Amid heightened tensions between Mali and France, Mali's transitional authorities have asked for a review of the 2013 bilateral defence accords between Paris and Bamako. FRANCE 24 examines some of the details of the agreement and the likely impact of the latest development on the ground.
Slapped with tough sanctions that have effectively shut Mali's borders and facing Western condemnations over the presence of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Mali's military junta has now taken on the 2013 bilateral defence accords between Paris and Bamako.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 on Sunday, Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop said Bamako has officially asked France for a review of the bilateral defence pact. The request, which included suggested amendments, was made at the end of December, Diop added.
France has not yet officially reacted to the request although French diplomatic sources have told reporters that Paris is "examining" it.
The Malian defence minister's public announcement of the review request means the stakes are increasing and "the situation is much harder, and getting more and more complicated with France," explained Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24's counterterrorism expert.
Relations between France and Mali have plummeted since the West African regional bloc ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) on January 9 announced tough sanctions on Mali over the junta's delayed election timetable. The junta, which seized power in August 2020, is under regional pressure to return the country to civilian rule.
The sanctions, which are backed by France and the EU, have effectively shut the landlocked nation's land and air borders, with the UN and Air France announcing a temporary suspension of flights into Mali.
FRANCE 24 examines the details of the bilateral defence deals and why they have turned into a new source of contention between France and Mali.
An emergency agreement for a military intervention
The defence agreements between France and Mali were signed in March 2013 following the launch of the French military operation in Mali on January 11, 2013. Nearly a decade ago, when northern Mali fell to local rebel and jihadist groups, Malian authorities officially requested a French military intervention as insurgents advanced on the capital, Bamako.
France complied, deploying around 4,000 troops under Operation Serval.
A year later, the military mission was expanded to cover anti-insurgent operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region under Operation Barkhane.
Before the March 2013 defence agreement, the security partnership between France and Mali was defined by a technical cooperation agreement, signed in 1985, which provided for possible deployments of French soldiers on training missions or under operations supervised by Malian army command.
The 2013 bilateral security pact gave French forces the legal status to facilitate their intervention on Malian soil.
Enabling 'lasting peace and security'
The 2013 agreement, which was signed in a rush as insurgents advanced on the Malian capital, was ratified on July 16, 2014, in Bamako during a visit by France's then defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, to Mali.
Modeled after similar accords between Mali and several of its African partners (Cameroon, Togo, Central African Republic, Gabon and Senegal), this agreement aims to establish strengthened security cooperation in the long term.
It provides for a contribution to "lasting peace and security...particularly by securing border areas and fighting terrorism". The deal also allows access to Malian territory, "including its territorial waters and airspace", with the prior consent of the state.
The treaty is valid for a five-year period, after which it is automatically renewed. It however specifies that "the Parties [sic] may, at any time and by mutual agreement, amend the present treaty in writing".
The deal was reviewed in 2014, when Operation Serval gave way to Operation Barkhane. It was reviewed again in 2020, with the launch of the Takuba Task Force, composed mainly of special forces units from several EU nations.
On the ground, mission unchanged
In an interview with Malian state TV television late Saturday, Mali's interim prime minister, Choguel Kokalla Maïga, openly criticised the military deal, calling it "unbalanced" and noting that Mali "cannot even fly over its territory without France's permission".
On January 12, Mali denounced what it called a "clear breach" of its airspace by a French military plane that flew from Ivory Coast to Mali.
The French military however maintains the agreements on air traffic regulation exist to avoid midair collisions between military aircraft. French Defence Minister Florence Parly told reporters last week that the restrictions under the new sanctions do not cover military flights.
French military sources maintain that on the ground, nothing has changed, noted Nasr. Surveillance and military flights supporting the Mali army have continued. These include four joint operations between French and Malian militaries and the Takuba Task Force in the past few days conducted mostly in the unstable Menaka region near the Niger border, Nasr added.
Over the past few months, the Malian junta has repeatedly accused Paris of interference in the country's affairs. Nationalist sentiments in the country have risen with the junta's increasing regional and international isolation. Last week, tens of thousands of Malians responded to the junta's call for protests against the ECOWAS sanctions.
Meanwhile the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, has suspended all but emergency medical evacuation flights in the country pending negotiations with Malian authorities.
The negotiations and calls for deal reviews come as the security situation in Mali deteriorates, with Russian mercenaries engaging in their first fight against jihadist groups in the Menaka region, according to Nasr.
"If there are more complications on the military level, on the ground it will of course benefit the jihadists factions present there," said Nasr.
This article has been translated from the original in French.