OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — We were 15 minutes into our second interview with internal refugees in a shack in this capital’s southern suburbs last July when one of my contacts poked his head in and told us that the assistant neighborhood chief needed to see us immediately.
Before I could hand over my credentials and visa, the assistant chief explained that residents of the neighborhood had seen me two days earlier speaking with ethnic Fulbe men who had fled the country’s civil war. They believed I was French. When I returned that morning, the same people asked the local authorities who this man was who spoke the Fulbe language (me), but they had no answer for them. These are dangerous times, he cautioned, especially because the French are supporting jihadists in Mali and possibly in Burkina Faso.
He was right, I replied: I should have informed the local authorities of my presence. But the second I began explaining myself, in French, his expression relaxed as he realized I am in fact not French but American. Now he changed tack, insisting that he personally was a friend to Fulbe people, having prayed in the same mosques and attended their ceremonies since they had sought shelter in the area five years earlier. However, he warned, there were others in the neighborhood who believed Fulbe supported the jihadists and were convinced my presence was evidence of a wider plot and were threatening to call the police. Thanking him for warning us, I followed his advice to leave immediately.
I was able to properly reflect on the interaction only a few days later after multiple calls to my contacts among the displaced Fulbe people to ensure my thoughtless naivete had not endangered them.
I was particularly intrigued by the accusation that the French government was supporting the Al Qaeda and Islamic State-aligned jihadists. As I have had the privilege of traveling around West Africa over the last year, I have been surprised that such allegations, which I had previously thought amounted to little more than online rumors, were repeated to me as if standard fact, from small villages in southern Senegal to the humid suburbs of the Ghanaian capital Accra.
The spread of this rumor is emblematic of a massive failure of French foreign policy in the West African countries it once controlled as colonies. In 2013, the French troops who dislodged secessionist rebels and opportunistic jihadists from northern Mali’s urban centers were met by jubilant crowds waving French flags. A decade later, al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked insurgents control large swaths of the Sahel, French troops have been expelled by the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, and the allegation that the French are supporting the jihadists is repeated at the United Nations.
Western pundits and politicians tend to chalk the spread of the accusations, and much of the general anti-French sentiment, up to Russian propaganda. When asked to respond to criticism that France exploits its former colonies in November of 2022, President Emmanuel Macron pivoted to accusing Russia of feeding this perception as a part of a “predatory” project to “hurt France, hurt its language, sow doubts.”
Macron’s comments came a year after the first troops from the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner group arrived in Bamako, as relations between the Malian authorities and France were disintegrating and Bamako was looking for new partners. In addition to the military deployment, there has also been an informational warfare component, most blatantly evidenced by the attempt to frame French soldiers for civilian deaths in April 2022 in the town of Gossi, from where the French army had already withdrawn.
While coordinated pro-Russian Facebook groups are spreading anti-French messages, that alone does not explain why this rumor in particular has gained traction across the region. Portraying West Africans as simpletons who will believe anything they read or watch on social media is analytically hollow and raises racist stereotypes.
Talking to people who believe the French are supporting jihadists reveals much more about how the rumor has spread, what makes it believable to people and ultimately why it is so appealing. While the rumors have been spread by regional leaders who find them politically useful, others believe it because it fits into a well-established narrative that contains a lot of truth to it. Ultimately it is an understandable explanation for the otherwise incredibly complex, multifaceted and existential crisis in the Sahel.
The rumor that the French government is supporting terrorists had been percolating in Mali long before Wagner arrived. In an academic article about rumors of French intervention in Mali, the German scholar Denis Tull reports how thousands of protesters in Bamako and other northern cities gathered in 2014 to protest following rumors that French forces had fought alongside rebels against the Malian army in the city of Kidal. While the protests dissipated, the rumors continued to crop up on social media, Tull writes, and were picked up by a wide spectrum of society, including a handful of highly placed state officials. However, as long as Mali’s government remained officially aligned with Paris, national leaders avoided making public statements about the matter.
That changed after a May 2021 coup by Colonel Assimi Goïta, which prompted a diplomatic rupture with France. After French President Emmanuel Macron questioned whether the Malian government was legitimate in October 2021, Mali’s then-Prime Minister Choguel Maïga made the first official public comment that France was training terrorists.
The diplomatic spat deepened, with Malian Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop asking the United Nations for a special meeting to present evidence France was violating Malian airspace “to collect information for terrorist groups operating in the Sahel and to drop arms and ammunition to them.” The Security Council has yet to provide Mali the forum, but Diop and interim Prime Minister Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga have still continued to raise the issue at the UN and other international forums.
As the accusations, and France’s denials, were widely covered in the West African press, the allegations went from being discussed mostly in private inside Mali to being voiced by leaders and populations across the region. In Niger, where the government is also fighting an insurgency with France’s help, the claims have been repeated by the influential civil society coalition M26. Even further afield in Accra, I watched last October as a leader of the Fulbe community casually explained to people who had come to seek his counsel that it was obvious France was supporting the jihadists.
Whether or not they are convincing, the allegations serve a political use for the leaders who spout them. By attributing the insurgents’ success to French support, the Malian authorities deflect blame from their own handling of the security situation. In Niger, the allegations also provide opposition figures with a very reasonable example of why the current leadership, which is aligned with France, does not have the people’s best interests at heart. And for Fulbe leaders in Ghana, blaming the French for the insurgent spread allows them to deflect from domestic accusations that Ghanaian Fulbe themselves are joining the militants. Yet, while politicians have clearly played a central role in endorsing and spreading the rumors, it does not explain why they are so believable to many West Africans.
It may partly have to do with couching the allegation Paris supports jihadists as part of a larger, well-established critique of French neocolonialism, as often happens. “Even if it isn’t true, it sounds like something France would do,” Cheriff Diallo, a well-respected elderly farmer and dear friend told me during my recent visit to the city of Kolda in southern Senegal. While some claims about France are outlandish (Paris is pushing Senegalese President Macky Sall to run for an unconstitutional third term to maintain control of the country’s zirconium mines), others are accurate (a prominent French cement company paid the Islamic State a regular tax to keep operating in northern Syria), all of which makes accusations the French are supporting jihadists sound more plausible.
As his beaten-up Peugeot crawled over the bridge spanning the Niger river that bisects Mali’s capital Bamako, a young well-educated Malian friend began discussing France. While unsure about direct French support to jihadists, my friend (who preferred to go unnamed) was convinced that France is trying to keep Mali, and other former French colonies, divided and weak. When I asked for evidence, he described how the French allowed a group of northern secessionists to remain in a town called Kidal following a 2013 intervention to dislodge rebels and jihadists. For many Malians, the actions in Kidal are proof of a neocolonial plot to divide the country.
Although there is no evidence of a plan to break up Mali, the French military did prevent Malian troops from entering Kidal in 2013, which allowed former rebels to take charge. Independent reporting has since revealed how elements within the French military and intelligence services have long courted Tuareg fighters as allies, thus maintaining relationships with secessionist groups. France carried out missions alongside Tuareg-dominated armed militias as recently as 2018. It is not inconceivable that some of those fighters have since joined groups that are considered terrorists by the government in Bamako. For many Malians, those actions smack of continued interference in domestic politics.
During my conversation with Diallo in southern Senegal, he brought up France’s involvement in the ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Ivory Coast’s Laurent Gbagbo. In Anglophone West Africa, people cite French support to the secessionist government of Biafra during Nigeria’s civil war in the late 1960s. In Ghana, the Fulbe leader I spoke with summed up by comparing France’s post-colonial history with the UK’s: “When the British left, they left. The French never did.”
While academics and pundits debate the extent of French neocolonial influence, the very real history of secret deals, military interventions and elite pacts provides fertile ground for speculation about current motivations. Many claims about persistent French meddling are references to “Françafrique,” the sphere of influence the French government maintained after the former colonies gained independence in the 1960s. There have been many elements, from funding of cultural centers to sweetheart deals for French businesses and African elites to direct military intervention propping up friendly autocrats such as Hissène Habré in Chad and Mobutu Sese Seko in what was then Zaire. As France had to scale back for economic reasons in the 1980s, it lost its role as the region’s sole international patron, opening the door to more diverse social and economic influences.
But the plausibility of accusations against the French still does not fully account for their deeper appeal.
Across West Africa, people are desperate for an explanation for how a seemingly local rebellion in northern Mali in 2012 spawned a regional insurgency that has destabilized three countries and now threatens at least three others to the south. This need for answers is not unique to people from the region. Psychologists call this “cognitive-closure,” and point out that it is more acute when the stakes are perceived to be existential.
In many parts of the Sahel, the stakes are indeed existential. Since 2012, around 35,000 people have been killed and millions have fled their homes in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. Last year, jihadists struck at the heart of Mali’s security establishment, housed a 30-minute drive from Bamako. Meanwhile insurgents in Burkina Faso have laid siege to the city of Djibo in the north for a year, are seizing more territory in the south, and appear to be encircling the capital. Amid this perilous situation, people are desperate for answers for how the situation could have possibly become this bad.
But these answers are hard to come by. Around a dozen different insurgent groups control vast territory today preying on rural communities while fighting Sahelian governments, foreign interveners, local militias and at times each other. Their leaders, fighters and alliances are constantly changing. Meanwhile, there is considerable debate among Sahelian and outside experts as to what motivates people to join these groups, how much control leaders exercise over fighters in far flung areas and the role of religion in day-to-day strategy. All this ambiguity creates fertile soil for various explanations, some more plausible than others.
The confusion about the causes and contours of the conflict exists among conflict experts, politicians, civil society organizations, humanitarians and even the people on the frontlines of the war. As the researcher Aoife McCullough relates, residents in the Tillaberi region of Niger, where over 1,000 civilians have been killed since 2016, describe strange aircraft—probably drones—flying over villages before attacks. That kind of technology is typically associated with Europeans, more grist for believing the French are giving information to jihadist groups, even if it is more likely that those small drones are actually piloted by insurgents.
Meanwhile, in Sahelian capitals, two common misconceptions contribute to the theory’s explanatory power. On the one hand, the French military is perceived as all-powerful, as evidenced by its success at dislodging northern rebels in 2013. Therefore, the fact that the insurgency has continued to spread despite the intervention is taken as evidence that France must somehow be involved. At the same time, an urban chauvinism reinforces the idea that people from rural areas are backward and disconnected from modernity. These two strands are reflected in a question I’ve heard asked many times in one form or another: “How else could illiterate peasants have taken over so much territory if they are not supported by the French?”
In places further afield where the threat of violence is less pronounced, as in northern Ghana, the information gap is even wider. Most of the news about the conflicts in the Sahel is in French, but Ghana is an Anglophone country. Indeed, halfway through my conversation with a professor at the University of Development Studies in the northern capital of Tamale, he revealed he did not know who Amadou Koufa or Iyad Ag Ghali, two of the most prominent jihadist leaders in Mali, are. That did not stop him from wondering aloud whether France is supporting the jihadists. “Without any other explanation,” he said, “this is the best one.”
Beyond the existential and ambiguous nature of the situation, there is also an element of the rumor that is comforting as it places the causes of the conflict on outsiders. Simply put, it is easier to blame everything on France than look at how successive Malian and Burkinabe governments have systematically failed rural citizens for generations. As the conflict has taken an ethnic dimension in places like central Mali and northern Burkina Faso, leaders such as Captain Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso blame any ethnicization on “stateless people” who are trying to hinder the army’s (alleged) progress.
As the Nigerien intellectual Rahmane Idrissa noted in an article about anti-French sentiments in the Sahel, conversations about the conflict increasingly center on “the eternal badness of France, never about practical solutions or strategic present.”
Ultimately, heaping all the blame for conflict on France ascribes more power to Paris than it actually has, obscuring national and local causes. At the same time, the lack of evidence for some of the accusations against France feeds French punditry that dismisses all claims of French malfeasance in West Africa, when in fact neo-colonial relationships do exist.
Reducing the ambiguity about Paris’s relationships with its African allies would help close the information gap rumors occupy. The participation last November of the French ambassador to Niger in an open debate with university students on their campus was a good if painful start. Releasing France’s agreement with the Nigerien government would be even more helpful. Beyond the Sahel, investigating alleged corruption involving French businesses in Africa would help draw a line between the era of Françafrique and today.
For many Africans, the tone in which French leaders speak about the continent reveals an enduring neo-colonial gaze. When he became president, Macron often spoke of resetting relations, but many Africans believe his approach still smacks of colonial arrogance. He was pilloried for summoning African leaders to France to stand next to him and announce they supported the French war effort in January 2020 even when some clearly had reservations. Meanwhile, news such as the national assembly applauding a right-wing member of parliament’s nostalgic comments about colonialism only furthers the impression that France has not moved on from its colonial past.
It is important to note that France is hardly universally reviled. Many West Africans cheer the French national football team, most of whose players have African ancestry, at the World Cup. Taxis are plastered with decals that say “Air Paris.” Every year thousands of young West Africans risk their lives to travel to France to find work. As Cheriff explained to me in Kolda, “I do not dislike French people, I know that there are many French people who feel even stronger about this than I do.”
Despite its tortured relationship with its former colonies, France is not doomed to endless suspicion and hostility. But as long as its leaders continue to blame others instead of examining their own histories and making meaningful reforms in their relationship with former colonies, rumors and allegations about their motivations and actions will continue to haunt them.
 Denis M. Tull, “Contesting France: Rumors, Intervention and the Politics of Truth in Mali”, Critique Internationale, 90(1), 2021.
Top photo: Militants in the Tillaberi region of Niger in 2021