On the path towards autonomy (II)

Bundeswehr mission in Mali is over. European troops failed to defeat the jihadists in the Sahel. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger now turned to Russia.

BAMAKO/BERLIN (own report) - The Bundeswehr mission in Mali has come to an end. Yesterday, Tuesday 12 December, the last 142 German soldiers withdrew from their former base in Gao in northern Mali. They are making their way back to Germany, where they are expected to arrive on Friday. German soldiers were stationed in the country for ten years, most of that time alongside French combat troops as part of an EU and a UN mission – EUTM Mali and MINUSMA respectively. If the aim was to defeat jihadist militias in the Sahel, this was not achieved. The jihadists were able to expand their operations, turning not only northern Mali but also the centre of the country into a theatre of civil war. As protests against the presence of European troops, including Germany’s Bundeswehr, gained momentum among the population, Mali’s coup-installed governments also began to push against the Western deployment from 2020, ultimately forcing these foreign forces to withdraw. Since then, Mali has continued its fight for greater autonomy and for reforms to reorganise the country beyond the influence of former colonial powers in Africa, including Germany. Mali is increasingly collaborating with the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso and Niger, along with additional military backing from Russia.

The deployment arrangements

German troops formed part of the UN blue helmets mission MINUSMA (Mission Multidimensionelle Intégrée des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation au Mali). Stationed in Gao, their presence officially came to an end on Monday with a closing ceremony in Mali’s capital Bamako. The blue helmets mission was launched on 25 April 2013 as part of a larger set of deployment arrangements that included not only the Serval (11 January 2013 to 1 August 2014) and Barkhane (1 August 2014 to 9 November 2022) missions, both of which were performed by French troops, but also the EU training mission EUTM Mali, which was agreed on 17 January 2013. Serval and Barkhane involved combat operations against jihadist militias, while EUTM Mali provided training for Malian soldiers. The primary function of MINUSMA was then to deliver stability to the north of the country. In addition, there was a wider attempt to integrate the national armed forces of the entire Sahel region into the war on jihadists. The G5 Sahel alliance, a collaboration decisively shaped by the European powers, was founded to this end on 16 February 2014. It brought together Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad as members alongside Mali. Two further EU missions were launched to build capacity, this time designed to strengthen the police and gendarmerie in Mali and Niger (EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger).


Military deployments were, by 2016, provoking growing protest among the Malian population. The main complaint was that the foreign troops were not only incapable of keeping the jihadists under control but could not prevent jihadi uprisings from actually gained ground. But violence was soon no longer limited to Mali’s north but moving to the centre of the country and even into the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso and Niger. So after just a few years of European military intervention, jihadist uprisings had spread to almost the entire central Sahel.[1] In addition, the European armed forces were perceived as high-handed, in many cases operating under their own rules. “France was waging its own war in parallel to what the Malian armed forces were doing,” said former CIA political analyst Michael Shurkin in retrospect.[2] The Malian authorities also accused other armed forces, including the Bundeswehr, of high-handedness (german-foreign-policy.com reported [3]). While President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who cooperated closely with the West, tolerated this behaviour without complaint, the coup leaders who came to power in 2020 and 2021 no longer accepted the situation and finally took systematic steps to curb Western interventions, as this portal reported [4]).

Europe’s withdrawal

The population followed these developments critically. Protests grew against France, in particular, as the former colonial power. A survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 97 per cent of all Malians welcomed the French military intervention back in February 2013. However, this figure had fallen to 56 per cent by 2014. By the end of 2019, around 80 per cent were saying they had “no confidence” in the operations of the French armed forces.[5] Bamako steadily increased the pressure on Paris to leave. President Emmanuel Macron finally announced on 10 June 2021 that Opération Barkhane would cease and French troops would be completely withdrawn from Mali.[6] At the end of 2021, Bamako began to bring Russian military trainers and mercenaries into the country, regarding Russia as an alternative partner for its war against the jihadists. Another survey conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in May 2023 established that 22 per cent of Malians had “trust” in the Russian forces and a further 69 per cent had “great trust”.[7] In a further step, the Malian transitional government announced on 15 May 2022 that it was also quitting the G5 Sahel.[8] And a year later, Bamako forced the withdrawal of MINUSMA,[9] which necessitated the departure of German troops. This brought to an end a mission of more than ten years in the course of which a total of 27,500 German military personnel had been deployed to Mali.[10]

Strategic success

Mali is continuing its push for greater autonomy and for reforms to reorganise the country. In the fight against the jihadists the government now relies on Russian military trainers and mercenaries along with weapons from Russia, China and Turkey. Turkey, in particular, plays a key role by supplying Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, now in wide use. In the summer of 2023, a new constitution was adopted – first approved by referendum and then confirmed by the country’s constitutional court. It downgrades the French language from the official national language to the status of a working language and provides for a presidential system in Mali. The most recent survey, again conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, finds that 14% of the population say they are “satisfied” with interim President Colonel Assimi Goïta and a further 84% even say they are “very satisfied.”[11] While the war against the jihadists continues to rage and, according to estimates, claimed more than 6,000 lives alone in the period 1 January to 21 September of this year,[12] Goïta did manage to achieve a strategically important breakthrough in mid-November with the recapture of the city of Kidal in the far north of the country. Kidal had been controlled by Touareg militias since 2012 – with the approval of the European states.[13]

A tripartite alliance

Since the withdrawal of the European missions was initiated, Mali has been working across borders more and more closely with its neighbours Burkina Faso and Niger. Niger has forced the withdrawal of French forces in the same way as Mali and is now in the process of pushing out other European troops. All three countries continue to suffer from the brutal attacks of jihadist militias, which were able to spread under the noses of European troops operating in the Sahel. Their governments are now seeking to follow an independent strategy in the fight against the jihadists with military support not from the former European colonial powers, including Germany, but to some extent from Russia. They are also hoping that closer regional cooperation will turn the tide. german-foreign-policy.com will report shortly.


[1] See also: Wie in Afghanistan (II).

[2] Le Niger, „laboratoire“ de la France pour sa nouvelle approche militaire en Afrique. lemonde.fr 23.05.2023.

[3] See also: Battle Over Mali (I).

[4] See also: Battle Over Mali (II).

[5] Mali: Poll highlights confidence in Assimi Goïta and Russia. theafricareport.com 08.05.2023.

[6] Emmanuel Macron annonce la fin de l’opération Barkhane au Sahel. france24.com 10.06.2021.

[7] Mali-Mètre. Enquête d’opinion: “Que pensent les Malien(ne)s?” Bamako, Mai 2023.

[8] Le Mali annonce son retrait de l’organisation régionale G5 Sahel. lemonde.fr 16.05.2022.

[9] See also: On the Path Toward Independence.

[10] Timo Kather: Bundeswehr übergibt Feldlager Camp Castor. bundeswehr.de 12.12.2023.

[11] Mali-Mètre. Enquête d’opinion: “Que pensent les Malien(ne)s?” Bamako, May 2023.

[12] Fact Sheet: Attacks on Civilians Spike in Mali as Security Deteriorates Across the Sahel. acleddata.com 21.09.2023.

[13] Manon Laplace: Assimi Goïta, l’homme qui a reconquis Kidal. jeuneafrique.com 21.11.2023.