Mali without taboos

Interview with Bruno Fanucchi, major reporter.

A demonstration demanding the departure of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, June 5, 2020 in Bamako © Baba Ahmed/AP/SIPA

Alain Boinet for Défis Humanitaires. Hello Bruno Fanucchi, thank you for accepting this interview for Défis Humanitaires. First of all, as someone who knows Mali and Africa well, how do you analyze the motives that led to the overthrow of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita during the coup d’état of August 18 of last year? 

Bruno Fanucchi. There had been growing a long popular exasperation in Mali because President IBK was very out of touch with reality. His re-election in August 2018 was more than contested, but he did what was necessary to stay in power. This is fairly classic in Africa: leaders in power usually only hold elections if they are sure to win. His main flaw, which worked against him, is Karim Keita, his own son. He was elected deputy and president of the Defense Commission in the National Assembly, and indulged in some very “jet-setting” parties, which went around the world and shocked Mali. Karim himself ruined his father’s political career. He fled to Côte d’Ivoire on the evening of the coup d’état of 18 August 2020, where he was taken in by his good friend Hamed Bakayoko, who had just been promoted to Prime Minister in Abidjan. IBK’s main ball and chain was therefore his son.

In addition to this, there was the widespread corruption that Mali had known before him, which he allowed to continue and worsen, particularly in the justice system and the administration. This led to deep popular resentment, which resulted in the M5 movement and major demonstrations in Bamako starting on June 5. Finally, a handful of courageous young colonels decided to act and “recuperated” the movement to prevent Mali – which had become a failed state – from sinking into anarchy or the Islamists from taking power.

Without it being clear who really gave the order, the government then fired on the crowd on July 10, killing a dozen people and wounding more than 150. That was the wrong thing to do. Critics then focused on Prime Minister Boubou Cissé, who was accused of having “blood on his hands” and who had never assumed his responsibilities. This set off a firestorm and the power fell like a ripe fruit in the coup of August 18, 2020.

DH. The results of the previous legislative elections were contested. Did this event play a role in the coup? 

BF. That’s right: it was the trigger for this popular anger. The results were contested, but the government tried to delay for a few weeks by hiding the face and finally these results were proclaimed: some were cancelled, others confirmed. Hence the great confusion. The result was not long in coming: tens of thousands of Malians took to the streets. Popular exasperation was at its peak. Especially since it was the hot season and the temperature was sometimes between 40° and 45°. Even in Bamako, there are often load shedding, electricity cuts and water cuts. Hence, popular resentment is exacerbated and quite understandable. And when social anger rises, it quickly becomes irresistible and sweeps everything in its path.

DH. Last May 24, another coup d’état. The President of the French Republic, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of a “coup within a coup”. For what reasons, now that the transition is in place, Colonel Assimi Goïta, who had led the first coup, decided to overthrow the President and the Prime Minister in place.  How to understand this?

Colonel Assimi Goita addressing the press at the Malian Ministry of Defense in Bamako, Mali, after confirming his position as president of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). Malik Konate, AFP

BF. Beware of the weight of words that have their importance. For me, this is not a coup d’état. One can speak of a “coup de force”, but a coup d’état which, in Africa, does not leave a single person dead, where there is not a single shot, and where the whole country goes back to work the next day after two weeks of general strike, I say: hats off! Apart from the political class, the vast majority of Malians have experienced this.

That it was a “coup de force”, that the West and international or regional bodies such as ECOWAS were obliged to condemn it diplomatically for form’s sake, is understandable. But to speak of a “coup d’état within a coup d’état”, as President Emmanuel Macron immediately called it, is only a formula and it was very clumsy… I was in Bamako at the time and, apart from the evening of May 24, when everyone was wondering and stayed at home, nothing happened: neither troops nor tanks in the streets. It was more a “Palace revolution”.

Let me explain. It so happens that President Bah N’Daw, himself a former military officer, a very respectable and honest person who had been recalled to put a “civilian” at the head of the Transition, was unfortunately unable to do much during the first nine months of the Transition.

Following the resignation of Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, he immediately reappointed him to form a new government, which was made public on May 24. This new government was very similar to the previous one, but two colonels who had participated in the first coup d’état of August 18, 2020 were excluded (Colonel Sadio Camara, Minister of Defense, and Colonel Modibo Koné, Minister of Security) without consulting Colonel Assimi Goïta, Vice President of the Transition, who was in charge of these two strategic sectors: defense and security.

As the real boss of the August 2020 “coup plotters”, Colonel Goïta – who at 37 years old already has a brilliant military record and a real record of service – thought it appropriate to immediately call the President and the Prime Minister to account and to upset the order of things a little.  To maintain the unity and cohesion of the army.

DH. Following the coup d’état of August 18, 2020, an ambitious program was drawn up in conjunction with ECOWAS: institutional reform, electoral redistribution, the fight against corruption and impunity, and presidential and legislative elections, all within a period of 18 months. There are now only 9 months left, is this program realistic? 

BF. We are already halfway through the Transition and, to put it bluntly, in nine months it has not done much, Malians have not seen any change. This Transition was led by very respectable people, but they did not prove to be up to the task. There are enormous burdens in Mali, in the administration, in the justice system, in all the bodies of the State, and not much has changed in 9 months.

Under international pressure to hand over power to civilian authorities after 18 months, the program of reforms was not tenable. It looks good on paper, but you can’t reform the constitution and make all these reforms in such a short time.

In order not to alienate the international community once again, the new president of the transition, who was sworn in on June 7, has also declared that the February 27, 2022 election date will be met. However, there are doubts about this… Let’s be realistic.

In his inaugural speech, Colonel Goïta announced that “two-thirds of the sovereignty funds of the presidency will be abolished,” or 1.8 billion CFA francs per year, which “will now be used to provide water and to create health centers for the most destitute populations throughout the national territory. This is a concrete announcement that I think will be followed by effects, while nothing had really changed in the life of the State these last 9 months. But the example comes from above.

DH. A former Malian minister says that the biggest problem in Mali is the centralized state. He advocates a decentralized unitary state that includes all components of Malian society and even customary and religious authorities. Is decentralization part of the solution? 

BF. Basically, he is absolutely right. Decentralization is an important issue, but it is a long process. I know well the former Prime Minister Moussa Mara, and he is a great supporter of decentralization. Already on the campaign trail, he is currently traveling all over Mali preaching security, decentralization, and the fight against corruption, but successful decentralization and a revised Constitution cannot be achieved in 9 months, we must be realistic. Perhaps we should tell the Westerners to stop putting pressure on the Malians, who must remain masters of their own country. That there may be other priorities even before decentralization, such as security.

Westerners must change their software and their glasses and stop telling Malians: “hold elections on February 27, 2022”!

To me, in a country where children have not gone to school for more than 7 years, the priority would be to reopen the schools, to redeploy the State administration throughout the country, and to ensure above all the security of the people in a country at war where villages die every day. Isn’t security the first freedom? Elections are good, but they are not necessarily the emergency in Mali.

The stigma of the attack on the Dogon village of Sobane Da, in central Mali, June 9, 2019. ©REUTERS/Malick Konate

Let’s look at what is happening in the north of the country.

My friend Coumba Traoré (also Secretary General of the Bamako Forum) has just spent three weeks in June in the north of Mali, in villages that have not seen an authority from Bamako since 2012! She gathered under the palaver tree, in 21 villages, the women of the North to listen to their grievances and make a documentary giving them a voice.

What do they expect? The basic public services that any state worthy of the name must provide to its most destitute populations: access to water and electricity to allow them to live in dignity, to stay and work on site and to feed their families. And thus prevent their own children from enlisting in the jihadist movements, which have no shortage of money to survive.

Colossal sums of money have been allocated to Sahel Alliance programs, but nothing, absolutely nothing, has reached these northern villages. This is the cruel reality: under the hot desert sun, international aid evaporates…

DH. In the past, the media have reported anti-French demonstrations in Bamako. What is the situation and is there any resentment among the population against French policy in Mali? 

BF. Anti-French demonstrations exist, but they are not very important. In Mali, they are mostly instrumentalized by some foreign powers, like Russia. We know how effective the Russian mercenaries of the Wagner group are in the Central African Republic, and how they are able to manipulate the crowds skillfully, always against France: they pay a few people to hold banners and signs in the front row proclaiming “Death to France” and they wave Russian flags in the background, it is child’s play. With social networks, it goes very fast and unfortunately does a lot of harm. France has not taken the measure of this psychological and media warfare and has not taken any effective decision to defend itself and to organize the response on social networks.

The anti-French demonstrations were therefore largely instrumentalized and orchestrated, and then, because of the lack of a response, they became more widespread… Today, it is President Macron himself who is fueling the anti-French resentment of African youth, with his tweet condemning the pseudo coup d’état without appeal on the very evening.

I saw Malians, of all political persuasions, standing up against France and Macron. The Malians did not understand this policy of “double standards” of the French president going, in April to N’Djamena, to the funeral of President Idriss Déby and adoubting in Chad overnight the son of the president, who was never elected, but denouncing the following month in Mali a “coup d’état” that did not result in any death or gunfire. It is incomprehensible!

I would add that Macron has no lesson in democracy to give to Africa because he has lost all credibility after having endorsed an unconstitutional third term of office for Alassane Ouattara in Côte d’Ivoire and Alpha Condé in Guinea Conakry, despite hundreds of deaths and arrests in these two countries in crisis.

DH. President Emmanuel Macron, at a press conference on June 10, announced a new framework for Operation Barkhane. He specified that France could not substitute itself for state services and the sovereign choices of states. In a context of deteriorating security in Mali and in neighboring countries, how is this statement perceived?

BF. It was done in two stages. On June 3, France announced that it was freezing all military cooperation with FAMA. This was a very bad signal: how can we explain to the Malians that the French army is staying in Mali but no longer doing anything with the Malian national army? The French army is not at home and cannot behave as if it were in a conquered country…

This was a first mistake of taste. Even if it was intended to put pressure on him, this first warning shot fell flat: Colonel Assimi Goïta remained upright in his boots and did not change his political line for all that, happy and proud to have obtained that ECOWAS did not take economic sanctions against Mali, as it had done in 2020. As we know, it is always the people who pay for economic sanctions, not their leaders.

On June 10, President Macron made an announcement that some journalists have described as “the death of Barkhane. Let us be exact and precise: the transformation of Barkhane, whose boss, General Marc Conruyt, I greeted in Bamako, will be phased in until 2023, with a reduction in the number of troops and not a complete withdrawal of troops, as Macron had clumsily suggested.

This blackmail was very badly received in Mali and in the French army. French soldiers have done an excellent job in Mali since 2013 with Serval, then Barkhane. But any operation that lasts over time threatens to get bogged down, especially if we don’t put all the resources and political will into it. The transformation of Barkhane was something that everyone wanted to see, but to do it “on the fly” by linking it to the institutional upheavals in Bamako was another serious political error.

Macron has mixed and superimposed two agendas: it may indeed be popular to make the French believe that we are withdrawing from Mali on the eve of the presidential elections next April, but it damages our credibility in Africa. For two good reasons: reducing the size of Barkhane and giving it a new mission will take time and cannot be done overnight if we do not want to see Mali collapse in one fell swoop. Moreover, this announcement by the head of the army is hardly elegant or respectful of all our soldiers and officers who have fallen in Mali, and whose families may legitimately feel that they died for nothing!

French soldiers from the “Barkhane” operation leave their base in Gao, Mali, on June 9, 2021. AP

DH. The Covid-19 pandemic is deteriorating the economic and social situation everywhere and in Africa. The IMF estimates that 300 billion dollars should be injected to support African economies and France has taken strong initiatives in this direction. But, in the meantime, how do Malians live from day to day?

BF. I believe the priority for Mali is security. But there is an obvious social front. After two weeks of a general strike affecting mainly civil servants and bringing Mali to a standstill, the National Union of Malian Workers (UNTM) made a sensible decision the day after May 24. May 25 was a holiday in Mali, but from May 26 everyone went back to work and life resumed normally, there was no longer any strike. This is even extraordinary. This does not mean that the basic problems have been solved: low salaries, unemployment, corruption… All this unfortunately exists in Mali and has been further aggravated by the pandemic, because what keeps people alive in many African countries like Mali is the informal economy. When you can no longer go out and work, when there is a curfew, it is complicated. People who live on 1,000 or 2,000 CFA francs a day, if they no longer have any activity, they have nothing because there is no social insurance or unemployment benefits. One job in Mali supports at least 10 people. When you lose your job, it is a whole family that has nothing to live on. This is the harsh reality that Malians have to face.

DH. You were in Bamako during this “Palace Revolution” on May 24 to participate in the Bamako Forum, which is nicknamed the little “Davos” of Africa. What is this Forum and what is its interest?

BF. The Bamako Forum is an original think tank that has existed for more than 20 years. It was founded by Abdoullah Coulibaly, who created the Institut des Hautes Études en Management (IHEM) just before and always refused to be a minister. He is truly the man who made me love Mali, because he cares about the stability, security, peace and development of the country. This year’s theme was perfectly relevant: “Human capital: priorities for a successful transition in Mali”.

In addition to Prime Minister Moctar Ouane, a dozen members of his government were to attend the forum, all of whom had agreed to be present. It turns out that the government resigned the day before the Forum opened. No minister finally came. Only the Prime Minister, who was reappointed, took up the challenge and came to give the closing speech on Saturday, two days before the fateful date of May 24 when he was forced to leave office.

DH. What is the added value of this Bamako Forum?

BF. This Forum is above all a “big family”, but it does not only bring together Malians. It also brings together Africans, Europeans and even Americans… We meet leading personalities such as my friend Cheikh Tidiane Gadio, Vice President of the National Assembly of Senegal after having led Senegalese diplomacy for 9 years in a row under President Abdoulaye Wade. He is a convinced pan-Africanist who created and presides over the Pan-African Institute of Strategy (IPS) in Dakar. Or like Professor Alioune Sall, president of the Institute of African Futures, who is a renowned and talented sociologist, who synthesizes the work of the Forum. These proposals and recommendations are traditionally handed over to the Malian president at a reception at the Palais de Koulouba at the end of the Forum.

As it brings together ministers, decision-makers, intellectuals, economists, and start-ups, this Forum has an aura and a great influence on the entire continent. This year, talented young Africans were awarded prizes in sectors such as technology, innovation or female leadership… Africa is indeed full of talent, but it is still necessary to know them and make them known.

DH. Isn’t there a contradiction between the daily military action against groups described as jihadists and terrorists and the intention of the Transition to negotiate with some of these groups? What is the short-term future?

BF. The future of Mali is not rosy, because the security problem is far from being resolved. But let’s not mince words either: you can only make peace with your enemies!

We will have to talk to our enemies, even the worst ones, whether they are called jihadists, terrorists… This precondition given by Macron to the Malians, ordering them “not to negotiate with anyone as long as French soldiers are there” does not hold water for a moment. And there have been hostage releases, such as that of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Soumaïla Cissé and French hostage Sophie Pétronin, which were obviously obtained in exchange for hard cash during negotiations with the kidnappers, even though any “ransom” has always been officially denied by the authorities in Paris and Bamako.

But what is more serious is the release of nearly 200 “terrorists” in exchange. The French soldiers of Barkhane, who continue to do the job in Mali, thus “neutralized” in June a certain Abu Dardar, who was among the jihadists released last October. That is the scandal. France has turned a blind eye to all this. Of course, one day we will have to talk to people who are neither sympathetic nor recommendable. How can we do otherwise?

We have also seen it in Afghanistan with the Taliban, in Somalia with the Shebabs and in Mali with those who are called “jihadists”, if you kill one, ten others rise up to avenge their brother. If we do not understand this logic, we will not understand anything and this war against “terrorism” will be endless.

DH.How would you like to conclude and what do you think of humanitarian action in Mali, of its raison d’être in such a degraded context ?

Supply in Kidal, Mali, ©Solidarités International

BF. On the political front, let Malians first reconcile and decide among themselves what the best solution is. If the presidential and legislative elections do not take place on February 27, it is not the end of the world. Of course, in the meantime, there have been massacres or killings every day for the past 8 years and settling of scores in Malian villages between traffickers or groups of different ethnicities. So there is a highway and work day and night for the humanitarian action that needs dedicated people and volunteers, as you were part of it with “Solidarités International”. All these volunteers do useful and efficient work, but it must be recognized and respected, and their lives must not be put in danger by boasts or orders that exacerbate anti-French resentment in the field. And they endanger the lives of Malians who take the risk of working with the French for a good cause because life is worth nothing in these countries.

Hats off to those who continue to engage in humanitarian action: there is so much to do, even if their action will never be more than a drop of water in this ocean of sand and needs.


Who is Bruno Fanucchi?

Bruno Fanucchi has been a long-time reporter for the “Parisien” newspaper and has been traveling for more

 than thirty years in Africa and the Middle East from Abidjan to Beirut, from Bamako to Cape Town, from Dakar to Jerusalem, Lomé or Libreville. A specialist in geopolitics, he has interviewed numerous heads of state or rebel leaders and covered elections as well as

 international summits or coups. In Paris, he chaired the Diplomatic Press and then the

Association of Defense Journalists, for which he organized several missions in Africa. Going to meet the political actors or committed decision-makers of the Continent, he is above all a man of the field: he works today for the economic website AfricaPresse.Paris and several magazines for the general public such as “Divas”.

The Atlas of borders

Interview with Bruno Tertrais

Alain Boinet for Humanitarian Challenges. Hello Bruno Tertrais, you have just published, with Delphine Papin, The atlas of borders (Trad: l’Atlas des frontières, Les Arènes): why did you choose this approach to borders, walls, migrations and conflicts?

Bruno Tertrais. Borders are a barometer of geopolitics. We chose this theme because there was no atlas of borders, even though it is a key to understanding all the major international geopolitical issues between states and even beyond, because we do not only deal with these relations, even though it is at the heart of our subject. Generally speaking, borders are a good indicator of international relations, and this is even more the case today than it was a few years ago, since we are talking about borders again, more so than twenty years ago.

Humanitarian Challenges. In your atlas, there is a chapter entitled “The world at the foot of the wall” which begins in 1910 and continues until 2020.  It is striking to see the multiplication of walls, barriers and fences from the 1980s onwards, which then took off from 2010. What are the geopolitical reasons for this? 

Bruno Tertrais. There are several reasons. The first is simply that land borders are better marked out and defined than they were 50 or 60 years ago. There are relatively few borders left to be fixed on land. Of course, we know about the major disputes that are shaking up world geopolitics, but the barriers are a way of saying: “my state ends here and yours begins there”. It’s a way of asserting sovereignty, and it’s something that’s very popular among recent nations.

In terms of their growing popularity, as you rightly point out, there were only about 15 barriers at the end of the Cold War, there are now – although the number is debatable – over 70. Why ?

Simply because the barrier is perceived as a protection against the outside world and in reaction to globalisation, the increase in flows and trafficking, it represents an attractive solution, particularly in the last ten years or so against illegal migration, trafficking of all kinds and terrorism (whether it is effective or not is debatable, but that’s another subject) and now against pandemics too. The barrier that materialises the international border is therefore quite popular, the wall itself on the other hand, is quite rare, since they are rarely made of hard material, they are mostly barriers, barbed wire, electronic barriers.

It is important to stress that these are not Berlin walls, which are very rare. An iron curtain is to prevent people from leaving. These are walls to prevent entry, which is philosophically and legally different.

Finally, building a barrier does not mean closing the border. You can have barriers with almost open borders, and you can have few barriers with closed borders. For example, between Morocco and Algeria, there was no barrier for a very long time but the border was closed. So we have to distinguish between physical and legal closure.

South Korea has erected a barbed wire wall on the border with North Korea in Paju on 12 February 2017

Humanitarian Challenges. In connection with these barriers, in your atlas you point out that there were 20 states in 1920, 51 in the UN in 1945, 193 today. How do you explain this considerable increase in the number of states in such a short time? And above all, what does this tell us about our human species? How could this trend have been forgotten in relation to the globalisation movement that has long captured all the attention and analysis? 

Bruno Tertrais. When we talk about this globalisation, at least as it appeared in the early 1990s, we are talking about several different things. On the one hand, we talk about the freedom of flows, of people, goods, capital, the increase in trade… But globalisation was also perceived as the idea of a world community that would go beyond the states, so these are two quite different phenomena. The globalisation of flows has not prevented the creation of new states, on the contrary. These states were created over a century, first by the dissolution of empires, by their fragmentation, by decolonisation of course, and then at the end of the Cold War, by the break-up of former multinational states. So these are two very different phenomena that have led to this proliferation of states. Today, there are nearly 200 states, the number of members of the United Nations is 193, it is possible that others will be created, more probably by fragmentation than by reunion, but it can be said that there is a certain stabilisation of this process and we live more than ever in what historians call a “Westphalian” world, where states are sovereign and remain the main stone of international society.

Border between India and Bangladesh, ©EPA Keystone

Humanitarian challenges. Some researchers call for a break with the Westphalian world, and think that states no longer have a monopoly, that it is necessary to go beyond geopolitical rationality and that from now on, in a globalised, interdependent and unequal world, the social link is the condition for security and development. Do you share this position, as you write in your Atlas “the borders have won”?

Bruno Tertrais. The link between societies is not necessarily antinomic to the existence of states. Societies can, and indeed do, have more and more links beyond the creation of new states: social networks, the internet, satellite television have made it possible to create links between peoples, individuals and communities that were more difficult thirty years ago. This is especially true for immigrant communities in all countries. It is much easier today to keep in touch with one’s country and community of origin than it was only thirty or forty years ago. Some would say that this makes integration more difficult, but that’s another subject. As for the theses you mention, I would say that the world does not agree. Perhaps it would be desirable to dissolve the states, but that is a minority position. It doesn’t matter what I wish or don’t wish, what I simply note is that the national claim remains a very strong claim, that the demand for a nation-state or the constitution of a state remains a powerful desire, and that whatever one’s personal wishes may be, the state remains today the main brick of the international system, which does not prevent more important cooperation on global issues, whether they be reflections on global warming or migratory issues. Are other forces active and powerful on the international scene? Of course, whether they are NGOs or multinationals, but they have always been very powerful. We sometimes forget that the East India Company, for example, had more power than most states. So it’s not something fundamentally new, powerful NGOs have been around since the late 19th century, but these forces are additional to states rather than substitutes for them.

Map – Some forty walls around the world – Credits: Camille Renard – Radio France

Humanitarian Challenges. How do you see the role of demography in your analysis? For the record, there were 2.5 billion of us in 1950, and we will be almost 10 billion a century later, in 2050. Africa had 229 million inhabitants in 1950, 1.3 billion today and 2.5 billion in 30 years. What could be the consequences of this demography in Africa, a continent where you say that two thirds of the borders are not yet demarcated?

Bruno Tertrais. First of all, the link between the two is mainly on the migration issue, and on this issue, we sometimes hear things in the media that are not entirely accurate. The increase in the world’s population does not automatically result in a similar increase in international migration. The proportion of migrants in the world, in the sense of the UN definition – that is, people who settle in a country other than the one in which they were born for at least 12 months – has not increased much. It remains at a few percent, so of course it is increasing in number, but in percentage terms, it cannot be said that the men and women of the world are settling abroad more and more over time. What is easier, however, are temporary moves, trips, and short work stays, which have become more frequent. But I would stress this point: migration has not increased significantly in proportion.

On Africa, I think you are familiar with the analyses in the book “The Rush to Europe”. I have methodically dismantled the figures given by the author in this book on demography for several reasons. Firstly, it should be pointed out that African transcontinental migration is increasing, not because Africa is the poorest continent but precisely because it is beginning to develop. As development economists know, it is when a country begins to climb the development ladder that long-distance migration beyond its region of origin begins to increase. It is true that the phenomenon described by Stephen Smith is a reality that will continue, but where the figures seem far-fetched to me is that they are based on nothing at all. All the projections made by the author in his book are very easy to dismantle. Emigration from the African continent is not only to Europe, but also to the Gulf States, or, increasingly, to the United States. This emigration will continue to increase, but certainly not to the extent described in this book, which refers to Africa as a “waiting room to Europe for a billion people” and bases its analyses on almost nothing. On this subject, one can say that the reasoning is right but the results are wrong.

I would also point out that Africans emigrate relatively little, compared to other regions of the world, and when they do, it is for the most part to immediately neighbouring countries, with well-known migration corridors, from the Sahel to coastal Africa, etc. Finally, the African continent is the continent where there is the greatest difference between ‘intention to migrate’ and actual migration.

Humanitarian Challenges. What could be the consequences of this demography in Africa, a continent where you say that two thirds of the borders are not yet delimited or demarcated? The confrontation between demography and the absence of borders…? 

Bruno Tertrais. There is not necessarily a link between the two. The increase in population in a country does not mean more or less border problems. These are two largely separate issues, except when there is a very rapid increase in population in a border region that is not necessarily open to cross-border traffic, but they are relatively separate issues today.

Humanitarian challenges. The demographer Michel Garenne pointed out in an interview published in 2017 in “Le Monde” that the six Sahelian countries he had studied: Senegal, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad, which had 89 million people in 2015, were on a trajectory that would take their population to 240 million in 2050 and well beyond that, 540 million in 2100. Given the situation we are experiencing in the Sahel (conflict, insecurity, climate change, problems of access to subsistence resources, governance that is not equal to the challenges, etc.), what responses do you think are necessary to control the situation that will result from this ‘demographic time bomb’, to use Michel Garenne’s expression?

Bruno Tertrais. As far as the demographic situation in the Sahel is concerned, it is indeed breaking a number of records. It is in the south of Niger, in the region of Maradi, that we have the highest fertility rate in the world today. It is true that even if the demographic transition is already a reality on part of the African continent, there is a specific Sahelian problem with a combination of weak states, a demography that some describe as galloping and a fairly low level of development with pandemic violence. As demography is a tanker, things evolve extremely slowly, so over the next twenty years, demographic history is, whatever happens, written in the region. Beyond 20 years, it is still possible to act, particularly on three levers:

On the states, because these are states that are often very little present outside the capitals, then on the education of women and girls, which is an important and extremely necessary lever for development: access to family planning, to contraception for women, etc. But it is also a question of men, because large families are generally the result of very strong pressure from the men in the home. In fact, educating girls for development is formidable and just as indispensable as changing men’s mentalities, which is just as important if we are to imagine stabilising the population of these countries in 20 or 30 years’ time.

In Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, people flee under the fire of the Nyiragongo volcano, 27 May 2021. GUERCHOM NDEBO / AFP

Humanitarian Challenges. Let’s change continents while staying on the issue of borders. On 12 May, an Azerbaijani armed unit entered Armenian territory, which led French President Emmanuel Macron to recall his attachment to the territorial integrity of Armenia. Is this the return of the fait accompli, of territorial annexation, of the questioning of borders, as the Russians and Turks sometimes do, and with what risks of extension? 

Bruno Tertrais. Well, not quite, because what was at stake on the strict level of the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan was rather the re-establishment of the existing border. From my point of view, the November 2020 conflict, the Azerbaijani offensive, is more a sign of border resilience than the announcement of a new border change. The international border, the one recognised by most of the major players, is the one that has been re-established by the Azerbaijani offensive. On 12 May last, there was a particular episode on which the two states do not have the same version, and on which I will refrain from making a decision since the great problem in this region, as in other countries of the former USSR, is that the borders were not well delimited at the time of the Soviet Union, because they were borders between republics and not international borders. In 1991, both sides were left with relatively undetailed Soviet maps, so that there are border accidents is neither surprising, nor necessarily a sign of the other side’s willingness to change the border status quo. Speaking of Russia and Turkey, you are right to say that there are certainly neo-imperialist powers in the attempts to challenge the current international system that sometimes play with borders and in some cases have changed the international border in a coercive way, such as Crimea. The question is whether Crimea heralds a rethinking of the borders around these imperialist powers or whether it will remain an exception or an accident.

Humanitarian challenges. There is also the case of the Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria which now occupies a significant territory of a Kurdish settlement area, not to mention their presence in the Idlib region in the north-west.

Bruno Tertrais. Once again, this is not a change in the border status quo. It is an occupation, but it is not a change of border, factually speaking. The symbolic act of changing the border line is a very far-reaching act that these countries prefer not to take, and are often content to have influence, including in the form of an occupation, which may last.

The situation in Nagorno-Karabakh allows us to talk about the historical legacy of borders. We have to live with what we have, since, as we can see very clearly in the Balkans or in Asia or elsewhere, as soon as we try to justify the possession of this or that territory by history, sometimes going back a long way, we can call everything into question. This is why international law is there as a regulatory instrument.

Humanitarian challenges. Doesn’t demography in Africa risk leading to the multiplication of borders, walls, migrations and conflicts, both in Africa and in its immediate environment, while simultaneously challenging these walls and borders, while the breaks are not accepted by the international community? For example, in its recent history, Rwanda has asserted territorial claims over the province of Kivu in the DRC. 

Bruno Tertrais. Demography in itself has no impact on borders. Rwanda’s borders are the same today as they were 50 years ago. If we are talking about saying that the rapid increase in a country’s population in a relatively small area can lead the state concerned to extend its influence over adjacent regions and areas, then yes, this is certainly true, but it is not an automatic mechanical phenomenon and is as much the result of a desire for power as of demographic pressure: the case of Rwanda is an example. But this does not necessarily translate into changes in the status quo of borders. When we see the changes in Nigeria, which will be a demographic giant by the end of the century, I think that the main problems that will arise will be more internal than international. We must not fall into demographic determinism, especially on the issue of borders.

Humanitarian challenges. In this world that you describe, what could be the role of humanitarians in the future? What would you advise them to do in the coming world? 

Bruno Tertrais. Humanitarians have called for borders to be crossed. Moreover, the expression “without borders” has been copied throughout the world by a certain number of organisations and movements that seek to go beyond borders while respecting them, but emphasising the need to be able to intervene, help and assist in sovereign territories. This is a question on which little progress has been made because the principle of the responsibility to protect, which was pushed by France in particular, is still contested by many states. I believe that the classic humanitarian dilemma, which you know better than I do, which consists – the Red Cross school and the MSF school to put it simply – either of working with anyone in a totally neutral way for the benefit of the populations or, on the contrary, of making choices to intervene if necessary, perhaps even against the will of the governments concerned, will remain unresolved, and I fear that it will be even stronger in a world where nationalism and the desire for sovereignty are becoming more and more pronounced.

The wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Abir Sultan, Keystone

Alain Boinet. I myself have often crossed the borders of countries at war without authorisation or a visa in order to help populations in danger in the name of the duty to assist people in danger, without questioning these borders. How do you see this problem?

Bruno Tertrais. I understand the logic, but what I mean by that is that there is a difference between the no-borders and the borderless. The no-borders are anarchist-type movements that want to challenge the international order, i.e. they believe that borders should disappear. Other types of movements, on a different political spectrum, such as the jihadists, also want to erase borders, because when you want to create a caliphate, you want to erase national borders. When you bulldoze the traces of the Sykes-Picot line on the Syrian-Iraqi border, it’s a form of extreme borderlessness, hence my formula “no border” is not “without borders”. Your approach is very different from that of the no-borders. It also serves as a reminder that the majority of the world’s land borders are barely demarcated and generally undemarcated. The world is not in the process of enclosure and walls and fences are now only a minority of land routes.

Humanitarian challenges. To conclude, what would you like to add?

Bruno Tertrais. Perhaps a word that goes beyond your immediate concerns but which I think is important to stress is that land borders will, in my opinion, be relatively stable in the future as a whole, whereas maritime borders are very poorly delimited and are still the subject of many disputes, And of course, this is not a humanitarian issue, but when one is interested in the world order and in particular in borders, it is an issue that should be followed with great attention because tomorrow’s territorial conflicts will be just as much at sea, if not more so, than on land.

For more information, see Bruno Tertrais’ books in French:


Who is Bruno Tertrais ?

Bruno Tertrais is Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research (FSR) since 2017.

His fields of expertise are geopolitics and international relations, defence and military affairs, nuclear issues, US policy and transatlantic relations, security in the Middle East and Asia.

He was a Senior Research Fellow at the FSR (2001-2016), a Chargé de mission to the Director of Strategic Affairs at the Ministry of Defence (1993-2001), and Director of the Civil Affairs Committee at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (1990-1993).

In 1995-1996, he was a visiting scholar at the RAND Corporation. In 2007-2008, he was a member of the Commission on the White Paper on Defence and National Security and a member of the Commission on the White Paper on Foreign and European Policy. In 2012-2013, he was a member of the new White Paper Commission on Defence and National Security.

Bruno Tertrais is a member of the Group of Eminent Persons of the Preparatory Commission for the CTBTO; the Group of Eminent Persons for the Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament; the Advisory Board of the Global US Special Operations Forces Foundation; the Executive Committee of the Maritime Strategy Center at the University of Haifa; the International Institute for Strategic Studies; the Editorial Board of The Washington Quarterly and Journal of Security and Strategic Analyses; the Scientific Council of the journal Champs de Mars; the Scientific Council of the Chair of International Issues at the University of Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne; the Scientific Council of the Chair of Economics and Geopolitics at the Paris School of Business; the Council of the Jean Monnet Foundation for Europe; the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institut Montaigne and a scientific advisor to the High Commissioner for Planning. He writes a bi-monthly column in the weekly L’Express entitled “Le regard du stratège“.

In 2010, he was awarded the Vauban Prize for the whole of his work. In 2013, he received the “Grand Prix de l’impertinence et des bonnes nouvelles” for an essay entitled Un monde de catastrophes? Myths and realities of progress. In 2014, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour. In 2016, he received, with Jean Guisnel, the Brienne Prize for the geopolitical book of the year for the book “Le Président et la Bombe“. In 2017, he received, with Delphine Papin, the Georges Erhard Prize, awarded by the Geography society for the book L’Atlas des frontières. His latest book in French is : Le Choc démographique. La grande peur de l’Occident (Editions Odile Jacob, 2020).