‘I’m Very Nervous’: Young Malians on How They Feel as France Quits Jihadist War

Mali has been roiled by coups, jihadism, Russian mercenaries, and imperialism. Young Malians tell VICE World News their hopes for the future as France pulls out.

After nine years, France is ending its anti-jihadist military task force in the West African state of Mali, following months of escalating tensions between Paris and Bamako’s ruling military junta. 

As France closes its bases and its 2,400 troops prepare to retreat from Mali, young Malians - who have grown up under the shadow of French imperialism - have been left with mixed emotions. 

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“I am very nervous,” Bintou, a 22-year-old student at the University of Bamako, told VICE World News speaking under a pseudonym. “I really hope France’s withdrawal won’t cause jihadist groups to move toward Bamako.”

The move will see France withdraw its Barkhane and Takuba special task-forces from counter-terror engagement in Mali, where they have been fighting Islamist extremist groups and ethnic conflict alongside Malian Armed Forces since 2013.

Central Mali has been one of the most violent hotpots of the war against the Islamic State and its regional affiliates across the Sahel, a conflict-stricken region in West Africa. Fighting has killed an estimated 5,317 in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger in 2021. Last year also saw 948 violent incidents in Mali - the highest number in nearly a decade - and 400,000 people are displaced. 

On Saturday, days after France announced its military withdrawal, the Malian army announced that 8 of its soldiers, and 57 “terrorists”, had been killed in clashes at a rebel base in northern Mali where Islamic State and the al Qaeda-linked groups are active. 

France blamed Mali’s military junta - which came to power after two successive coup d'états in 2020 and 2021 - for causing conditions that meant the operation had to end. 

PHOTO: THOMAS COEX/AFP via Getty Images

Deteriorating relations saw Mali’s military government expel the French ambassador from the country in January over “outrageous” remarks about its transitional government. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Mali’s military government was “out of control”. The Malian junta’s apparent cooperation with Russian troops and the notorious private military company Wagner Group has further unsettled Paris. 

“So many former French colonies in West Africa are seeing coups,” Bintou added. “Political destabilisation and jihadist groups forming their stronghold again is never a good mix, and I just really pray that peace can be sustained in our region, inshallah.” 

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France, in collaboration with Malian forces, has been able to eliminate several high-ranking leaders of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. But as violence continues to spread through the region, young Malians are apprehensive.

“There's a lot of uncertainty right now in Mali in terms of who will be responsible for securing the population,” Youssouf Ouologem, a Malian anti-corruption activist, 25, told VICE World News.

“In 2013 we welcomed France to help logistically to drive back militants from advancing on our capital, Bamako, and to help with military equipment and training… But when you look at the number of displaced persons, number of military personnel and civilians murdered, all these numbers are increasing. 

“I have family members that live in the centre of Mali and they are refugees as of today, they are no longer living in the villages that they were because the only part that is safe is the south.”

The increasingly bloody insurgency has compounded existing problems with food insecurity, poverty and community tensions, and led to over 50 accidental civilian deaths by French forces, a number that Paris disputes, admitting to only seven. 

“Nowhere in the world has foreign military occupation worked,” Ouologem added. “I'm praying and hoping that the people in charge in Mali will channel investment to give better training and equipment to the army so they can be able to fight this war. People like to talk about an anti-French sentiment among the youth which I believe is not accurate at all. We want to see peace and results. It's not anti-France, it's pro-Mali.”

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Alongside the anti-terror war in the Sahel, French troops have protected France’s economic and geopolitical interests in Mali by securing the nation’s gold and uranium mines from rebels. Uranium extracted from Mali - which is one of Africa’s most mineral-rich nations - powers a staggering 75 percent of France’s electric power. Russian forces are now reported to receive ‘mineral concessions’ from Mali’s military government, which has  horrified France. 

“There's also a lot of resources they were protecting,” says Ouologem. “The main focus now also needs to be how we can continue to protect those resources.” 

Youma Wague

For Youma Wague, 24, founder of natural hair brand Youma’s Beauty, France’s nine-year military presence in Mali has highlighted the gaps Malians need to fill to improve their country. “A benefit of France’s military presence has been in that grey area: it has shown us the cracks we need to seal to properly flourish. We are a young country full of educated young Malians who are aware of the political system and economy. 

“Now that the youth are politically and engaged and have seen the gaps and obstacles, I am hopeful France’s military departure can give way for space for us to fight for win-win partnerships for Mali.” 

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High youth unemployment in Mali has been linked to youth transiting and trading drugs through the Sahel for jihadist groups. 

“Anywhere where there's a lack of development and investment in the youth,” Ouologem adds. “Now that the transitional government has seen what France has ‘failed’ to do in 9 years, I hope it will put in place a system for them to fill those gaps and stop the cycle.”

Malian Police officers parade during a ceremony celebrating the army's national day. PHOTO: FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images)

Russian mercenaries have become a key focus in Mali since their arrival in 2017 with US forces estimating hundreds of personnel from the controversial private military contractor, Wagner Group, are present in Malian territory of the Sahel. 

Mali’s government has denied the presence of Russian mercenaries, but said “Russian trainers” were there as part of a bilateral agreement between the two nations. However, France's foreign minister has accused the Wagner group of “despoiling Mali” and “helping itself to the country’s resources in exchange for protecting the junta”. 

As sanctions mount on Mali from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the EU, Hassan Yattarah, 28, a Malian activist from Bamako, and co-creator of the #HandsoffMali campaign, which calls for an end of French imperialism in Mali, tells VICE World News that young Malians are beginning to consider their options. “We've had 3 coups in 5 years which is crazy. The soldiers who did the last coup are saying we can’t hold elections until we fix the problems in this country.”

Hassan Yattarah

“We have been under pressure from sanctions for almost 3 months now…The situation in Bamako is very difficult especially for traders in the market - everyone is beginning to suffer and despite being a very mineral-rich country our people are going more into poverty.”

The International Rescue Committee has warned that imposing sanctions will push Mali into the ‘worst food insecurity in 10 years’, and leave 7.5 million people in need of aid. 

“France’s departure will definitely leave a vacuum but I think we have to be pragmatic and realistic, and take this chance to build strategic alliances with other countries whether it's Russia, Iran or China,” says Yattarah.

“It's not like we’re changing one master for another, we want to find mutually beneficial partnerships for Mali. We will suffer for a bit definitely, but if you read any African story you’ll know that Mali used to be a very powerful empire - I have hope that we will come out of this crisis stronger.”

Tagged:

africa, russia, worldnews, Groupe Wagner

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