My dear Boris,

The French military intervention against the Islamists, which many Malians had both hoped for and feared over recent months, has now been launched.footnote1 It was the jihadist attack on the town of Konna on 9–10 January that sparked everything off. We were so afraid on hearing that news that the sound of a foreign army’s boots has aroused joy and relief among the population rather than anger. What is perhaps less apparent is a degree of embarrassment, even a sense of shame. Malians know that their army was facing a strong adversary, but they are also aware that there will be a high price to pay for the military debacle, which has put Paris in the position of liberator. I am among those who wanted at all costs to keep the hyena out of the sheepfold, but there it is; my friends and I have lost this battle for peace.

Immediately after the fall of Konna, the International Support Mission to Mali—supposedly spearheaded by our forces—was deployed. On television we saw, as though in a film, an imposing number of transporters arrive loaded with tanks, armoured cars, trucks and other vehicles. To complete our humiliation, all we see of this war unfolding on our soil is what the media is willing to show us. It’s not just due to lack of means or for security reasons that Malian tv censors itself: there’s also pride on the part of our journalists, who find it hard to bear the idea that our soldiers are being laughed at by the international press—who aren’t holding back, it must be said. ‘Mali’s Alarming Army’ runs the headline of Libération, which describes it as comprised of a ‘mishmash’, adding: ‘One worn-out old Kalashnikov for five or six soldiers, no dressings for the wounded in the largest military hospital in Kati, and no medicines either.’ How times have changed! African soldiers had a far better reputation when they were fighting for France. In the words of General Charles Mangin, an officer in the French colonial forces in the early 1900s: ‘Led as they are today by French officers, there is no enemy, whatever their number, colour or weaponry, that they cannot face with the greatest chance of success.’ It seems our soldiers can perform well only under the command of whites. Mangin was speaking in the last century, but his heirs, the minds behind Operation Serval, are moved by the same convictions.

No one will convince me that the intervention was decided on impulse. On 31 May 2012, two weeks after François Hollande was sworn in, a plan for military intervention was approved in Paris by a Subcommittee on Defence. The idea was to mobilize the international community behind an action led by the Africans themselves. As Le Figaro reported on 24 September 2012, France is ‘at the forefront of the future operation, the skeleton of which will be formed by ecowas forces’. The paper observed that ‘France is growing impatient. Some hundred members of its forces have already been deployed in the region . . . It is thought that they will soon be reinforced by French navy commandos.’ So the seeds of the idea had already been sown when, on 20 December 2012, the un Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2085 authorizing the deployment of an African force of 3,300 men, for an initial period of one year.

As a precondition for any intervention, resolution 2085 also stipulates that the Malian army must be rendered operational again. Badly affected by the budgetary cuts that have slashed the country’s public services since the 1980s, it remains Mali’s largest provider of jobs. However, its recruitment process has been more than a little opaque. Quotas were reserved for relatives of President Amadou Toumani Touré, and for dignitaries who then shamelessly sold them on to the highest bidder. The practice was so widespread that the prices were common knowledge—2 million cfa francs for a place on the officer training course at the École Militaire Interarmes, and between 250,000 and 500,000 to become a non-commissioned officer or private. I note in passing that the same system operated in the police force and customs service.