A French Convoy's Very Bad Week(s)
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in West Africa
Highlights from today’s post
How a French military logistics convoy took a very long and very well documented trip from Cote d’Ivoire to Mali
The trials and tribulations they got into along the way
How public information illuminates virtually every section of their trip
On November 14, 2021, a French military convoy left Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire on a grueling road trip to resupply Operation Barkhane forces fighting an insurgency in Mali, well over 1,000 miles away. Unlike previous resupply missions, this one did not go smoothly. Hostile crowds greeted the convoy at every turn and gunfire erupted at least twice along the way, leaving at least two dead and 18 injured.
Though the violence that met the convoy was undoubtedly unusual, another strange aspect of the journey was how well witnesses documented the trip. Dozens and dozens of videos and images of the vehicles surfaced, allowing analysts, journalists, and others to track the convoy’s every movement. Today, I aim to string that media together to form a coherent narrative of the journey, from when the group left port in Abidjan to when it finally - finally! - entered its base in Mali two weeks later.
Part 1: Cote d’Ivoire
The convoy of about 100 vehicles left the port city of Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire on Sunday, November 14 heading for Gao, Mali, well over 1,300 miles away by road.
We don’t really know when the ships carrying the vehicles arrived in the city, although SAR imagery shows two vessels docked at the vehicles terminal at Abidjan’s port on November 11. MINUSMA, a separate UN mission in Mali, uses the Abidjan vehicles terminal for logistics shipments, so it’s quite possible that the ship(s) carrying the French mission docked at that spot on or around November 11.
At any rate, the convoy was first spotted traveling north on the Autoroute du Nord between Abidjan and Yamoussoukro, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, on November 15.
This video was filmed on a six-mile stretch of highway near the town of Bodo.
The Facebook video linked above provides some basic facts about the convoy: it’s “over a kilometer” long and includes a variety of trucks, light and heavy armored vehicles, and scout cars. The majority of the vehicles are not traveling under their own power but are instead being transported on tractor-trailers.
As it would turn out, this drive along the Ivorian countryside was the last tranquil moment the convoy would get.
Part 2: Burkina Faso
Sometime between the evening of the 15th and the morning of the 16th, the convoy crossed the border into Burkina Faso. Along the way, a group called the Coalition des Patriotes Africains (COPA) learned of the vehicles’ arrival. COPA is vehemently anti-French. They organize boycotts of French products, protests against France, and, as the convoy would learn, roadblocks to stop French supplies from moving through Burkina Faso.
As soon as the trucks crossed into Burkina Faso on the night of November 15, COPA protests blocked the road in four separate places: Dar Salamy, the Lafiabougou area of Bobo-Dioulasso city, Houndé, and Boromo.
Eventually, according to COPA, the Burkinabe gendarmes arrived, fired a bunch of tear gas, and cleared the way for the convoy to proceed to the capital, Ouagadougou.
The convoy arrived in Ouagadougou on the evening of November 17, but COPA was ready. Hundreds of protesters were bussed in and blocked the military vehicles in the Boulmiougou neighborhood on the southwest outskirts of the city. As with the previous night, the gendarmes arrived around 3:30am and fired enough tear gas to disperse the protesters and allow the convoy to move on.
Yet that only provided a temporary reprieve. Things got truly wild in Kaya, Burkina Faso on the 18th, where the convoy needed to turn northeast to reach the border with Niger. Instead of being stopped for an hour or two as before, the convoy was stopped in Kaya for three days, while protesters filled the highway and surrounded the convoy.
COPA was again at the forefront of protests, drumming up their supporters for several days straight on their Facebook page. For November 18 and 19 - the first two days the convoy was in Kaya - protesters and police battled it out on the N3 highway as the convoy retreated to an ex-mining company facility south of town. On the 19th, one of the security forces (allegedly French but in reality unknown) was evacuated by helicopter from the grounds of the mining company as well.
In fact, low-resolution Sentinel-2 imagery captured the French unit’s retreat to the compound on November 20. Note how the middle of the roughly rectangular compound between the two roads fills in with the convoy’s vehicles on the November 20 image, before they disappear on the November 22 image.
On the 20th, protests reached a fever pitch. French forces fired warning shots at protesters attempting to climb the fence into their makeshift compound. In the confusion, up to three protesters were injured, although the French military strongly denies that any of their forces were responsible for the shooting.
In a rare lighthearted moment during the melee, a boy shot down a French drone with his slingshot and was feted as a hero:
Late on the 20th, the convoy left the grounds of the mining company and retreated once again toward Korsimoro, back in the direction of Ouagadougou, where they had been four days earlier.
Between the 21st and 25th, things get a bit hazy. A Reuters article quotes two “security sources” as saying the convoy retreated to a military camp north of Ouagadougou during that time. Local news sites, on the other hand, said witnesses spotted the convoy in Laongo, a village east of Ouagadougou, or Ziniaré, a nearby town. Complicating the situation is that the authorities shut down mobile internet service in Burkina Faso for over a week, from November 20 to 28, so reliable reports are hard to come by.
What is clear, however, is that by the evening of November 25, the roadblocks in Kaya had been dismantled and the convoy left its hiding place to peacefully (and quietly) pass through the city. By the afternoon of November 26, the convoy had arrived at the Burkina Faso-Niger border.
Part 3: Niger
The convoy crossed the border without incident and decided to spend the night of November 26 in Tera, Niger, about 20 miles from the border with Burkina Faso. As soon as they arrived, however, people in the town began setting up barricades and roadblocks on the highway that bisects Tera.
The next morning, as the convoy tried to leave, they ran smack into these obstacles.
As the convoy attempted a breakout, either the French forces or Nigerien gendarmes started shooting at the protesters, killing at least two and grievously injuring several others. Witnesses found cartridges from live ammunition (below right) and non-lethal rounds used by French riot control forces (below left).
During the confrontation, a French fighter jet even roared out of the sky to drop flares on the protesters.1
After the shooting and tear gas died down, the convoy was able to push through Tera around noon and reach Niamey, the capital of Niger, later that evening. The next morning (November 28) the convoy was able to finish the final leg of the trip in Niger.
Part 4: Mali and Conclusion
By the evening of November 28, the convoy reached the Malian border at Labbezanga and later the following day, it reached its final destination - the Operation Barkhane base in Gao, Mali.
All told, the convoy had been on the road for just over two weeks, covered over 1,300 miles, and passed through four countries.
All of which is even more impressive when you realize that during that time, they crossed almost half of north and west Africa and virtually all of the Sahel region.
While the convoy made it to Gao safe and sound, the same cannot be said of the communities the French passed through en route. Riots, shootings, fires, clogged roads, police violence, and other disruptions afflicted many of the towns the convoy bypassed, particularly Kaya and Tera.
Since the French military has to send these convoys at regular intervals to sustain their troops in Mali, we’ll just have to see if future convoys change their route from Cote d’Ivoire to Mali or face further violence on the way.