With French troops now gone from the city of Timbuktu, Mali now faces the major task of deciding how to fight off Islamic extremists who have posed a security threat for years.
French soldiers have built a presence in northern Mali over the last decade after helping to keep the extremists from power in a military intervention in 2013.
But not even these foreign troops were able to deter the jihadis operating in the Sahel region stretching between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso from continuing with their attacks.
The task of securing the West African nation now appears even more daunting for the current military-led transitional government, which is facing sanctions from the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Abdoulaye Diop, Mali's foreign affairs minister, told DW that his country had no choice but to rethink how it is taking care of its own security.
Speaking of France's decision to withdraw its troops, he said it was clear that Mali could not rely forever on external security assistance.
"We recognize the sacrifices of French soldiers or others who have fallen to help us, but we must be aware that external aid is destined to end for one reason or another," he said.
France determined to end Sahel operations
French President Emmanuel Macron announced in July that by 2022, France intended to close all of its military bases in Mali.
That process in northern Mali is part of a bigger plan by France to withdraw troops fighting Islamist extremists in the Sahel region.
The French troops have also left the Kidal and Tessalit bases.
Speaking by phone from Accra, Ghana, counterterrorism expert Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar told DW that many Malians have been uneasy at the presence of France in the West African nation and are happy with the withdrawal.
"The French withdrawal largely is a manifestation of pervasive anti-French sentiments within the local population," said Muqthar.
He added that the French presence in Mali over these past nine years had to some extent rather worsened the security situation in the country and left it now in a precarious state.
There are now fears about the Malian military's ability to carry on the mission and fend off the extremists, who have regrouped and expanded their reach even further southward since they were driven away in the 2013 offensive.
Macron visit canceled amid pandemic
President Macron had planned to travel to Mali on Monday for his first meeting with the country's transitional leader, Colonel Assimi Goita, but canceled the visit due to the worsening COVID situation in Europe.
Goita seized power in August 2020 after a coup ousted the country's democratically elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
Relations between Mali and France are already tense, and Macron's eventual meeting with Goita could heighten the situation. Paris is concerned over the possibility that Russian mercenaries could be deployed in Mali to fill the vacuum left by its own troops.
Private Russian military contractor Wagner Group is said to be deepening its presence in Mali, news that has also "alarmed" the United States.
In a statement last week, the US State Department said the Wagner Group would be paid $10 million (€8.9 million) per month for the potential deployment.
"Wagner forces — which are known for their destabilizing activities and human rights abuses — will not bring peace to Mali, but rather will destabilize the country further," said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The UN's special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh, told DW the UN was not interested in political disputes when it comes to addressing the crisis in the region.
"The UN cannot interfere in political disputes or partnerships between countries. The UN thinks the situation in the Sahel, namely in West Africa, needs support from the international community," he said.
"Every country is sovereign. It is free to establish relations with any country. But we think multilateralism must take precedence," he added.
Foreign Minister Diop insisted "the government of Mali has not signed any contract with this private security company. No action has been taken." And Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Wagner Group neither represented the Russian state, nor was funded by it.
Mali’s government, though, is more concerned about how "to ensure its own security," said Diop. Mali has fears of "a security vacuum" with the departure of the French troops from Timbuktu, he said. Above all, the government wanted the withdrawal to be "done gradually, so as not to lose the gains that have been made."
Diop, however, gave assurances that "everything will be implemented to ensure the protection of the people."
Mali faces sanctions amid political transition
But Mali's problems go beyond fighting off extremists, with the country currently in a political transition following last year's military coup.
Regional bloc ECOWAS has already imposed sanctions on Mali and its military leaders, who have said they won't be able to meet a timeline of holding elections on February 27, 2022, as initially planned.
Not being able to keep this deadline could attract more sanctions, with ECOWAS leaders refusing to accept the delays of the transitional government.
But Diop said his country is not giving up, telling DW that Mali is still in dialogue with ECOWAS.
"The president of the transition, Assimi Goita, has already contacted ECOWAS to explain the difficulty of meeting this deadline," he said, adding that the Malian government is "working to present a timetable for the elections and a new road map for the transition."
Need for consensus
Maye Niare, a major figure in Malian civil society, said there was a need for a consensus to resolve the country's current crises.
"Remaining stuck in declarations of principle and in declarations of rule: This is not what will solve our problem. Whether it is ECOWAS, Mali or the international community, we must all, and in the supreme interest of Mali, position ourselves in seeking solutions for the problem." Niare told DW.
Many Malians are not impressed by the news of more potential sanctions from ECOWAS.
Some told DW's correspondent in Bamako, Mahamadou Kane, that Malians should be left to decide their own fate.
"I believe that ECOWAS must respect the Malian people: it must also comply with this national decision which will be the decision of the Malians, the Malian people and not the authorities," said one resident.
"I believe that it is the Malians who must decide the fate of Mali. But if an organization has to choose Mali's fate for it, it becomes a problem," said another resident.
Counterterrorism expert Muqthar agreed that further sanctions will only worsen the situation and be counterproductive for Mali's security and economic stability.