Colonial Reflexes

Mali’s government expels Danish troops, because they had joined the French-led Opération Takuba without the necessary approval. Resentment grows toward EU.

BERLIN/BAMAKO (Own report) – Mali’s government is escalating its confrontation with EU countries and, for the first time, is forcing the withdrawal of a European troop contingent. On Monday, the military government in Bamako declared that Danish soldiers had entered the country to join the French-led Opération Takuba without the necessary authorization, and that they must leave the country immediately. Denmark claims that the deployment of its troops had been approved by Bamako, but announced yesterday that it would withdraw the disputed unit from Mali. With this conflict, the Malian government’s protest against the behavior of European powers, accusing them of having “colonial reflexes,” enters its second round. The dispute hat already previously escalated, when Bamako decided to postpone elections, initially planned for February, and to invite Russian military instructors into the country. With Sunday’s putsch in Burkina Faso toppling a president closely aligned with France, the European powers’ influence is beginning to wane in yet another Sahel country.

“To Treat Them as Subordinates Does not Work”

The tensions between the military rulers in Bamako, on the one side, and Paris, Berlin and the EU, on the other, have been escalating for some time already, because of the former colonist powers’ often arrogant behavior and their failure to make progress in their war against jihadis in the Sahel. The controversy is also intensifying because Mali’s government is increasing its cooperation with Russia. After all, the precipitous western withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrated the risks a country may face, if it relies exclusively on western powers. Meanwhile more Russian military instructors are active in Mali. On December 23, 16 European and North American states responded with a harsh declaration. This did not change Bamako’s course. Recently, as Ornella Moderan, Sahel expert of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) headquartered in Pretoria (South Africa) recently explained, “to treat Malian authorities as diplomatic subordinates, to ignore their declarations and hoping to put them under pressure, does not work.”[1]

Resentment toward Former Colonial Power

Tensions heightened further after the West African international alliance, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or CEDEAO (Communauté économique des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest) imposed harsh sanctions on Mali on January 9. The official reason given was that Bamako’s military government had not honored its agreement to hold elections in February, but rather proposes to postpone them until 2026, reasoning that the war-torn country must first create the conditions for truly democratic elections. Now, in Mali the widespread assumption is that ECOWAS had imposed sanctions ultimately under pressure from France and the EU. Paris still enjoys considerable influence in its former West African colonies. The assumption that Paris is behind the imposition of sanctions is also supported by the fact that the EU had announced its intention to also impose sanctions. The ECOWAS regrettably allows itself “to be instrumentalized by powers outside the region,” criticized the government spokesperson Abdoulaye Maïga.[2] It was reported that the sanctions are now merely “intensifying the antagonism toward ECOWAS and France.”[3]

Overflight Denied

To express their displeasure and apply pressure, the military government in Bamako began, on January 13, to refuse overflight permits for the flights of the UN Blue Helmet MINUSMA troops, who were operating in the north of the country. It was reported that this applied to helicopters and drones, such as those used by the Bundeswehr, as well. MINUSMA subsequently ceased all flights. On January 19, the ban affected a Bundeswehr A400M cargo transporter, in flight to the German airlift base in Niger’s capital Niamey, also carrying 74 soldiers, when Bamako refused it permission to fly over Malian territory. The A400M had to turn back, and due to insufficient flight fuel to reach Germany, it had to land at an airport on Grand Canary.[4] January 21, following intensive negotiations with Bamako, MINUSMA could announce the resumption of flights. However, that move taken by Mali’s governing military is reverberating in the capitals of the EU – it is not every day that the government of a country, apparently dependent on Europe would earnestly defy Paris, Berlin and Brussels.

Troops Expelled

The conflict continues. On Monday, in an unprecedented act, the Malian government called on Danish troops to immediately leave the country. This move was caused by the fact that, since 2020, France has been seeking to relieve its Opération Barkane, in combat in the Sahel – but gradually being wound down – by building up a new “Takuba” intervention force.[5] Since some time, Paris has been trying to get other EU countries to join Takuba. Last week, around 100 Danish soldiers arrived in Mali. On Monday, the government in Bamako announced this was done without the necessary coordination; it had been surprised to learn that Danish special forces were now supposed to be incorporated into Takuba.[6] It declared its unwillingness to tolerate activities of foreign troops behind its back, and demanded that Copenhagen immediately withdraw the troops. Denmark should be careful about “some partners who sadly have problems getting rid of their colonial reflexes,” Maïga, the government spokesperson, was quoted saying.[7] Denmark denies that it sent its troops without coordination with Mali, but announced their withdrawal yesterday.

The Next Blow

With Sunday’s coup in neighboring Burkina Faso, the EU’s war in the Sahel has suffered its next blow. Burkinabe President Roch Marc Kaboré had been closely cooperating with the former colonial power France and had given French troops a de facto free hand for operations against jihadis on Burkinabe territory. Of course this did not improve the country’s situation; on the contrary, over the past few years the situation has significantly deteriorated. Since quite awhile, wide-ranging protests against French military activities have taken place in Burkina Faso, which have repeatedly turned into protests against President Kaboré. Last November, French military convoys in the north of the country had been blocked for days.[8] Now that Kaboré has been overthrown, the future of the mission in Burkina Faso is uncertain. Thus, the influence of European powers in the Sahel, which until now has been seen as stable – in spite of all of their military setbacks –, is beginning to wane in yet another country of the region.


[1] Claudia Bröll: Russische Söldner in Mali gesichtet. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 10.01.2022. See also Cold War in Mali

[2] Mali: : la junte dénonce des « sanctions illégales et illégitimes ». 10.01.2022.

[3] Fatoumata Diallo: Mali : après les sanctions de la Cedeao, le sentiment anti-français exacerbé. 11.01.2022.

[4] Peter Carstens: Naht das Ende des Mali-Einsatzes? Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 21.01.2022.

[5] See also Die Dauerkriege des Westens (I).

[6] France and European allies urge Mali to let Danish troops stay, but junta insists on withdrawal. 27.01.2022.

[7] Denmark to start pulling troops out of Mali after junta’s demand. 27.02.2022.

[8] Claudia Bröll, Michaela Wiegel: Chaos in Burkina Faso. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 25.01.2022.

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