Why did France intervene in the African state of Mali?
Parts of the country had fallen under Al Qaeda control, but a few weeks’ worth of airstrikes have apparently left the Islamic militants in disarray, and an international force from the African Union is now beginning to take over on the ground.
One reason was obviously to fight terrorism, which has been growing in North Africa since the toppling of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. But France also has economic interests in the region, though no major interests in Mali itself, whose chief export products are cotton and gold. However, several companies, including Total, are prospecting for oil and gas in the Taoudeni basin in northern Mali.
Another regional economic interest for France is that Mali is a neighbour of another desert state, Niger – separated from Mali by just a line in the sand – and Niger is a key supplier of uranium, amounting to 30 per cent of French needs. The loss of the uranium mines at Arlit and Akokan (a third is under construction) in northern Niger would be a disaster for French energy giant Areva. As it would be for Niger’s government, which earns 140 million dollars a year from these mines – 30 per cent of the country’s export income.
Press reports say that French commandos are now guarding the mines at Arlit. The decision was made in the wake of the dramatic hostage incident in Algeria in January. Several hundred gas workers were taken hostage, and 69 people died, including 39 hostages and 29 Islamist militants, after the Algerian army intervened.
The Arlit site has also seen a hostage incident. Seven plant workers, including five Frenchmen, were taken in September 2010, and four are still believed to be captive.
In January 2011 two young Frenchmen, Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory, were kidnapped in the centre of Niamey, the capital of Niger, and taken to the terrorist bastions in the north, where they were subsequently killed in a failed rescue attempt.
French soldiers currently guard the space port in French Guyana, and French marines are stationed on ships in the Indian Ocean to protect against Somali piracy. But the presence at Arlit marks the first time French forces have been sent to guard a private installation on land.
According to Le Monde, quoting Algerian security sources, Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Mali/Niger haves earned €150m in ransom for hostages in the last couple of years. The region is increasingly becoming a highly dangerous place to work.
The IET has welcomed a call by MP Chi Onwurah, herself an IET Fellow, for the UK government to work with professional bodies to help individuals and companies make informed choices about the risks of working abroad.