In the Eye of the Storm: Mali’s Search for New Partners in 2022

On Wednesday, 17 February 2022, President Emmanuel Macron of France announced the end of Operation Barkhane, declaring that all French contingents of Operation Barkhane will be leaving Mali, giving France time to “reorganize” France’s strategy in the region. A decision that may well give Mali time to “reorganize” its own foreign policy strategy, adopting new strategic agreements with emerging countries interested in the region.


In 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the drawdown of Operation Barkhane, signaling alarm and possible betrayal to France’s Malian counterparts, interim leader of Mali, Colonel Assima Goita, and interim Prime Minister, Choguel Kokalla Maïga. The later stated in August 2021 to the General Assembly of the United Nations that “…the unilateral announcement of Barkhane’s withdrawal and its transformation ignored the connection that binds us, the UN, Mali and France, on the front lines of the fight against the factors of destabilization.”

However, destabilization and insecurity have been persistent throughout Mali even at the Operation Barkhane’s height, in 2019-2020. Over the last two years, the international operation mobilizing the support of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), the European Union Training Mission (EUTM), the Takuba Taskforce, and the G-5 Sahel, have all had little success preventing major forms of instability, such as: numerous mass protests in Bamako, Gao, and Mopti; multiple IED bombings of MINUSMA observers and French troops; and most crucially, two coups d’état from 2020-2022.

There have been mentionable successes eliminating or ‘liquidating’ terrorist leader belonging to AQIM, ISIM, and Boko Haram. But in cell-like terrorist structures, these successes are short-lived as eliminated leaders are quickly replaced, while the instabilities that allow these organizations to thrive in areas like North and Central Mali remain and foment into larger, more pervasive insecurity throughout the greater Sahel region.

Thus the “connection that binds” Mali and its Western partners—the fight against the factors of destabilization—was never as fruitful as either party would care to admit. Both in Bamako and in Paris, the rewards of Operation Barkhane have often been outweighed by the losses. Especially regarding public opinion, where a majority of French and Malians no longer support a full-scale French security operation in the country, despite the economic assurances this presence provides Mali in the form of international development assistance or military investments made by French, EU, and G5 to Mali in pursuit of stabilizing Kidal region, where separatist and jihadist sentiments are at their highest.

In sum, there is a veritable storm of instability brewing in the Sahel, one that may only be escapable via new strategies or, more precisely, new partners. As many consider Emmanuel Macron’s announcement to end Operation Barkhane an attempt to garner positive public opinion before the 2022 presidential elections in France, Mali must consider its own political, security and foreign policy realities in 2022, too. Namely, through security, economic, and diplomatic cooperation with emerging countries like Russia and Turkey. Two countries which may serve as “lifeboats” from this Sahelian storm of instability as well as diplomatic upheavals, which have plagued Mali’s interim government from late-2021 into 2022.

Isolated in a storm of instability

Since the last coup d’état in summer 2021, Mali has been host to a series of instabilities, largely involving protests against the French presence in the region, sanctions against the interim government from both the EU and ECOWAS, and a series of violent activity in Mali’s northern region around Kidal and central region around Gao. These instabilities have—along with delayed presidential election timelines—worsened the diplomatic relationship between Mali and its long-time Western partners (e.g. France and the EU).


Following Macron’s announcement made in June 2021 that France would be drawing down its troop presence and military activities in Mali, public opinion in Mali towards France, as well as the G5 Sahel, has tumbled. This is largely to do with a series of diplomatic spats between France, ECOWAS, and the interim Malian government over the course of last year. Besides, sanctions have been imposed by ECOWAS and France for Mali’s purported dealings with the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company (PMC), and refusal to stick to the presidential elections’ timeline set by international agreement for February 27, 2022. Most recently, on January 14, 2022, protests against sanctions from ECOWAS and France have unfurled in Bamako as well as throughout the country, on behest of the interim leader of the current military junta, Colonel Assima Goita.

Sanctions and animosity from regional and western actors

In the aftermath of the 2021 junta, France as well as ECOWAS have levied sanctions against Mali. However, these sanctions may be a double-edged sword in that they may bare the inverse affect. According to ISS Africa, sanctions may be emboldening the Malian leadership and increasing levels of anti-French and anti-ECOWAS sentiment across the country. Sanctions are also impacting Dakar and Abidjan, which rely on port fees for goods headed through these cities to Mali. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire are also reliant on meat exports from Mali and may experience goods shortages in the coming year due to this economic show of force from ECOWAS and France.

Once more, many in Mali are perplexed by the root cause of sanctions: failure to meet election timetables. As similar unconstitutional or democratically backsliding regimes remain close to or unpunished by the Elysée and Dakar, such as Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, why is that Mali is being punished? A running narrative in Mali, therefore, is that sanctions from ECOWAS are based on double standards and originate from French pressure for dealings with Russia and anti-French policies in 2021-2022.

New violence and encroaching instability

The number of jihadist attacks in Mali and the Central Sahel region (Mali, Niger, and Chad) have quintupled since 2016. From 2021-2022 alone, there were several jihadist attacks involving IEDs near French and MINUSMA installations across Mali. One such attack led to the death of French soldier Alexandre Martin of the 54-artillery regiment, stationed at a French military camp in Gao. Similar casualties have been reported by the French army and MINUSMA outside of Bamako and Kidal. The total number of French military casualties is now at 54 while MINSUMA casualties now total 268—154 of which are due to “malicious acts.”

Where to next?

Mali can revert to the old partnership arrangements, maintaining the holding pattern of semi-stability that it has known for nearly a decade—or it can reach out to new partners to become “lifeboats” out of a storm of pervasive instability. Both options present challenges and benefits to Mali’s future political development. The consequences of Mali’s choice, however, are that it may permanently upend the socio-political, economic, and diplomatic framework of the Sahel.

Two possible lifeboats on the horizon

Mali’s future horizons may rest on new partners, such as Russia and Turkey (from the external powers’ perspective) as well as Guinea and Algeria within Africa. Both sets of possible partners will likely demand fewer concessions, providing new paths towards sovereignty and a uniquely “Malian” political identity. However, these possible partners can only offer a fraction of the military or financial support that the EU and France has invested in the country over the last decade or more.

Old partners, such as France, the EU, and the U.S., from the external perspective, and the G5 Sahel and ECOWAS within Africa, are other options, as many of the partnership agreements, accords, and alliance infrastructure still exist. However, Mali’s bargaining position with these actors, should it choose to reengage with them, would be significantly weakened, which may result in forced presidential elections, the step-down of interim leader Colonel Assima Goita, and full country-access for personnel belonging to Task Force Takuba, G5 Sahel, EUTM, MINUSMA or any whatever new military groupings formulated by the Elysée during this “reorganization period.”

Lifeboat 1: Russia, Turkey, Guinea, and Algeria

Mali has a complex set of new partners, from which it could derive novel foreign policy strategies to improve not only the security situation within the country but also its diplomatic and economic situation. Mali could try to attain a multi-vector foreign policy strategy, where France would play a less hegemonic role in Mali’s internal affairs, opening room for regional partnerships with Algeria and Guinea—the two countries that have not jumped to admonish the current military junta in charge of Mali—as well as leading the country to explore partnerships further afield with Russia and Turkey, with both being the countries that have expressed increased political and economic interest in Mali and the Sahel throughout the last decade.

First, Russia. Despite frenzied media accounts of Russian PMCs active in Mali or the sale of military equipment and helicopters to the interim Malian government since the announced end of Operation Barkhane, which somewhat dramatize Russia’s larger role in the region, Russia has indeed become increasingly active across the continent since 2013. According to French think-tank IFRI, Russia’s “grand retour” to Africa has been punctuated by seemingly ad hoc diplomatic strategies, grandiose summits, and packaged energy development and arms contracts with various African countries from Zimbabwe and Angola in the South to Algeria and Libya in the North. However, one speaking point at Africa-Russia summits and the Economic Forum in St. Petersburg may appeal to Assima Goita and the interim Malian government and to observers interested in Mali. That speaking point is sovereignty and self-determination. In the words of Russia’s Representative to the UN Security Council Vasily Nebenzya, “Mali has the right to interact with other partners which are ready to cooperate with them in the domain of the reinforcement of their (Mali’s) security,” this after Russia voted with China to block a French-backed UN Security Council Resolution to enact sanctions against the interim Malian government for failure to meet election deadlines. This is far more amenable to a multi-vector strategy and a far-cry from the dynamic of relations between Bamako and Paris in the past, where partnership was predicated almost on a basis of exclusivity in Mali’s foreign relations.

Furthermore, according to Tatyana Smirnova of the FrancoPaix Research Centre at the University of Quebec in Canada, Malians may by-and-large be more disposed to a partnership with Russia. According to Smirnova, “In Mali, its image (Russia) anchors itself undeniably in this idealist and heroic representation of Russia since the past (Cold War Era).” In the Cold War Era, the USSR funded Mali’s development en gros, building: schools, hospitals, arenas, and providing loans for Soviet arms. In 2019, the Malian government renewed a strategic partnership signed with the Russian Federation in 1994; while in 2022, the Groupe des Patriotes du Mali (GSM) provided the Malian government with a petition of 8 million signatures, calling for further partnership between Mali and Russia.

Russia is not the only suitor looking to establish new relationships with Mali and the larger Sahel region. Turkey, too, has been very active in the Sahel over the past decade, building: the train line between Blaise Diagne Airport in Dakar to the Dakar city center, financing Islamic schools in Bamako and Gao in Mali, and hosting its third “Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit” in 2021, where Turkey notably held discussions with the representatives of Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso. Although, like Russia, Turkey’s financial means are limited and so are its means of influence in the greater Sahel region and Mali. Much of Turkey’s efforts in the Sahel are tied to the UAE and what other emerging powers are doing. Turkey seeks to partake in a new great power competition in Africa and to expand its policy of Neo-Ottomanism, which is based on a more modern vision of Islam, around Africa. In pursuit of this goal, Turkey has incorporated Sahelian states like Mali into its cultural expansion scheme, building mosques, religious schools, and offering scholarships to Malian students.

Despite the cap on its hard financial and military capabilities in the region, Ankara has made strong inroads into the Sahel over the last few years. Namely, establishing a defense agreement with Niger and increasing economic activities in Sahelian countries. Trade between Mali and Turkey, for example, has more than doubled from 2003-2019 ($5 million – $57 million). In 2018, Ankara also provided the G5 Sahel with $5 million and, as TIKA (Turkish Development Agency) indicates, Turkey gave $61 million in ODA to Mali between 2014 and 2019, dwarfing Russia’s contributions by more than $50 million. Turkey has therefore demonstrated more tangible partnership opportunities to Mali and be its best singular “lifeboat” towards new partnership that brings stability, diversification, and the possibility for a more authentic Malian culture not built on francophone ties but a longer, more engrained Muslim tradition, which Ankara seems to support through official rhetoric and diplomatic agreements with Mali and other Sahelian countries.

The final lifeboat in this category is one of solidarity. Following ECOWAS’ decision to levy sanctions against Mali over delayed presidential elections, Guinea—a member of ECOWAS—refused to follow suite and penalize Mali. Instead, Guinea offered support to the interim Malian government, emphasizing their current set of common challenges—Guinea being led by a similar military junta, after a coup d’état which took place in the approximately the same period (October 2021). Equally, Algeria has demonstrated restraint by neutrally by raising questions about ECOWAS’ decision to sanction Mali and refusing to take actions against Mali’s interim government. These two countries cannot offer Mali massive development contracts or security cooperation, but they can legitimize the government and be smaller partners in a multi-vector strategy spearheaded by Mali’s interim government to subdue a break from ECOWAS following the end of Barkhane.

Lifeboat 2: France, the EU, and ECOWAS

The second lifeboat would entail a return to old habits. If Mali concedes and renounces its recent outspoken position against the Elysée and EU involvement in Mali, there is a possibility for reproachment between Mali and its assortment of Western partners—both in Europe and in West Africa.

Reproachment with France and the EU will be difficult. As stated by Emmanuel Macron on February 17, 2022: “France will continue to play a federative role in the region.” Demonstrating France’s continued interest in fighting jihadism in the Sahel and maintaining an intelligence presence both in the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea. However, Emmanuel Macron also noted that France “cannot stay engaged militarily on the side of authorities who, in fact, do not share their strategy with us, nor hidden objectives” underlining French, and moreover, European dismay at Mali’s recent activities with Russia and purported operation with PMCs.

Moreover, after Interim Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga labeled France’s decision to reduce its military operations in Mali as a “betrayal” to the UN General Assembly in 2021, relations with France have only deteriorated. Following such an attack, French President Emmanuel Macron called Interim Prime Minister’s Choguel Kokalla Maïga comments to the UN, “a shame” and that “it dishonors what isn’t even a government,” alluding to the fact Mali is currently led by an illegitimate military junta in the eyes of the Elysée. Additionally, French Defense Minister Parly called Maiga’s remarks, “indecent” and “unacceptable” going on to say that Maiga is “wiping his feet on the blood of French soldiers.” Despite the hostility of comments on both the French and Malian side over the end of Barkhane, Emmanuel Macron’s insistence on France playing a “federative role” in the Sahel and assuring that “the fight against terrorism in the Sahel will not be known to be an affair of African states alone” on February 17, 2022, indicates that Operation Barkhane may be over, but French interests in the region are not. This could be a benchmark for future cooperation should Mai decide to reengage with France.

The European Union and Economic Community of West African States is on equally bad footing with Mali in 2022. According to current reports from the Takuba Taskforce and NATO, Norwegian and Estonian troops have been restricted access to enter or conduct operations in Mali, while joint flight operations with France and the US have been suspended after interim leader Goita forbade such flights over Malian airspace. Moreover, France, Germany, and the larger EU community have threatened additional sanctions and political isolation if Mali continues to make arms deals with the Russian Federation or continues any purported military operations with the Russian PMC the Wagner Group.

ECOWAS, and to a lesser extent, the G5 Sahel, appear to be more amenable to reproachment with Mali. For example, despite supporting France’s sanctions regime against Mali in 2021-2022, sanctions against Mali will have rippling affects on the ECOWAS economy as well as on the regional labor force, which is highly subject to seasonal work migrations and a need for semi-fluid travel to sustain economic growth and stability across the region. Trade and such worker migration will be deeply hindered if ECOWAS and the G5 Sahel maintain their united front with France against Mali. The eventual result of these hindrances may be economic strain throughout ECOWAS, which may allow Mali more negotiating room with the Economic Community of West African States in the near future, should Mali decide to appeal to its West African neighbors down the road.


Based on the strategies employed by other African states, which have adopted multi-vector policies and gravitated towards Russia and Turkey in the past few years, Mali’s rapid shift to the East may be a means of convincing partners in the West to reduce their standards (strict democratic transitions and elections timelines) while maintaining or increasing their commitments to official development and military assistance. The first accounting for $1.8 billion in total in 2019 and the later for over 880 million euros from Operation Barkhane alone in 2020. Whether Mali’s courtship with Turkey and Russia will be a long-term facet of a multi-vector foreign policy approach, a short-term solution to the announced end of Operation Barkhane, or a means of garnering concessions from the rest of ECOWAS and the West, is not yet certain.

Regardless of the long-term intent, there is a competition for Africa unfolding in 2022. If Mali decides that its future is more secure in “lifeboat 1”: creating new agreements, pursuing novel security arrangements, and organizing new cultural allies with Russia and Turkey while establishing networks for regional diplomacy and trade with Algeria and Guinea, then it is possible Mali could be a stepping-stone for larger multi-vector diplomacy in the Sahel. A diplomatic strategy which would exclude decades of French and Western hegemony in the region. This would be, from a modern perspective, an unprecedented outcome and only close analysis of Mali’s political, economic, and military arrangements with partners from all areas (the East, West, and within Africa) will be able to shed light on the future direction of the country and its implications for regional stability and development.

From our partner RIAC

Robert Quinn Carolan
Robert Quinn Carolan
Dual M.D. in International Development and World Politics, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) & Sciences Po Paris, RIAC Intern