French journalist Olivier Dubois was taken hostage in Mali nearly two years ago. His family and support group regularly contact the French authorities and try to raise public awareness, but as time passes, they fear negotiations for his release have stagnated.
Dubois was kidnapped in Gao, in northern Mali, on 8 April 2021 by JNIM, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, linked to al-Qaeda. He had been trying to interview a local al-Qaeda commander.
Working as a freelance journalist in Mali since 2015, Dubois announced his abduction in a video posted on social media on 5 May, 2021.
Since then proof he is still alive has dwindled, with his last contact in March last year.
The French and Malian governments have assured the family that everything is being done to get Dubois released.
But information is scarce partly due to confidentiality for security reasons. But concerns are rising that diplomatic efforts have fallen by the wayside.
No presidential visit
Pierre Legrand, a member of the SOS Hostages association, was one of the former hostages of Arlit, kidnapped in Niger in 2010, and released in northern Mali in 2013.
He told RFI’s David Baché earlier this week that there are some key differences in how his case was handled compared to Dubois’ situation.
“The government is acting like it’s not really concerned by Olivier’s case. An example of this is that for the last two years the family has not been hosted once by President Emmanuel Macron.
“He’s the first French president to not have received families of kidnapped people since the hostage-taking episode in Lebanon in the 1980s.”
By contrast, Legrand says his own family held several meetings with Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande – the presidents during the time of his capture. This was an important symbol for his loved ones, showing that the leaders were involved personally.
After two years Legrand admitted he felt extremely tired and somewhat abandoned. But one of his few comforts was being able to listen to the radio. He said that all of the leaders of Al-Qaeda he met who spoke French listened to RFI consistently.
From time to time he would hear news of support groups mobilising for him. “Hearing the voices of my friends gave me courage,” he said.
Politicians talking about his case also gave him a boost, he added.
“When people who have power get involved, you know that something is really going to happen, it was concrete action,” he said.
@EmmanuelMacron, Olivier Dubois is the longest French journalist held hostage.You previously negotiated the release of numerous French hostages in #Mali successfully.Why is it taking so long to #FreeOlivierDubois?@MinColonna, you have to #bringHimhome! @O_DuboisFamille pic.twitter.com/Tf2QcPG9k2— Hostage Aid Worldwide (@HostageAid) February 3, 2023
No proof of progress
However this was not enough, Legrand says. From the moment his family stopped receiving concrete updates from the presidential office, they decided to launch their own investigation and sent a video message directly to one of the senior al-Qaeda leaders.
“Abdelhamid Abou Zeid responded to them personally by saying that interaction with the French government had stalled for the past year,” Legrand recounts.
Legrand says he fears that Dubois might be facing a similar situation as the government has not “provided any proof” that negotiations are advancing despite their assurances.
Jiovanny William, a French deputy for Martinique (first constituency), where Olivier Dubois has family roots.
He has been keeping up the public awareness campaign in the Caribbean island and maintained contact with Dubois’ family.
As well as a huge poster of the journalist in front of the town hall in Le François, home to some of Dubois’ family, he has encouraged all the deputies to wear bracelets with the words: “I will not forget Olivier Dubois”. There is also a social media campaign with #freeolivierdubois.
The Support committee established by the family has also set up a petition and awareness campaigns in numerous cities such as Marseille and Avignon.
“My job is to keep pushing the government to go further with the negotiations, to keep them in a state of alert,” William says.
Confirmation from Al-Qaeda
Meanwhile, Algerian Islamist Abu Obeida Youssef al-Aanabi, the current leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) confirmed on Monday that his group is holding Dubois. However, he denied AQIM had lured Dubois into being abducted.
It was the first official confirmation from the group, providing perhaps a step forward for the family.
In an exclusive interview given to France 24 television’s terrorism expert Wassim Nasir, Al-Aanabi said his group is open to negotiations and that it is up to French authorities to make the first move towards opening talks.
He said AQIM considers it a victory that French troops withdrew from both Mali in August last year and Burkina Faso in February 2023, calling it a vindication of 20 years of jihad in the region.
France’s relations with Mali have deteriorated sharply since a junta took power in the west African country in an August 2020 coup.