Some may recall a candid speech from a French diplomat in July 2012 about Mali and its neighbors. It was delivered by Laurent Bigot, then France’s top diplomat for West Africa. Bigot’s candor got him fired, but earned him a reputation for speaking uncomfortable truths. He has now penned an op-ed in Le Monde under the title “Operation Barkhane: A license to kill in the Sahel.” His analysis this time similarly pulls no punches, excoriating French and Malian officials in equal measure for their lack of vision, foolishness and duplicity. I was sufficiently impressed by Bigot’s short text to translate it here in its entirety in hopes of gaining it a wider audience.
Since France’s intervention in Mali, the defense ministry regularly congratulates itself on putting presumed terrorists “out of the fight.” The French army is carrying out the death penalty, which France abolished in 1981 and which its diplomats are trying to abolish around the world. This strange paradox stems from the lack of reflection on how to fight terrorism.
France has bought into the American concept of fighting terrorism, the infamous “war on terror,” without gauging its consequences and especially without realizing its tragic ineffectiveness. One need only look at the state of Afghanistan and Iraq to understand the extent of this strategy’s failure. A total failure. Mali is no exception to the rule. 18 months after the beginning of the French intervention, the security situation in the north is at its most precarious despite the international military presence, and the situation in Bamako is as degraded as it was on the eve of President Amadou Toumani Touré’s ouster.
Yet I am among those who consider the intervention to have been a courageous political decision by President Hollande. Unfortunately, the absence of thinking about terrorism’s causes, coupled with a troubling denial of Malian political realities, turned the military victory into a political defeat.
Fighting terrorism cannot be reduced to eliminating its alleged leaders. To execute presumed terrorists without any form of trial is to kill in the name of our values, the very act for which we justifiably reproach our adversaries. Some call it legitimate self-defense. This forgets that it’s defined in French law: a riposte must come at the moment of the aggression, otherwise it’s an act of revenge. And this is how it is perceived by local populations, because executing an alleged terrorist leader is first of all killing a father, a husband, a son or a brother. I do not forget the victims of terror but, under the rule of law, it is the duty of justice to investigate and punish. Credibly promoting the rule of law entails a non-negotiable requirement: leading by example.
The strategy of an eye for an eye masks the root of the problem: why do terrorist movements take hold in some regions and not others? With respect to northern Mali the answer is fairly simple, even if the solution is not. The failure of the state in the north and its predatory, even murderous presence (the Malian army has carried out abuses several times since independence, including recently) have created a void to be filled by armed groups, which also carry out a social mission beyond the terror they wield over local populations. While the people of northern Mali have little taste for the way of life imposed by terrorist groups, neither do they care for the presence of the Malian state as they have always known it.
This post-independence Malian state has never been a blessing for these populations. So, when they fall under the control of terrorist groups, they do what they’ve done for centuries: they adapt. They simply move from one precarious situation to another. These terrorist groups too are trying to win acceptance, by buying food staples at above-market prices, transporting the sick to the closest clinics or establishing order. Testimony confirms the security that prevailed in Gao during the reign of these groups – which obviously does not excuse any of the violence they carried out – even as French diplomacy seems unmoved by the same violence when carried out by Saudi Arabia. Maybe it’s about their buying power?
Northern Malians have, moreover, completely turned away from the political system established by the national conference in the early 1990s. Mali’s democracy once so lauded by the West has given way to the predation of special interests along the lines of what goes on in Bamako. Democracy is perceived as allowing a minority to enrich itself with full impunity and the blessing of the international community, whose hypocrisy borders on collusion. We must confront this perception to understand why a military force and the billions of euros announced at international conferences are no longer convincing to anybody on the ground.
As I emphasized, the solution is not so easy. Let us start with an ambition founded on demanding the truth. Malian authorities are primarily responsible for this enormous mess. Let us not cloud the issue; let us be exacting in our partnership with Mali. If we remain satisfied with false pretenses, the same causes will yield the same effects. I have often heard that not all truths are good to tell. The strength of a truth lies not in being silenced but in being spoken, with all the respect one accords one’s fellows. This is the terrain on which France is expected.