it was folded into the much larger Operation Barkhane, based in the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, at the pleasure of François Hollande’s newfound friend, a ruthless autocrat by the name of Idriss Déby Itno, now in is fifth uncontested term as president of Chad. As is the case with the Dutch (and the Americans for that matter), we have some idea of what Barkhane is doing, but not much. Do we have to wait, Libya-style, until one of their aircraft comes down and they will have to explain (in part at least) what the hell they are doing in their former backyard? The answer is, unfortunately: yes. 

***

Malian suspicions the French troops are enormous. ‘Do you know that half of their so-called military are geologists?’ I hear this frequently. Can you blame them? No. Neither can you be at odds with Burkinabè when they tell you that French troop presence attracts terrorists and that they resent the implicit assumption that Burkinabè troops are unable to secure their own country.

In Mali, the French are, to all intents and purposes, the boss. When Air Algérie Flight AH5017 came down just inside Mali (close to the border with Burkina Faso) on 24 July 2014, French warplanes went looking for the aircraft, French ground troops secured the area; they then recovered the flight recorders and sent them to…Paris. A great way to make new friends.