West African people’s movements call for greater unity as France announces military ‘reorganization’

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The West Africa Peoples Organisation has welcomed the proposal for greater collaboration between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea, and has called for coordinating and planning production, trade, infrastructure, economic development, and defense  by Tanupriya Singh

Mass protests held in Mali against the imposition of sanctions by ECOWAS following the military coup (Photo via @abdoulayekn1/Twitter)

The prime minister of Mali’s transitional government, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, concluded a visit to neighboring Burkina Faso on February 26, as both countries have moved to forge closer ties.

Maïga met with his Burkinabè counterpart, Apollinaire Joachimson Kyélem de Tambèla, following which both delegations presented a cooperation agreement, emphasizing their commitment to making the “Bamako-Ouagadougou axis a successful model of sub-regional integration and South-South cooperation.”

On matters of insecurity and armed conflict in the “Sahelo-Saharan strip,” the delegations noted the “need to combine their efforts with those of other countries of the sub-region,” and called for a “synergy of actions at the regional level.”

The three-day visit took place just weeks after the foreign ministers of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea proposed a “Bamako-Conakry-Ouagadougou” strategic axis for enhanced cooperation on issues ranging from trade to security. Last week’s bilateral meeting also stressed the need to strengthen the “federation project.”

This has been welcomed by progressive forces in the region, particularly the West Africa Peoples Organisation (WAPO), an “anti-imperialist network that promotes regional unity across West Africa” formed in Ghana in December 2022.

“We recognize in it [the initiative] the undying spirit of Pan-Africanism that moved the founders of modern Africa even after three generations of neo-colonial repression of such initiatives as the Mali Federation…or the “Union of African States” which involved Ghana, Guinea, and Mali and would have incorporated the Democratic Republic of Congo if the West had not destroyed the latter’s democracy and tortured and murdered its leader Patrice Lumumba,” WAPO said in a statement.

“We must unite to coordinate and plan our production, trade, infrastructure, economic development, and defense. We must unite to claim respect for our cultures and civilization. And we must unite to create the capacity to defend our territories and interests.” the statement added.

On February 18, Burkina Faso officially marked an end to France’s military presence on its territory, as French special forces (SF) withdrew from the Zagré military base in Kamboinsin, considered the rear base of France’s Special Operations Task Force in the Sahel region, with 400 soldiers deployed under Operation Sabre.

In 2022, French troops had also withdrawn from Mali after a nearly decade-long deployment in the country under Operation Barkhane. France still maintains some 3,000 troops in the West African Sahel region, especially in Chad and in Niger, where French companies have been mining uranium for decades.

France’s withdrawal from Mali and Burkina Faso took place in the aftermath of successive military coups since 2020, amid rising public unrest against France’s military presence even as armed conflict has expanded in the region.

An estimated 40% of Burkina Faso’s territory is controlled by armed groups, with a surge in deadly attacks on civilians and Burkinabè forces in recent months. Mali has similarly witnessed fatal violence, which has forced around 1.5 million people to flee their homes since 2012, with over 400,000 remaining internally displaced.

Read More | The French are going, but the war in the Sahel continues

“Mali has complained to the UN Security Council several times that France has tried to undermine its sovereignty. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have strongly believed that France is colluding with the jihadist rebels,” Kafui Kan-Senaya, the Secretary General of WAPO and the Research Secretary of the Socialist Movement of Ghana, told Peoples Dispatch.

In August 2022, Mali filed a complaint with the UNSC accusing France of acts of aggression, destabilization, the violation of its airspace, and of delivering arms to militant groups. On March 1, 2023, in a letter addressed to UNSC President Pedro Comissario Afonso, Mali announced an official challenge to France’s status as pen-holder on all matters concerning Mali in the Security Council, a position Paris has held since 2012.

The “penholder” status is held by only three countries in the UNSC — France, the UK, and the US — granting them extensive powers to take the lead on all Council actions on a particular issue, such as holding emergency meetings and drafting resolutions including those related to the deployment of peacekeeping forces.

Meanwhile, ahead of his visit to four Central African countries this week, French president Emmanuel Macron announced a “new security partnership” in Africa, with a “noticeable reduction” in the presence of French troops, without providing specifics of the numbers or the timeline. Moreover, Macron has specified that the move was “neither a withdrawal nor disengagement”, rather a reorganization.

While France’s military bases would not be shut down, they would instead be “co-administered” with national armed forces.

The end of Françafrique? 

Speaking in Gabon on March 1, Macron further declared that “The age of Françafrique is well over,” calling instead for a “balanced partnership,” and “more cooperation and training” when it came to France’s military presence on the continent.

However, the president’s comments have been met with skepticism, not only due to the ambiguity surrounding this military reorganization, but also given that “France has interests to preserve.”

“France believes that it needs to keep West African countries as its colonial assets, and within its area of influence,” Kan-Senaya said, “The anger in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea is [also] a result of France establishing their regional economic policy. The reserves of the three countries [as well as many other Francophone countries] are kept in France. France also retains the right to confiscate their national financial reserves.”

“According to the neocolonial arrangements inherited at independence, French companies have been given precedence in public contracts and tenders, in addition to having the right to supply military equipment and train military officers.”

He added further, “France also retains the first rights of preference over mineral reserves discovered in these countries, and reserves the right to use military force to defend its interests.”

In this context, WAPO has called for greater cooperation and unification, which will serve as a “fresh attempt to implement the Pan-Africanist model left to us by our founding fathers,” Kan-Senaya said. “The current attempts by France, and the US, to keep Francophone countries under their area of influence will not succeed, given the multipolar world order that is now emerging.”

“Africa should be allowed to determine who its friends are, and to be able to develop its national economies from dependent economies to self-reliant ones. When our countries are united, we can do common planning, develop our countries to benefit our people, and not have to continue under these neocolonial arrangements which exploit our resources.”

The efforts towards cooperation have also taken place following the suspension of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which proceeded to impose both individual as well as collective sanctions, some of which have been partially lifted after Burkina Faso and Mali presented plans for fresh elections.

However, the bloc rejected a joint request to lift the sanctions and to revoke the three countries’ suspension last month.

“ECOWAS has a membership made up of heads of state and governments that do not represent the aspirations of the people of West Africa. The people do not want sanctions or foreign military intervention in these countries. What they want is for the three countries to proceed with the unification effort,” Kan-Senaya said.

“As WAPO we believe that the unification of our people across colonial boundaries is necessary for the meaningful independence and democratic development. Our people have been exploited, repressed and humiliated for centuries, they may consider unification an expensive enterprise. And we accept that there will be internal challenges.”

WAPO has added in its statement, that the “capacity of leaders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea to inform, educate, and carry their citizens along in a fundamental reconstitution of their sovereignty, economies, democracies, and security will be far more profoundly democratic than the reinstatement of neo-colonial constitutions and corrupt elites that ECOWAS demands.”

Kan-Senaya added, “Democracy is the rule of the people by the people, and that requires the building of new institutions towards developing a society which will be able to offer equality and justice, and be able to provide the basic material needs for survival.”

WAPO has committed to offering principled, ideological and political support “taking the lead from our comrades in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea so as to give this struggle the greatest chances of success. We will press for a popular process that mobilizes all citizens of the three countries based on anti-imperialist, self-reliant, peaceful development.”

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