Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Sovereignty Claims and Contested Readmission Agreements in Mali



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Guest post by Signe Marie Cold-Ravnkilde. Signe is a Senior Researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) interested in the politics of security, migration and development, in particular in the Sahel region of West Africa. Signe is part of the collaborative research project Borderwork: Migrants, Brokers and European Border Governance in West Africa, based at DIIS. This post is featured as part of a Themed Week on Border Externalisation in Africa. It draws on Signe’s recently published article in Geopolitics, Borderwork in the Grey Zone: Everyday Resistance within European Border Control Initiatives in Mali, which will be free to access for the next month, as part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms.

Recent tensions between Mali and the EU regarding counter-terrorism operations echo ongoing disputes around the readmission of Malian nationals from EU member states. Both centre on sovereignity claims and how they are instrumentalised by the Malian government to avoid public backlash.


‘La maison des Maliens de l’extérieur’ (reception centre based in Bamako, Mali) (Photo: Philibert Sylla)


On 27th January 2022 the military leaders of Mali’s transitional government asked Denmark to withdraw its recently deployed special forces in the country. 105 Danish troops had been sent to Mali a week before to contribute to Task Force Takuba, a French-led European joint task force commanded by the French counter-terror operation Barkhane. Together with ten other European member states, the Danish special forces were to support and partly replace the French troops, who had been on the ground since 2013. Legally, Task Force Takuba is based on an additional protocol to France’s defence agreement with Mali. Accordingly, Denmark said its troops were deployed based on an invitation from Mali. However, Mali claimed that a decision was yet to be made on the Danish request to deploy troops and that consequenlty the bilateral agreement with Denmark was inadequate. This was a thorn in the side of France, who for years has attempted to Europeanise its military operations by inviting in other European member states to join its military operations in Mali.  

Mali’s request to withdraw Danish troops spurred an escalating diplomatic crisis between Mali and its fomer colonial power, France, culminating in the French Foreign Minister, Yvan Le Drian, calling Mali’s transitional government ‘illegitimate’ and ‘irresponsible’. This lead to Mali threatening to break its defence agreement with France, claming that ‘certain provisions are contrary to the Constitution and the sovereignty of Mali’. Now, France may soon be pulling its troops out of Mali.

While in the media the potential French pull out from Mali is often compared to the dramatic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021, the contestation over sovereignty also mirrors past EU-Malian power struggles over the Union’s migration policies directed at Mali. In 2016, the issue of sovereignty was equally at play during a diplomatic crisis between Mali and the EU over the disputed readmission agreements on the return of so-called irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers residing in Europe.

In this blog post, which builds on a recent article published in Geopolitics, I argue that claims to sovereignty are tactically enacted in the diplomatic disputes between EU member states and the Malian state in ways that enable Malian state actors to negotiate power within its increasingly contentious partnership with the EU. In both cases, the contestation over the Danish troop deployment to Task Force Takuba and in the EU-Mali contestation over readmission agreements, the question of sovereignty and the ability to negotiate bilateral agreements with individual EU member states are key claims made by the Malian officials.

Contested readmission agreements

In December 2016 the then Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders travelled to Mali on behalf of Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to try and reach political agreements on curbing the number of Malian nationals entering the EU through irregular routes and secure the return of Malian nationals residing irregularly in EU states. Just one day after Koenders proudly announced that a readmission agreement with Mali had been settled, Mali’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Abdoulaye Diop, denounced the agreement. While the EU wanted standard operating procedures for issuing a return if they can prove that the migrant is from Mali, the Malian government insisted that returns should be based on bilateral agreements. According to a Malian public official who I spoke with during fieldwork in 2019, the dispute was 'a question of sovereignty'. This question is particularly critical given the widespread resistance to readmission agreements from the Malian public. Amongst government officials there was considerable fear that the Koenders episode would exacerbate this unrest.

For Malian citizens, readmission agreements are unpopular because the population benefits from remittances sent by migrants abroad. Hence, the Malian government’s public denouncement did not silence the widespread public protests against the readmission agreements, leaving negotiations at a standstill. As the 2017 progress reports on the European Agenda on Migration states: ‘Cooperation on readmission with Mali has shown no sign of progress’.

Negotiating sovereignty as a form of ‘borderwork’   

Despite the official standstill, the deportation of Malian citizens from European countries to Mali still happens under the radar. In the airport you will see Malians being sent back from France. But not in massive numbers. Just two to three people a the time in order not to provoke a scandal. So, while Malian government officials openly reject the agreements on return when speaking to their own population, to the EU they at times overtly embrace the discourse of partnership to maintain their ‘strategic cooperation’ with the EU and its member states. Meanwhile, despite overtly acknowledging the urgency of the matter for its donors, in practice the Malian government officials halt and delay the actual return of their citizens by, for example,  delaying the process of issuing travel documents, as an instance of everyday resistance. This response of Malian state leaders to EU border externalisation policies is illustrative of a subtle form of political struggle over mobility, what might be termed ‘borderwork’. Borderwork takes the form of ‘actively resisting or moulding border control’ through everyday practices (Cold-Ravnkilde 2021, Borderwork in the Grey Zone). This political borderwork can furthermore be seen as an attempt to mitigate the unequal power dynamics between the Malian government and a powerful multilateral union of European member states.

The end of border externalisation?

While Mali’s former government (2013-2020) tactically accepted and embraced the discourse of partnership to maintain its strategic cooperation with the EU and its member states, as illustrated in the recent contestation over the Danish troop deployments, Mali’s new military leaders since 2020 do not agree on the terms set by France and its European allies. During the latest fragmentations in the military collaboration between Europe and Mali, new claims of sovereignty have been clearly uttered. Mali’s new military leaders seem more than willing to temporarily break or shake the terms of cooperation. A disrupted partnership could easily entail a major setback in the EU’s strategy of enhancing border control and confinement in its southern neighborhood. In a post-colonial context where new military coup leaders claim to speak on the behalf of their population while feeding into public anti-French sentiments, the EU will most certainly experience intensified difficulties in dictating policies and frameworks that are increasingly seen as only pursuing the EU’s own geo-strategic interests. Deals on public contentious issues like return and readmission could become even harder to strike for the EU as these policies are conceived to be in opposition to Mali’s interests and easily framed by populist leaders as an attempt to disregard the country’s sovereignty.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Cold-Ravnkilde, S. M. (2022) Sovereignty Claims and Contested Readmission Agreements in Mali. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2022/05/sovereignty [date]

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