On the afternoon of 3 January, the French military deployed a Reaper drone over the village of Bounti in central Mali. The drone dropped three bombs on a dwelling in an open area outside the village, killing dozens of rebel fighters, the French military said.
Hours after the attack, however, several witnesses from Bounti said a series of bombs had struck a wedding party in the village, killing up to 20 civilians and injuring several others. According to Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku, an advocacy group for Fulani herders, the father of the groom was killed, too. The group later published the names of 19 civilians who lost their lives in the attack. Seven more suffered injuries, they said.
“Those who were killed were civilians,” Hamadoun Dicko, the president of the group, told Reuters. “Whether there were jihadists around at the moment of the raid or not, I don’t know.”
Juan Carlos Cano, the head of mission for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Mali, told Middle East Eye that his staff had treated eight injuries from the town that evening. “The wounded and those who accompanied them spoke of air strikes; they said it was a wedding and that there were a few deaths,” Cano said.
But Cano added it would be impossible for him to conclude who the injured were. “We don’t classify patients as civilians or combatants; we find those in need of medical assistance and we try to treat them,” Cano, who is based in the Malian capital, Bamako, said.
On 7 January, the French military described accusations that they had bombed a wedding party as based on “misinformation”.
“This combat action involving a Reaper drone and a patrol of two Mirage 2000s made it possible to neutralise around 30 [armed fighters],” the defence ministry said in a press statement. “The elements available, whether it is the analysis of the area before and after the strike, as well as the robustness of the targeting process, make it possible to exclude the possibility of collateral damage.”
The Malian government promptly released a statement of its own, agreeing with France’s assessment, though it has also announced an investigation into the strike.
The dust had yet to settle, but given their French masters had already denied any wrongdoing, the case was as good as closed.
France’s forever war
This week marked eight years since France intervened militarily in Mali, purportedly to restore peace and security amid threats of separatism from the Tuaregs and a takeover by al-Qaeda-linked armed groups operating in the country’s north.
Close to a decade later, and not only is Mali no more secure or stable than it was when the French arrived, but the military operation remains as extensive as ever, with the French expanding into neighbouring Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad and Niger with a 5,000-strong force in tow.
What began as the “restoration” of Mali’s democracy after a 2012 coup and insurrection in the country’s north, purportedly grew into a larger concern in 2014 over so-called “illegal migration”, transnational crime and regional development.
In 2017, the French helped create the G5 Sahel Force (with the aforementioned countries) in what appeared as an attempt to concentrate counter-terrorism leadership in the region under French tutelage.
In reality, however, it was never really about stabilisation. It was always about control and neocolonialism.
The past decade has seen these weak, insecure governments in the Sahel provide cover to France’s colonial misadventures in the name of “fighting terrorism”. In return, the French military has given a slew of corrupt and authoritarian leaders free rein to use “terrorism” to brutalise, neglect or erase undesirables within their borders.
In effect, Mali remains a hollow state operating in perpetual serfdom to its French overlords.
Communal fault lines
In Mali, the French came with the grandeur of a liberating army, but their presence has only ushered in further fragmentation, often across ethnic and communal fault lines.
According to the UN, the attacks across community lines have also been “fuelled and instrumentalized” by groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, who were pushed into central regions following the presence of French troops in the north.
In Mali, the French came with the grandeur of a liberating army, but their presence has only ushered in further fragmentation, often across ethnic and communal fault lines
More than 4,000 people were killed in 2019 alone. Between May 2010 and April 2020, the number of internally displaced rose from 600,000 to 1.5 million.
“A large majority of victims are indirect victims of violence, because there’s already been a permanent conflict in the area for many years, and the whole population is affected – because they cannot access fields for their crops, or take their livestock to pasture. They cannot access health services, and we are also constrained in where we can reach the population,” Cano from MSF said.
“The biggest cause of death isn’t direct violence but indirect violence,” he said.
For all its talk of human rights, liberty and a desire for stability, France, like the US, continues to serenade leaders most antithetical to these touted values, often at the expense of the local population. It would be no surprise for the Malian government to cover for a massive French blunder in the village of Bounti.
It’s what client states do.
France has carried out around dozens of interventions across Africa since the 1960s. It has supported states that upheld French dominance, despite achieving independence, and overturned those who defied their orders.
Though French President Emmanuel Macron has tried to persuade West Africa that he is too young to be a keeper of French colonialism in the region, there is very little to suggest otherwise.
Beyond security, “the French want, I think, to stay influential in their former colonies and have this leadership in this sort of global division of labour” by major powers, Yvan Guichaoua, from the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies, told AP in August 2020.
“It’s a way to perpetuate the narrative of French grandeur among French public opinion … We’re still a big power.”
With the introduction of armed drones in Mali in December 2019, a conflict already characterised by a lack of transparency and immeasurable brutality has left ordinary people feeling vulnerable and perpetually uneasy.
Families are well aware that those who find themselves at the wrong end of a flying machine that arrives, incinerates at will and disappears into the skies have no recourse to justice or accountability. In February 2020, witnesses said a drone strike killed numerous civilians in an area near Gossi in central Mali. When pressed by Mediapart, the French military immediately dismissed these claims as false.
In response to questions from MEE, the French defence ministry said that due to “security reasons” they were not in a position to provide any information beyond what was given in their media statement.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali did not reply to MEE’s request for comment or clarity.
Like US attacks on Yemen, Afghanistan or Somalia, there is no proof that those killed by the drone strikes were combatants. Given Macron’s insistence on “liberating Islam” and the repeated attempts to institutionalise Islamophobia in France, it is unclear what it even means to be a combatant.
Maybe it means being Muslim. Maybe it means whoever Macron deems a combatant to be.
But there is certainly no paper trail, names or any track records of the alleged combatants’ crimes and why they deserved to die. Despite being cocksure over who they killed, the French military aren’t even sure how many perished in the strike: “Around 30,” the defence ministry said.
Armed rebels in Mali and elsewhere already know they aren’t supposed to gather in groups because of drones, which begs the question: how can the French army be so sure they killed combatants and not a group of men attending a gender-separated wedding party?
They can’t. But more importantly, they don’t care.
Additional reporting by Chloe Benoist in London