Bamako has further escalated its conflict with Paris by demanding the revocation of the defence agreements between the two countries. The French army’s chief of staff has described this decision as "illegitimate".
Paris and Bamako’s divorce is now being played out on several fronts. In a confidential note verbale sent on 2 May to the French embassy in Bamako’s chargé d’affaires, Mali’s ruling junta denounced the defence agreements concluded in 2013 with France and its European partners in the Takuba force.
Koulouba deplores “a profound deterioration in military cooperation with France”. Furthermore, it blames Paris for “multiple violations of Malian airspace, operated by French military aircraft, in defiance of the spirit of the Treaty of Cooperation in Defence” and says it regrets “its lack of response to the requests to revise the cooperation treaty” that Bamako made last December to the French ministry of defence.
According to our information, this concerned the revision of several provisions outlined in the military cooperation treaty signed in 2014. In particular, Mali has expressed its desire to change the law governing the stationing of French forces in Mali and the law linking the two countries in terms of intelligence.
Nevertheless, Koulouba now wants much more. The junta wishes to revoke three major texts that govern the French intervention in Mali. These are the 2013 Sofa agreement framing the status of the ‘Serval’ force, which became ‘Barkhane’ in Mali; the 2014 defence cooperation treaty, which defines the military collaboration between the two countries; and the additional 2020 protocol, which determines the status of the European Takuba contingent’s non-French detachments.
Not all texts are equally important. Terminating the 2013 Sofa agreement and its additional 2020 protocol “immediately”, which is what the junta wants, would have serious consequences. In contrast, revoking the 2014 Defence Cooperation Treaty would have little impact. Cooperation in training and information exchange between the two countries is now almost entirely suspended and due to end in six months’ time, as stipulated in the law.
Condemnation from Paris
Paris reacted quickly. In a press briefing on 4 May, the French military staff “condemned this unilateral decision by the Malian forces”, terming it as “unjustifiable”.
This could have serious consequences for the French force and the European Takuba force.
“We feel that the legal analysis presented by the Malian authorities – according to which the Sofa is denounced with ‘immediate effect’ because of a ‘violation of this treaty’ – is unfounded,” said the staff. ”We have always been keen to observe all the rules that the [Malian] authorities have defined within this agreement.”
In its counter-attack, Paris intends to rely on the 1969 Vienna Convention to extend the deadline for the termination of the Sofa agreement to 12 months. Article 56(2) states that “a party shall give at least 12 months’ notice of its intention to terminate or withdraw from a treaty in accordance with the provisions of paragraph 1”.
The immediate end of Sofa would have irreversible effects on the functioning of the French and European forces still present in Mali. As a matter of fact, it would put an end to the military cooperation between France and Mali that was established 10 years ago. “This could have serious consequences for the French force and the European Takuba force. They will no longer be exempt from visas, which allowed them to enter and move freely on Malian territory,” Julien Antouly, a PhD student in law of armed conflict at the University of Paris-Nanterre, tells us. “This would also put an end to the customs exemption for material imports.”
Although this denunciation is aimed directly at Barkhane, it would also have immediate repercussions on the European force. Article 1 of the additional Sofa protocol signed in 2020 stipulates that Takuba is “under French command to participate in French-led missions in Mali”. The end of the French intervention in the country would thus force the European partners to either re-articulate or terminate their mission in Mali.
Dialogue behind the scenes
It now remains to be seen how the Malian authorities will respond to France’s blockade. For now, officially, Paris has given a final refusal. “We believe that the agreement on Sofa’s status will continue to produce its effects until the last French soldier leaves Malian soil,” said the French general staff.
However, behind the scenes, mediation is being sought and dialogue has been initiated. On 3 May, France’s foreign affairs minister Jean-Yves le Drian and his teams held lengthy talks with the head of Malian diplomacy, Abdoulaye Diop. According to our information, the commander of the Barkhane force will also contact the Malian army’s chief of staff in the coming days to seek common ground. “We take note of this political decision and we will establish a high-level dialogue with the Malian military,” said the French ministry of defence.
Although Paris hopes that diplomatic channels will suffice to restore calm, a well-informed source assures us that – should Bamako resist – France could resort to “other means” to ensure that Barkhane is redefined in the Sahel.