The Malian coup of June 2021 signals a deep crisis in the sustainability of French neo-imperialism – in general, in the Sahel, and in Mali particularly. It raises the likelihood of an enhanced US and NATO presence, in line with the US militarization of imperial overlordship of Africa that it had previously delegated to former European imperialists. The USA, increasingly under competitive pressure from both China and Russia, will be less constrained than its European vassals by the perceived need to dramatize its concern for good governance, harmonization of imperial interests with those of national elites, and respect for local cultures.
The coming era will be invigorated rather more by the simplistic Manichean narrative tools helpfully supplied by extremist Sunni militia that as often seem to run alongside imperial interest than against it. The threat of extremist Islam will justify and explain the continuing military presence of US and NATO troops, and their contributions to the weakness of central governments and to the continuing poverty, gender inequality, food, and safety insecurity of the masses. This will facilitate imperial ability to ride roughshod over national interests and to prioritize the interests of US multinationals and those of its NATO allies. The participation of other NATO powers will be more coordinated and more distanced, acting through local security forces, proxy militia, and drones.
The Republic of Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa. To the north, Algeria; to the east, Niger; to the south, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivoire; to the west Mauritania, Senegal and Guinea. It is the continent’s eighth largest country, with an area of just over 1,240,000 square kilometers (480,000 sq mi). Its population is 19.1 million. The capital is Bamako. Its northern borders reach deep into the middle of the Sahara Desert. Most people live in the southern part, the Sudanian savanna, through which run the Niger and Senegal rivers. The country’s economy centers on agriculture and mining. But it is also the third largest producer of gold on the African continent. Uranium, phosphate, and salt are also important.
In the late 19th century, during the Scramble for Africa, France seized control of Mali, making it a part of French Sudan. French Sudan (then known as the Sudanese Republic, and not to be confused with modern day Sudan), joined with Senegal in 1959, achieving independence in 1960 as the Mali Federation. Shortly thereafter, following Senegal’s withdrawal from the federation, the Sudanese Republic declared itself the independent Republic of Mali. The country’s founding father and first president, a socialist, was Modibo Keita, overthrown in a 1968 coup by General Moussa Traoré, who banished all political activity. He in turn was overthrown by a popular uprising and military coup under Col. Amadou Toumani Touré in 1991, who initiated a new constitution and the establishment of Mali as a democratic, multi-party state.
Understanding the 2020-2021 Coups
Early in June 2021, Mali’s Supreme Court invested Colonel Assimi Goïta as president two weeks after Goïta’s junta arrested interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane. Goïta named Choguel Kokalla Maïga interim prime minister. The new government, anxious to avoid NATO sanctions, declared it would continue its cooperation with the French military presence in Mali. In similar vein, Goïta pledged to organize credible, fair, transparent elections. The choice of interim prime minister, Maïga, is president of the Patriotic Movement for Renewal and a leader of the June 5, 2020 Movement-Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) which backed the coup launched by Goïta in August 2020 that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. Both coups were supported by France in a bid to head off mass dissatisfaction with economic prospects, popular opposition to the ineffective French war on terror, associated sectarian killings, food insecurity and nationwide strikes. While anxious not to alienate France or NATO, Maiga supports open negotiations with armed groups in the northern territories, which include some that are affiliated to Al Qaeda. The National Workers’ Union of Mali (UNTM) called off its strike after the coup.
Mali’s so-called “transition” regime, which emerged last September from the August 18, 2020 coup that toppled President Ibrahim Bouba Keïta, is formally tasked with overseeing an 18-month transition back to civilian rule, with elections slated for February 2022. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has made it clear that French policy is to put pressure on both army and the political parties to work out a deal backing the transition government and a continuing French presence.
A War on Terror
Mali has experienced rising sectarian massacres and killings carried out by French-backed forces. Amidst many other human rights abuses committed by multiple parties, the UN Human Rights and Protection Division has catalogued over 100 recent extrajudicial executions perpetrated by the French-backed Malian Defence and Security Forces (MDSF).
Yes, France and its NATO allies broadly defend the decade’s long French war in the territories of its former West African empire as a war on terrorism namely, against extremist Sunni terrorism mainly.
But didn’t France support US militarization of Islam in the 1980s in order to expel the Soviet army from Afghanistan? Did not NATO, of which France is a founding member, help ignite this war in Africa when it gave succor, aid and arms to Al Qaeda and other jihadists in Libya in the last days of Gaddafi in 2011, and when the UNSC, acting mainly on NATO intelligence, voted in favor of Resolution 1973 – a call for the protection of civilians which NATO used as a pretext for regime change? And did not France work to help depose Middle Eastern regimes (like Libya, Syria, Iraq and, for a time, Egypt) in ways that favored the interests of jihadist rebels, and those of the NATO and Arab powers that supported them? So why was France now fighting these same groups, with a French military contingent of over 5,000 – many recruited from and spread across the Sahel (Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso), alongside a 13,000 UN peacekeeping force?
And why was France unable to win this battle? The longer the French intervention, the greater the number of deaths and casualties – reaching 6,000 civilian and non-civilian deaths in 2020 alone. Did one cause the other? Why was France continuing to shoulder this “white man’s burden” in the first place, given that the intervention was no longer supported by a majority of French voters in 2021, and was wreaking havoc for the majority of Sahel peoples whom France was supposedly there to protect? What was the relationship between French neo-imperial interventions abroad and domestic terror, as in the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015 and the Nice attack in2016?
What were French troops doing in any of these “former” colonial territories that had formally won their independence from France in the 1960s (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – all in 1960, Senegal in 1958), totally exhausted by and fed up with French rule less than a century of being colonized? What moral authority could France, as a former colonial power, demonstrate in justification given its record in Algeria, for example, whose war for a (socialist) independence from a stubborn, reactionary France (1954-1962) cost a million and a half dead, according to Algerian sources. Or what moral justification could it produce in the wake of the failure of French neo-imperial patronage of the Juvenal Habyarimana regime, responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide which killed a million Rwandans (mainly Tutsi)?
If there were comprehensible answers to any of these foregoing questions, how did they relate to the economic interests of French and NATO powers in Sahel’s mineral wealth including oil, phosphate, gold and uranium? Three-quarters of France’s energy comes from the uranium mines in northern Niger and in Mali’s border region of Kidal. When militants proclaimed the Kidal region to be part of their independent nation-state of Azawad in April 2012, France was ready for war. And how did any of this relate to US global hegemony and the escalation of great power conflict and competition between the USA, Russia, and China?
In the former Italian colony of Libya 2011, NATO had deliberately wrecked a wealthy, functioning nation, casting it back into stone age poverty, racism, and slavery. Libya was awash with both State arms and arms provided by the supporters of Libyan rebels. Some were conveyed by a CIA pipeline via Turkey to jihadist rebels in Syria, while others found their way into the hands of jihadist groups in Libya and further south, among Libya’s neighbors in the Sahel region. Western intelligence agencies were directly involved in Libya from early on in the uprising. The CIA had inserted clandestine operatives into Libya to gather intelligence for military airstrikes and to contact and vet the beleaguered rebels, and as part of a shadow force of Westerners to combat Libyan troops. Leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), close to Al Qaeda, declared their support for the rebel uprising. Several of LIFG’s leaders had fought with US-backed Jihadists in Afghanistan in the 1980’s against Soviet forces, and France had participated with the USA and NATO in that operation. Others had fought against US forces in Iraq after the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Qatari Special Forces were on the ground in Libya leading Libyan rebels in battle. Gadaffi’s southern supporters, the Taureg, returned to their ancestral homelands in Mali following the collapse of Libya, bringing with them both Libyan and NATO arms with which to reassert ethnic control.
France has intervened militarily on the African continent at least 30 times over the early postcolonial decades. Interventions are aided by pre-positioned troops based in Africa and France, ready to mobilize. France has signed many bilateral military and defense agreements with its former colonies in Africa. These legitimize intervention, even though newly independent former colonies were initially reluctant to allow France a military presence.
French intervention in the Sahel in the name of the war on terror has gifted it the kind of military presence that was long denied it after the 1960s’ wave of colonial independence. The first President of Mali, Modibo Keïta, refused to allow French military bases or troops on Malian soil even in opposition to defense agreements. With French backing, General Moussa Traorè overthrew Keita in a coup d’état in 1968. Keita was sent to prison in Kidal where he remained imprisoned until his death on May 16, 1977. Even under Traorè Malians still refused to concede a French military presence. Likewise Traoré’s successors Alpha Oumar Konare and Amadou Toumani Touré. The French could only secure a 1985 military cooperation accord, which allowed France to give military training and technical assistance to Malian troops.
Then thanks mainly to NATO’s regime-change in Libya, in March 2012 Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the nominally democratic government of Amadou Toumani Touré, blaming it for failing to control the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the north. Yet, in the following months, northern militants seized more territory and marched south towards Bamako. On December 20, 2012, UNSC passed Resolution 2085, which authorized the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, an Economic Community of West African States organized military mission sent to support Mali against Islamist rebels in the Northern Mali conflict. This was followed by an official request for assistance from Mali to France which launched ‘Operation Serval.’
For resource reasons and to avoid the kind of criticisms that it had encountered over its handling of the Rwandan crisis in 1994, French interventionism claims to be more multilateral today than in the late twentieth century, more likely to work within the framework of agreements with international bodies such as the UNSC, UN Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), EU, Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS), African Union Peace and Security Committee, and the G5 Sahel. G5 Sahel was created in 2014 by the Heads of State of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania. It launched the G5 Sahel Joint Force, created in 2017 with headquarters in the capital of Mali, Baramko, whose missions are to fight terrorism, cross-border crime, and human trafficking.
But the reality is that as French and international interventions have transformed over time, regional destabilization has increased, with sectarian violence reaching south into Mali and into the territories of adjoining nations, together with mounting civil unrest against both Islamic and other militia violence and the international occupiers. Security forces were responsible for 600 unlawful killings since from 2019 to early 2021, according to Human Rights Watch. Other manifestations of discontent include protests, strikes and intercommunal violence. On January 3 this year, French warplanes struck a crowd attending a wedding in the remote village of Bounti, killing 22 of the guests. According to MINUSMA 19 of the guests were unarmed civilians. A 2020 Human Rights Watch report showed that Burkina Faso troops were carrying out mass extrajudicial executions of civilians. Similar atrocities by troops in Niger and Mali have been documented. Most of those killed by state forces in Burkina Faso belong to the ethnic Peuhl, or Fullani, community, which are predominately Muslim pastoralists isolated from farming communities and which are often accused of being more sympathetic to recruiters for ISIS. The presence of European powers has stoked ethnic conflict between the Fulani and Dogons which had for long coexisted in the same towns throughout the region. Local security forces are believed to have armed and supported Dogon militia as part of the war against ISIS and turned a blind eye to sectarian massacres. Morrow cites HRW claims that it has documented the killing of 800 civilians in dozens of large-scale massacres of Peuhl citizens, and numerous killings of civilians by armed Peuhl groups and Islamists. Some of these appear to have been allowed by authorities.
In Burkina Faso, dominance of the Mossi, who are the largest ethnic group, is a cause for concern. In this nation of approximately 20 million people and more than 60 different ethnic groups, jihadist violence has undermined the authority of central government. More than a million people in Burkina Faso are reduced to living in poorly run camps outside the capital city of Ouagadougou. In many rural zones local populations are sometimes better disposed to jihadist militia than government bureaucrats, whom they regard as incompetent and possibly complicit. The Sahel countries are among the poorest in the world. Burkina ranks 182 out of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index. Although some 20 per cent of Burkina Faso’s livestock is concentrated in the Sahel region the local population is constantly subject to food shortages. Since 2016, 2,300 schools have been closed, affecting 325 245 pupils. There are 765 000 internally displaced people countrywide. Gender inequality is close to the extreme end of inequity.
G5 Sahel works alongside The Sahel Alliance. Launched in 2017 by France, Germany, and the European Union the Alliance coordinates 25 technical and financial partners (see below) and was created to improve the effectiveness of development assistance in the area and be a point of contact for the G5 on development issues. The Alliance’s goal is to speed up aid deployment and ensure it is not spread too thinly, especially in the most vulnerable areas.
The Alliance currently has 25 members: France, Germany, the European Union, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, the European Investment Bank and Norway. The United States, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Ireland, the International Finance Corporation, the Gates Foundation, the Tony Blair Institute and the OIF are observers.
There are six key priorities: youth employability, education, and training; agriculture, rural development and food security, energy and climate, governance, decentralization, and support for rolling out basic service, and internal security. Alliance technical and financial partners plan to fund over 873 projects in the area, worth a total of €17 billion. France plays a leading role. The French development agency AFD invested €5.3 billion in the Sahel since 2012. In 2020 AFD earmarked €471 million and paid out €350 million for projects in farming, in water and sanitation, in education, in governance and in health.
These initiatives have unfolded in parallel with military operations. As we have seen, following the collapse of Libya in 2011, and the regional destabilization that it provoked, France elected to intervene at Mali’s request against AQIM and took military control of Mali. After Gadaffi had been overthrown with NATO support and executed by the angry mob, his former Malian Tuareg allies found themselves armed and ready to reclaim their ancestral land. Their creation of a new secular-nationalist group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which had wide popular support in Northern Mali would also bring to life a Tuareg competitor in the shape of an Islamist military rebel group, Ansar Dine, aligned with Al-Qaeda. MNLA attacks commenced in January 2012 with the aim of taking over Northern Mali. As a result of AQIM’s temporary partnership with MNLA, AQIM entrenched itself within and ultimately controlled much of Northern Mali. With the support of Ansar Dine, AQIM was able to implement its fundamentalist interpretations of Sharia across the territory it now controlled.
AQIM, previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) was formed in January 2007. Its co-founder was an Algerian terrorist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar In April 2003, the GSPC—of which Belmokhtar was an active member—took 32 Europeans hostage in northern Mali in his first major kidnapping operation. The group subsequently released all but one hostage (who died in the desert) in return for a ransom payment of more than $6 million. Dozens of small-scale kidnappings of Western tourists, diplomats, aid workers, and extractive industry personnel since that time netted Belmokhtar an estimated $50 million in ransom payments. AQIM as a group is estimated to have made more than $90 million in total ransom profits from 2003 to 2013. Splinters of AQIM, such as al-Murabitun and the AQIM ally in northern Mali, Ansar al-Din, collaborate and there is some evidence that Boko Haram and its splinter group Ansaru have both trained and coordinated with AQIM.
France’s Operation Serval chalked up various military successes against jihadist groups in Timbuktu and other northern cities, and even banned the Malian army from Kidal, the central city of the northern Azawad region then under the de facto control of MNLA. France allowed the rebels to occupy the area, reorganize and later gain a place in post-war negotiations. It pressured the Malian government to negotiate with the Tuareg, even raising the possibility of splitting Mali into two parts. A similar dynamic occurred in Niger and the Central African Republic. From the more critical perspective of Abdennour Toumi, analyst for the Center of Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) in Turkey , the French intervened militarily in domestic disputes which they created and then took control of the countries. They were thus able to pass on the costs of their reoccupation of their former colonies using European, U.N and, mainly, US endorsement.
France continued to lead the international effortfrom 2013 and by 2020 had 5,100 military personnel deployed as part of Operation Barkhane, successor to Operation Serval. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali engaged more than 15,000 uniformed personnel from 60 countries. In June 2021, a European military task force, Takuba, was formed and is expected to organize hundreds of special operations forces contributed by several European nations. Additionally, the USA provides logistical support and training, and U.S. special forces carry out operations across the region. There was further backing by UNSC and the AU. The International Crisis Group, a think tank, has referred to this military buildup as a “‘traffic jam’ of security operations.
By 2014, the armed Islamists who survived Serval began an asymmetrical campaign against French, Malian, and UN forces. Serval, along with the longstanding Operation Épervier in Chad, was rolled into the open-ended Operation Barkhane, having almost the entire Sahel, from Mauritania to Chad, as its area of operations. Barkhane initially had 3,500 soldiers, reaching 5,100 soldiers in early 2020. They were backed, as of Oct. 7, 2020, by 7 fighter jets, 3 armed Reaper drones, and 22 helicopters.
Barkhane was rhetorically more sophisticated than Serval, taking account of how the armed groups that it had opposed had drawn strength from local conflicts and resentments and evolved into overlapping insurgencies on the part of several communities . Barkhane sought closer coordination with, and emphasis on, local state actors with a view to states eventually taking over responsibility for themselves. The French emphasized the importance, as they saw it, of improving governance, and depicted the G5 Sahel as a way to organize and strengthen the actions of Sahelian governments and also confirm the legitimacy of French actions. France wanted to be seen as partner, not as invader. The “Sahel Coalition” strategy included progress on counter-terrorism action, military capacity building, support for the return of the State and government authorities across the territory, and “official development assistance.
The main drawback of this approach has been that no matter how the French wish to see themselves and to be seen, and whatever actions they take that they think will reinforce their preferred perception, wishing does not determine how they are actually seen by either their military opponents or by civilians. Secondly, there is a poor likelihood of radical change in the capacity and willingness to change of State actors under conditions of inadequate resources, threats from militia, lack of authority in the rural areas and corruption. Supposed “non-intervention” is still a form of intervention, as in the case of the claim that the French restrained themselves in the July 2020 putsch that toppled President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. In France, Operation Barkhane is increasingly seen as a long-running drain on resources, with no clear exit. Thirdly, even if the French technocratic, collaborative approach is accepted on its own terms, it cannot, by dint of historical reality and actual power distribution, make France appear or even to act like anything less than a superior, occupying power.
In June 2021, French president Emmanuel Macron announced the end of Operation Barkhane. It was to be replaced by a more international effort, as yet undisclosed. Macron said France would now consult with its American and European partners and initiate a “profound transformation” of the French military presence in the Sahel that would translate into a changed model within a new framework, that would allow for an operation of support and cooperation with armies in those countries of the [Sahel] region that ask for it.
French Canadian Interest
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to expand collaboration with France in military interventions in Africa, during a visit by French Prime Minister in 2016, whose main purpose was to finalize plans for Canada’s participation in French-led counter-insurgency operations in former French colonies in West and Central Africa. Canada promised 600 soldiers and 150 police officers to one or more African countries and $450 million on peace support projects.
The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) had been increasingly involved in West Africa since France sent troops to Mali in 2013. CAF had long provided training to special forces in Niger. Canadian and US forces had cooperated since 2011 in operation Flintlock, an Africom-led mission to train special forces from countries including Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Senegal, and Nigeria. Canadian mining companies have invested at least $25 billion in Africa, including $3 billion in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Mali, Canadian-based Iamgold is one of the two principal owners of the country’s largest gold mine with investments worth $1 billion.
US Imperial Interests
Up until 2021 the USA appeared content with establishing a general imperial military overlordship of Africa, and to allow its former imperial vassals to establish their own domains in areas to which they could claim an imperial “legacy.” Nonetheless, since it was created in 2008, troops trained by AFRICOM had been directly responsible for at least seven successful coups d’etat in Africa, nearly all of which occurred in West Africa, and one that was directly carried out by AFRICOM forces.
The USA has established more than two dozen outposts that stretch from one side of Africa to the other. In 2019 these included 29 bases located in 15 different countries or territories, with the highest concentrations in the Sahelian states on the west side of the continent, as well as in the Horn of Africa on the east. In addition, the USA has provided billions of dollars in security assistance to local partners, commando raids, combat by U.S. Special Operations forces in at least 13 African countries between 2013 and 2017, and a record number of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia. As in the case of French intervention in the Sahel, the greater the US presence the more terrorism there is.
There are now roughly 25 active militant Islamist groups operating in Africa. There were 3,471 reported violent events linked to these groups in 2020. Reported fatalities resulting from African militant Islamist group activity also increased by 7 percent over last year, to an estimated 10,460 deaths. Of the 6,000 or more U.S. personnel deployed in Africa, about 1,200 are in West Africa, with a significant percentage in Niger, which has become the key American hub on that side of the continent. In recent years, the U.S. military has carried out no fewer than 36 named operations and activities in Africa, sometimes using host-nation military units as proxies in missions aimed at violent extremist organizations, or VEOs.
On a more positive note, the region’s general global interconnectedness has also intensified. Between 2010 and 2017, more than 65 countries increased their overall trade with sub-Saharan Africa. India in 2016 became the region’s second largest trading partner. Russia and several Eastern European countries, including Bulgaria and Serbia, doubled their trade with African counterparts. In addition to China, East Asian countries such as Indonesia and Thailand have considerably increased their trade with the region. There is a new urgency to exploit new oil and gas finds and develop cobalt and other battery minerals, which are key for smart phones and electric cars.
Big Power Competition
The early Biden administration focused on reestablishing relationships with European and regional allies. An increasing US presence can be predicted in a context of its rapidly escalating tension with both Russia and China, which have economic interests in the Sahel and in Africa generally that constitute a threat to the continuance of US hegemony. In recent years, Russia’s regional influence has increased. According to the US Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, from 2010 to 2018 Russia tripled its trade with Africa, from $6.6 billion to $18.9 billion. Since 2017, Moscow has increasingly supported President Faustin-Archange Touadéra of the Central African Republic.
Analyst Hamdi Bashir detects considerable scope for a Russian role in the Sahel.. Russia has a compelling political interest since it seeks the support of African countries for its foreign policy at the UN. An economic motive is to offer military aid to the countries of the region in exchange for access to natural resources. Russian nuclear energy corporation Rosatom, for example, aspires to enter the uranium market in Niger. Militarily, Russia is the world’s second largest exporter of weapons. Exports to Africa accounted for 17 percent of its arms exports during the period 2015-2019. Russia accounts for 37.6 percent of the African arms market, while the US accounts for 16 percent, France for 14 percent, and China for 9 percent
Russia’s military and security cooperation agreements with many Sahel countries, especially Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger allow it to offer training, educational and medical programs for military purposes. For example, the military cooperation deal with Niger provides for cooperation in efforts to combat terrorism, exchange of military and political information, and international security issues. Russia’s Wagner Group is Russia’s military arm in Africa and provides technical support to the Malian armed forces. But the Wagner group is threatened by US sanctions due to US accusations that it recruits mercenaries and uses them to fight alongside Russian separatists in Ukraine. Also, some African countries have complained of the Wagner Group’s tactical deals with government opponents when it comes to securing access to resources.
Threats to Western Corporations
Terrorist groups affiliated with AQIM have recently issued new threats to foreign companies, according to an Abu Dhabi think tank FARAS. The Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), a main branch of Al Qaeda, recently described Western companies operating in this region as “legitimate targets” and urged support for boycotting and attacking them. The collapse of ISIS in Syria made the Sahel and Sahara one of the regions likely to attract terrorists fleeing the country. Foreign companies are considered softer targets than military, and terrorist actions can impact both facilities and personnel. Kidnapping of workers of foreign companies is a main source of funding for the activities of some terrorist organizations. AQ fear of ISIS competition may also enhance business-oriented terrorist activity.
Jihadist groups have their own, illegal, business interests. The London based Tactics Institute For Security and Counter Terrorism reported in 2020 that 8 key terrorists groups in the Sahel region were the beneficiaries of illegal trade with UAE and other countries. Groups included Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar al-Dine / Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Ansar-ul-Islam lil-Ichad wal Jihad (IRSAD), Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), The Macina Liberation Front (MLF) and Allied Democratic Forces (ADF). There were active in Boungou, Burkina Faso, Taparko Burkina Faso, Inata Burkina Faso, Kaisaka Burkina Faso, Mana, Burkina Faso, Doropo, Ivory Coast, Kanakono, Ivory Coast, Bonikro, Ivory Coast, North Kivu, Congo DRC, Ituri, Congo DRC, Bougouni, Mali, Kenieba, Mali, Sikasso, Mali and Kita, Mali. The groups controlled some of the gold mines in these cities or provided protection for companies. In some cases, they owned illegal gold mines. Some had likely been sponsored by Gulf countries.
A series of Reuters reports revealed a vast illicit gold market in which the United Arab Emirates (UAE) plays a key role as a major trading hub that receives, processes and ‘launders’ African gold. Revenue from gold smuggling appears to be financing Jihadist radicalization and armed conflict in Africa and the battle for control of the gold mines is destabilizing already vulnerable and impoverished states. Islamist fighters occupied at least 15 mines in the east of the country, giving them direct control over production and sales. The trade was described by analyst Irina Tsukerman as amounting to an industry of large-scale mining taking place below the radar, with taxes replaced by bribes, and costs cut through poor working and environmental standards. This untaxed and unregulated economic activity generates massive amounts of capital, which is channeled to parties engaged in armed conflict, completing a vicious economic circle that sustains several stakeholders: miners, refiners, weapons manufacturers, and political leaders. In Burkina Faso, where there are 2,200 informal gold mines, hundreds have been killed in conflicts over who controls gold exports. When Jihadi groups take over the running of mines, they create a dependency by workers on terrorist groups in order simply to subsist. Robberies and kidnappings associated with the competition for control of gold mining increases insecurity. Between June and November 2019, around 500 deaths were attributed to the Jihadi struggle for control of the gold trade. A feature of the crisis is the ease with which it crosses national borders. Much of the country’s illegally mined gold is transported to Togo. From here, it makes its way to the UAE from where it is funneled to western markets such as the EU, USA, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Switzerland. Gold trading represents almost 20 percent of UAE GDP.
Kidnapping in the Sahel remains a lucrative business In Mali government instated instated after the 2020 coup released 204 alleged and convicted fighters of Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), a merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and the Saharan branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. It is the official branch of Al-Qaeda in Mali. The government paid a ransom of approximately EUR 10 million (USD 11,8 million) to secure the release of four hostages including a political party leader, a French-Swiss humanitarian aid work and two Italian nationals . Ransoms paid for abductees provide a significant source of income for groups operating in the Sahel region. Typical ransom fees for a foreign national can range between USD 4 to 10 million per person in the northern Mali region. The ransom fees for local nationals are substantially lower, as kidnapping is instead used as a tactic in destabilizing local power structures and instilling fear into local communities. Since 2017 JNIM has reportedly earned in the region of USD 40 million in ransom fees.
Some analysts of recent events in the Sahel and, notably, Mali (barely visible, it must be noted in passing, in US televisual media, and barely comprehensible even in more Muslim-favorable mainstream international outlets such as Al Jazeera) are inclined to interpret them within a historical framework of French imperial perfidy. There is ample justification for doing so. But in place of attributing to the French an unlimited capacity for suppression and greed, it may be more appropriate to read current developments as a writing on the wall for classic French neo-imperialism, explicable in terms of the project’s expense, lack of popularity, absence of even patriotic let along moral clarity or pragmatic purpose and, above all, embarrassing ineffectiveness. The likely transformation is in a shift in imperial ranking so that US power in the region, as in Africa generally, becomes more commanding and more visible, while that of France blends increasingly into a mishmash of international and cross-national networks and international government-NGO-corporate partnerships. As French imperialism melts down as a national enterprise, so too have the enterprises of its opponents (notably, militant Islam and its business offshoots), and those of France itself (less French, more European, and transatlantic) in a broader context of competition between the greatest powers of the USA, Russia and China and their respective alliances.
Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus, Bowling Green State University, Ohio and of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He currently teaches at California State University, Channel Islands. He has also taught at the Chinese University in Hong Kong and at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. His most recent books include RussiaGate and Propaganda (Routledge); Media Imperialism: Continuity and Change (edited with Tanner Mirrlees)(Rowman and Littlefield); Media Imperialism (Sage) and Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis (Routledge).