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Burkina Faso and Mali, Agacher Strip War, 1985
By Tom Cooper
Jul 31, 2004, 11:19

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Every war is actually a catastrophe, but some African conflicts are especially miserable, causing immense suffering and destruction to the civilian population that is already living in most austere and often primitive circumstances. Most of African conflicts appear to be endless: they are fought for decades, and are usually only interrupted by complete exhaustion of both sides, or annihilation of one of involved parties. Seen from this standpoint, the two wars between Burkina Faso and Mali were no characteristic African wars – even if they stemmed (like so many other conflicts in Africa) from the imposition of arbitrary boundaries determined by former local powers, which took no account of tribal territories. Both were fought for only a few days, saw no widespread aggression against civilian population, and eventually ended with help of mediation of neighbouring states, as well as the International Court of Justice, in Den Haag.

The former Upper Volta became independent from France on 5 August 1960. It was renamed Burkina Faso by the local statesman Thomas Sankara, on 4 August 1984. The new name is combination of Mossi and Dyula, two major languages in the country, and means “The Land of Upright People”. Sankara also introduced a new flag, and composed a new national anthem.

Burkina Faso is landlocked country, with Capital in Ouagadougou, situated in the heart of West Africa, limited in the east by Niger, in the north and north-west by the republic of Mali, in the south by Ghana, in the south-west by Cote d’Ivoire, and in the south-east by Benin and Togo. Most of its territory is flat and deserted, with the highest peak – Ténakourou – being only 749m high. The two main topographic domains are a large peneplain, covering some three quarters of the country, and a sandy massif in the south. Most of water resources are of seasonal character, even if the country is fed with no less but three big international basins: the Volta (consisting of Volta Noire, Volta Blanche and Volta Rouge), the Comoé, and Niger basin. The road network is very poor: as of the late 1980s there were only 12.506km of roads, of which only 726 were tarred.

The population of Burkina Faso according to census in 1991 is 9.190.000 (in 1985 it was 7.964.705) and consists of some 60 ethnic groups, predominated by the Mossi, Fulani and Bobo-Dioula. Some 40% of Burkinabes follow indigenous beliefs, up to 50% of population are Moslems, and some 10% (Roman Catholic) Christians. The main economic activity is livestock raising and farming. The country used to be divided in 30 and since 1996 in 45 provinces, each under the leadership of one Haut Commissaire (high ranking political and administrative official).

Burkina was structured and organised well before the French occupation, which lasted from 1896 and 1960. The Mossi royal dynasty became famous for having the longest tradition of all in West Africa, dating back over 500 years, into the 14th Century, when the first Mossi state was built up by people migrating from the north of modern-day Ghana. A supreme chief, the “Mogho-Naba” – i.e. the Mossi king – ruled the Mossi Empire of Ouagadougou. The Mossis developed a strong administrative system and a tradition of divine kingship, which prevented them from incorporation into any of Sudanic empires. By the 19th Century the Mossi states were weakened and in 1896 the French set up a protectorate over the Kingdom of Ouagadougou. In 1904 the area became part of the colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger. Named “Upper Volta” by the French (because of being located upstream of the big river Volta), the country was divided between Mali, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire in 1932, and not to recover its autonomy until 1947. Following the reforms of the French Union in 1957, Upper Volta became a self-governing republic in 1958.

Upon its independence, Upper Volta remained an associated state of the European Community (now the European Union); nevertheless, together with Mali, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries on the world, and heavily dependent on international aid of all sorts.

Mali was the core area of the great empires of the western Sudan: Ghana, Mali and Songhai, with centres of trade, learning and culture in such cities as Timbuktu, Djenné and Gao. The Empire of Mali originated in the 11th Century, but reached its peak in the early 14th Century, under Mansa Musa, who expanded it until it reached from the Atlantic coast to east of Gao. In the medieval age the University of Timbuktu had over 20.000 students and a huge library, a better part of which survived until today. The Empire declined rapidly until its place was taken by the Songhai Empire of Gao, ruled by Sunni Ali kings, in the 15th Century. In turn, this empire was destroyed by a Moroccan invasion, in 1591. In the 17th and 18th Century several small states developed along the Niger basin: all fell during the mid-19th Century holy war waged by the Moslem leader Umar Tal, whose theocratic empire extended from Timbuktu to Niger and Senegal. Umar Tal’s son was defeated by the French, in 1893, and the area subsequently came under the French rule, becoming a part of the colony of Haut-Sénégal-Niger in 1904, and a part of French Sudan in 1920.

In 1958 the French Sudan voted to join the new French Community, and was proclaimed the Sudanese Republic on 24 November 1958, joining with Senegal to form the Federation of Mali. This became independent of France on 22 September 1960, with capital in Bamako. Only a few months later Senegal separated from the union and the Sudanese Republic was then renamed Mali.

The country is limited by Algeria in the north and north-east, Niger in the east, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire in the south, Guinea in the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania in the west, and divided into eight regions.

No less but 65% of the land area is desert or semidesert, with savannas in the south but also some rolling plains covered by sand in the north, as well as few mountain peaks over 1.000m high (Hombori Tondo is the highest point, at 1.155m above the sea level). The population of the Republic of Mali counts 10.675.586 according to an estimate from 2000, and also includes a large number of different ethnic groups, the largest of which is Mande (consisting of Bambara, Malinke, and Soninke, which build over 50% of the total population), Peul, Voltaics, Songhai, Tuaregs and Moors. Over 90% of the population is Moslem; official languages are French and Bambara.

Economic activity is largely confined to the riverine area, irrigated by the Niger. Up to 10% of the population is nomadic and some 80% living from farming – especially cotton – and fishing: even most of the industrial activity is concentrating on processing farm commodities. Despite increasing gold mining (Mali is expected to become a major Sub-Saharan gold exporter), the country is still heavily dependent on foreign aid and vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices for cotton.

Considering the size of the country, the road network in Mali is actually poorer than even that in Burkina Faso: out of some 15.100km of roads, only 1.827km are paved. However, Mali has some 729km of railway (with narrow gauge), linked to Senegal’s rail system.

Map showing the border between the Republic of Mali and Burkina Faso. Note the concentration of Malian airfields in the north: except for that in Timbuktu, two others were much closer to the Burkinabe border, enabling FARMA fighters to react swiftlier, and carry heavier payloads. (Map by Tom Cooper, based on Encarta 2003 software)

The First War

Burkina Faso and Mali have had a long-standing dispute regarding the territory of Agacher Strip, a border region about 160 by 30 kilometres in size. The Agacher Strip is a territory in north-eastern Burkina Faso, where considerable amounts of mangan, gas, titanium, and uranium are suspected. Both sides hoped that the exploitation of these natural resources would help improve their desperate economic situation: especially the government of the Republic of Mali attempted to change the border to own advantage.

In the early 1970s the military of the Republic of Mali consisted of the Army, with 3.500 members, and a small service for river control, with some 50 members. The Army also operated a small flying service, created with French support already in 1961. This originally flew only a single surplus Armée de l’Air Max Holste MH.1521 Broussard and two Douglas C-47s, until in 1962 contacts with the USSR were established. The Soviets started delivering aircraft – including four Antonov An-2 biplanes and two Mi-4 helicopters – almost immediately, and with these the Escuadrille de Transport was established, based at Bamako. In the mid-1960s the first five MiG-17s or Lim-5s were supplied either from the USSR or Czechoslovakia, respectively. These were originally flown and maintained by Soviet personnel, until several Malian officers and technicians were trained. The Republic of Mali thus had at least a limited air combat and –transport capability already in 1974.

Given that the head of state, Colonel Moussa Traoré, had sufficient problems with his growing unpopularity and opposition at home, a conflict with Burkina was – even if expensive in economic terms – in his interest, then it came at the time there was strong pressure upon Traoré to honour his pledge to release all political prisoners and restore constitutional government.

Burkina Faso had little military capability and hardly any options to fight back. Although slightly more sizeable than the Malian military, its armed forces were poorly equipped and not in condition to fight a war. In regards of air power: the original Escadrille de Haute-Volta (EHV) was organised with French assistance already in 1964, as a transport and liaison service that operated three C-47s and MH.1521M Broussards. These were later reinforced through addition of two Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette III helicopters and a pair of Nord 262 transports. By 1974 the EHV operated two units, both based at Ouagadougou IAP:
- Escadron de Transport, flying Nord 262s registered MAJ and MAK
- Escadron d’Helicopteres, flying SA.316Bs with unknown registrations

Like the whole country, the military of Burkina Faso was suffering considerably from governmental instability during the 1970s and 1980s, based on a one-party system and military interventions. Since 1960 there have been five coups in Burkina, and political power has passed back and forth between civilian and military governments. In 1970 Lamizana became president for four years, eventually ruling the country as dictator until 1978. Following a five-year drought, in the early 1970, famine spread in Upper Volta and five other West African countries, resulting in economic dislocation.

The first “war” began on 25 November, 1974, and was actually characterised by lack of military operations or any significant fighting. In fact, merely a few border skirmishes with exchange of fire from hand-held weapons and small-calibre artillery were registered on 25 November, as well as on 14, 16, and 18 December. After both sides suffered some casualties – including a Malian MiG-17, which crashed for unknown reasons sometimes in late November, killing the pilot – they eventually agreed to a ceasefire, negotiated by several neighbouring states.

After additional – even if sporadic – border clashes continued occurring in 1975 as well, there was a break of diplomatic relations between Burkina Faso and Mali. Nevertheless, from 1977 Burkina Faso and the Republic of Mali were engaged in negotiations with mediation of several West African states, grouped within the so-called “Accord de non-agression et d’assistance en matière de defense” (Non-Aggression and Defense Aid Agreement – ANAD)

Mali acquired five MiG-17F or Lim-5s and at least a single MiG-15UTI from the USSR already in the mid-1960s, years before the Force Aérienne de la République du Mali was established. In fact, one of these planes was lost during the first war between Burkina Faso and Mali, in November 1974. Bamako/Sénou IAP remained their main base throughout the whole service, although reports indicate that during the war with Burkina Faso the whole Esadrille de Chasse was forward deployed to different other airfields, closer to the border. This was a tactical necessity, then otherwise the FARMA MiGs could not participate in the war, due to their short tactical range when armed. Given the hardpoint mounted under the wing, the aircraft here should be a Polish-built Lim-5. Note that the roundel applied on the fin has its colours in order different than that of the official insignia: the FARMA roundel should actually be in green, yellow and red. The reason for application of a roundel like this remain unknown - but could easily be trivial. (All artworks by Tom Cooper)

New Flying Services

In 1978 President Lamizana of Burkina Faso was forced to re-introduce parliamentary government, but two years later he was ousted in a bloodless military coup. In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara came to power in another coup. He established a reforming government, headed by the National Revolutionary Council.

Meanwhile, in Mali, an internal power struggle in 1978 led to an attempted coup, in the aftermath of which several former members of the junta were tried and sentenced, while political unrest and repression spread. President Traoré was returned to office in 1979, and re-elected in 1985.

By the mid-1980s, the militaries of both countries were actually the only government organisations that still properly functioned. In fact, air transport capabilities were of ultimate importance because of the weak road links and insecure river connections.

Both the Burkinabes and Malians reacted to their experiences from 1974 by reinforcing their flying services: Burkina Faso developed the Force Aérienne de Burkina Faso (FABF) into an independent branch shortly after the conflict in 1974. In the late 1970s its Escadron d’Helicopteres was reinforced by acquisition of two Aérospatiale SA.356Ns, deployed for transport, utility and SAR roles. Even more important, since Sankara’s friendship with Libya, in 1984, the FABF attempted to acquire MiG-21s. These were to enter service with to-be Escuadron de Chasse, based at Ouagadougou. These plans, however, were never realized. Although eight Libyan MiG-21bis and two MiG-21UMs were stationed in the country, in 1985, they were never handed over as there was no Burkinabe personnel to maintain and fly them. Instead, Burkina acquired a single MiG-17F from an unknown sources: two pilots were qualified to fly this aircraft, but they have got only the most basic flying training in the USSR, and no serious combat training at all.

The other significant development was the addition of two Mil Mi-4 helicopters, which entered service with the Escuadron d’Helicopteres and were used together with AS.356s, and a single Mi-8, used for VIP-transport.

Overall, the FABF therefore remained a small service, with insufficient number of qualified pilots and technicians, dependable on foreign support for operations, and without a developed doctrine. Pilots flew barely 30 hours a year on average, spares supply was always a problem, and many of the available weapons were of questionable quality already on delivery. Nevertheless, the proud and stoic Burkinabes, used to harsh living conditions, were to prove willing to fight.

One of the first Soviet-built types in service with FABF was Mil Mi-4 helicopter. At least two, but more likely four were acquired sometimes in the early 1980s. Why Burkina Faso has got Mi-4s and not Mi-8s remains unclear, but most likely these helicopters were donated by some third party - instead of being sold. The FABF operated this helicopter until the late 1980s: it was last seen in derelict condition in a corner of the Ouagadougou IAP, in the mid-1990s.

On the other side, the Force Aérienne de la République du Mali (FARMA), established on 6 February 1976, was meanwhile a – proportionally – well-developed service. Already in the same year the FARMA was officially established, it received a total of 12 MiG-21bis SAU and MiG-21UM fighters. These entered service with the newly-established Escadrille de Chasse, which also operated the remaining four MiG-17F/Lim-5s and a sole MiG-15UTI reported to have remained operational well into the 1980s. In 1983 the FARMA organized an Escadrille de Pilotage, or Flying School, which was equipped with at least six Yakovlev Yak-18s and six Aero L-29 jet trainers.

Thus, by 1985 the FARMA was boasting a strength of 900 officers and enlisted ranks, and consisted of three units, all of which were based at Bamako/Senou IAP:
- Escadrille de Chasse, with ten MiG-21bis SAU and MiG-21UMs
- Escadrille de Transport, with two Antonov An-24s and two An-26s (all delivered in 1976)
- Escadrille de Pilotage: Yak-11, Yak-18A, and L-29s
It is possible that the FARMA also had four Mil Mi-8 helicopters at the time, perhaps operated by a separate Escadrille d’Helicopteres, but this remains unconfirmed.

In addition to more MiG-21s and better transport aircraft, the FARMA could reach back to a better support infrastructure. By 1985 its pilots flew MiG-21s – even if not more often than 40 hours annually – since almost ten years, and were at least fairly proficient. Due to close cooperation between Mali and several Arab states the FARMA was relatively well-equipped with spares and weapons. Besides, it could reach back on no less but 22 unpaved strips around the country, but also six airfields with runways longer than 2.500m – including Bamako/Senou, Gao, Mopti, Timbuktu, Sikasso and Ségou.

While the sole Burkinabe MiG-17 were delivered together with only a few ground based radars, and the FABF thus had no serious radar net needed to support them, the FARMA was applying the Soviet fighter doctrine, based on the ground control radar. The ground radar assistance was necessary in order to achieve interception of any aircraft by MiG-17s and MiG-21s, the pilots of which had to follow the instruction of the ground radar controller. The consequence of this doctrine was that, in case of failure of the ground radar, the fighters had to stay on the ground. Of course, under the hot climatic conditions in Mali, the Soviet radars suffered considerably, and they would often enough fail. However, in general, they proved quite useful – especially because of the relatively flat terrain. Another advantage on FARMA’s side was the fact that it had several airfields developed along a line of between 100 and 150km from the border to Burkina Faso, while the FABF had only two airfields at disposal, in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, both of which were over 200km away from the most important parts of the mutual border. This meant that the reaction time of the sole FABF MiG-17 was longer and it could carry less weapons.

In addition to interceptors the FARMA had two batteries of SA-3/S-125 Pechora-1 SAMs. These heavy systems were not mobile, and any movement of their installations would be extremely problematic considering the Malian poor road network. Burkina Faso is not known to have been equipped with any kind of SAMs at the time. In fact, the presence of FARMA SA-3s precluded Burkinabe MiG-21s from even attempting to fly anywhere deeper over the Republic of Mali. While the Malian overall doctrine envisaged expecting the first strike to be delivered by a foreign aggressor, and the FARMA only then to react with air defence - perhaps also some interdiction strikes - the Malians were thus in a better position to wage an air war than Burkinabes.

One of at least five FARMA MiG-21bis SAUs as seen by several USAF officers that visited Gao AB, in 1991. At the time these planes were apparently already stored, but still in very good condition. Their fate ever since remains unknown. FARMA MiG-21s are known to have flown at least some 20 combat sorties during the short war with Burkina, in December 1985, but it remains unknown how effective they proved. In the late 1980s the Republic of Mali established close ties to the USA, and a number of FARMA pilots and officers have since visited US military schools.

Agacher War

Significantly, like the “war” in 1974, the next armed conflict between Burkina Faso and Mali, the so-called “Agacher War”, also came at the time both countries were hit hard by a long period – almost seven years – of draught, just like the one in 1974. The draught came to an end during October 1985, but when the rain began to fall it washed-out most of the roads and caused the outbreak of a cholera epidemic, adding to the misery and rendering the distribution of food ever more difficult. In the middle of this catastrophe, the government organised a general population census. During the census some Fula camps in Mali were visited – by mistake – by Burkinabe census agents. Mali protested against this violation of Malian sovereignty and immediately prepared a military response. The situation escalated and by the 20 December the Malian military was gearing up for a war, deploying a number of trucked patrols along the border, and increasing the preparedness of the air force. The FARMA MiG-21s and helicopters were observed several times high over the border with Burkina Faso, obviously flying reconnaissance missions.

Finally, on 25 December 1985, the Malian military launched several local ground attacks against Burkinabe border posts and police stations. The Burkinabe military was by the time in the process of mobilisation and Army units were rushed into the Agacher strip. In response to several Burkinabe counterattacks, and using the airfields in Gao, Mopti and Ségou to stretch their critically short tactical range, the FARMA MiG-21s flew some strikes against selected targets, in turn cuasing the FABF to scramble its MiG-17. Due to poor control of the airspace, however, no engagements occurred.

Already on 26 December the first ceasefire was negotiated by Libya, but did not last the day. After several successful Burkinabe counterattacks, the war culminated in a strike by FARMA MiGs against the marketplace in Ouahigouya, in which a number of civilians was killed. Considering the fact that this city is at least 80km south of the border to Mali, as well as over 300km from the nearest FARMA airfield in Mopti, it is obvious that the MiG-21s must have participated in this attack, as well as that they operated on the verge of their combat endurance. The strike came as a complete surprise for Burkina Faso, and demonstrated the actual combat ability of the FARMA at the time. According to contemporary Burkinabe press releases, this was when most of their losses during this war occurred.

Nigeria and Libya then worked out another ceasefire, to take effect on 29 December, under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but this failed too and the fighting continued as the Burkinabes attempted to recover some of the ground lost to Malians.

It was only the ANAD-sponsored truce that finally held: on 30 December 1985 the ANAD reached a common declaration made by Burkina Faso and Mali, containing the terms of ceasefire, but postponing the question of troop withdrawal.

The war thus lasted only five days. Nevertheless, the fighting was quite intense this time, and resulted in between 59 and 300 victims and a similar number of injured persons on both sides combined. Mali provided no official casualty figures, but Burkina Faso – where this conflict became known as the “Christmas War” – said it lost more than 40, including many civilians.

Burkina's only MiG-17F was no match for FARMA's small, but - at least for local circumstances - well-developed air force. This plane is shown as seen - while still in excellent condition - at Ouagadougou IAP, in the early 1990s, and again in 2001 - but this time in derelict condition. The plane wears national markings as introduced in 1984.

ANAD Mediation and the International Court of Justice

An ANAD summit in Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire, in mid-January 1986 saw a public reconciliation between Traorè and Sankara: the two agreed to withdraw their troops to pre-war positions. While supervising the ceasefire a Force Aérienne de la Cote d’Ivoire Aérospatiale SA.316B Alouette III crashed at Kouni, on 14 January.

In February 1986 ANAD supervised an exchange of POWs between the two countries. The dispute, however, remained unresolved: shortly after Burkina Faso and Mali re-established diplomatic relations and exchanged ambassadors, in June 1986, Malian Army purchased a small batch of T-55 tanks, causing the Burkinabe officials to accuse Mali of preparing a new conflict. In fact, the Burkinabes were not sitting idle either.

With Libyan financial support they were acquiring new weapons as well. Following the Libyan pattern, Burkina Faso purchased six second-hand Siai-Marchetti SF.260WP Warriors via Belgium. All six, comprising BF-8421 (c/n 049), BF-8424 (c/n 254), BF-8431 (c/n 116), BF-8451 (c/n 206), BF-8477 (c/n 134) and BF-8479 (c/n 136), had been former Philippine Air Force examples. The Warriors were not only used for pilot training, but also as light strikers, and a number of them was always used by the sole Eskadrille de Chasse (EdC). Four additional SF.260WPs were subsequently bought directly from Italy.

Nevertheless, such measures proved too much for both cash-starved countries. The whole matter between Burkina Faso and Mali was brought to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) already on 16 September 1983. Consequently, with ANAD mediation, both countries were now moved to find a final solution.

The SF.260WL saw a relatively short service in Burkina Faso. All six former Philippine Air Force examples purchased second-hand via Belgium, in 1986, were sold back to Belgium in the early 1990s - including the example depicted here, BF-8424/24. Only four newly-produced SF.260Ws remain in service until today, proving better value for money than even MiG-21s. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

A new dispute was submitted to the ICJ, concerning the delimitation of the common frontier. Burkina Faso meanwhile had troops on Malian ground, but was demanding that their withdrawal could be ordered only by the ICJ. Mali clearly objected to the request: it started the war, but for the purpose of gaining ground from Burkina Faso, and now found itself in a situation of almost losing the war.

Basing its decision on the fact that both sides agreed there existed a definite frontier that was not modified since the moment of independence, few old maps printed in France, and having examined all other evidence in detail, the ICJ eventually decided to actually leave the border where it was, and make only few minor corrections. Due to the lack of ICJ’s expertise, ANAD was left to control the withdrawal of the troops and inspect the geographical situation. Basing its decisions on reports from an ANAD commission, the ICJ then proceeded by drawing a series of straight lines in eight different sectors of the disputed area: the final delimitation line was then reproduced on a map annexed to the judgment. The ICJ split the 2.000 square kilometres of disputed territory almost equally, with Mali receiving the western portion – including some areas previously controlled by Burkina Faso, and Burkina Faso the east. This decision, called “very satisfying” by Traoré, was accepted by both parties in December 1986.

Sources & Bibliography

Overall, there is very little published reference to either the FABF or the FARMA, not to talk about the history of flying in either of the two countries. The few printed sources for this article available are:

- "Aerospace Encyclopedia of WORLD AIR FORCES", editor David Willis, Aerospace Publishing Ltd., 1999, (ISBN: 1-86184-045-4)

- "AIR WARS AND AIRCRAFT; A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to the Present", by Victor Flintham, Arms and Armour Press, 1989, (ISBN: 0-85368-779-X)

- "DOCTRINE FOR A SMALLER AIR FORCE: MALI AND THE QUESTION OF UNIQUE AIR DOCTRINE", A Research Paper Presented to the Research Department Air Command and Staff College, by Major Sory Ibrahim Kone, Mali Air Force, 1997 (AU/ACSC/97-0604I/97-03)

- "AFRICAN MiGs", by Tom Cooper, SHI Publications, 2004, (ISBN: 3-200-00088-0)

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