At the end of a recent summit on the Sahel, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged extra troops and called on the US to maintain its military support to combat a spiraling Islamist militancy. But support for corrupt regimes overseeing abuses by local security forces may be part of the problem, not the solution.
The complex, sometimes contested narratives between the protectors and the protected in the Sahel – a vast transition zone between the Sahara and the African savannah – has been on stark display of late in the news media.
In the Malian capital, Bamako, protests have erupted over the past few months, with demonstrators holding up signs proclaiming, “France dégage” – France get out – amid mounting frustration over the deteriorating security situation in the West African nation.
In 2013, when France intervened to halt an Islamist advance after northern Mali fell to jihadist control, Malians welcomed French troops with banner headlines in local dailies proclaiming, “Vive la France!”
Seven years later, the welcome mat has frayed.
France currently has around 4,500 troops on the ground in Mali and four other countries that make up the G5 Sahel grouping. The French contingent operates alongside a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force called MINUSMA and a local G5 Sahel force under Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission aimed at bringing peace in a huge swathe of terrain stretching across Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
But they have failed. Violence in the region has increased five-fold since 2016, according to the UN special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, with over 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 compared to an estimated 770 in 2016. Frustration is also mounting over the failure to stem an exponential militant expansion that has seeped across borders, sucking in a motley mix of jihadist and armed ethnic groups, as well as criminal bands in an impoverished zone.
Protests against France, the former colonial power, have spread from Mali to Burkina Faso and Niger in recent months and are sometimes expressed in creative ways. In a video that went viral last year, for instance, Afro-Pop star Salif Keita upbraided Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita for “submitting to this little kid Macron” in a stinging rant in the local Bambara language.
But on Monday night, Malian President Keita and his counterparts from the four other Sahel states appeared to disregard the Afro-Pop star’s advice when they lined up with Macron at the end of a G5 Sahel summit in the southern French city of Pau.
Flanking the French president at a summit-end news conference, the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries agreed that France should not leave and that the former colonial power remained the only security guarantee for their countries.
Macron has his own narrative of loss and rage over the public opposition to French troops in the Sahel. It was evident in the summit venue, which was picked because seven of 13 French soldiers who were killed in a helicopter crash Mali in November were based in Pau.
“I know who is dying for the citizens of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso,” said Macron at the news conference. “It’s French soldiers.”
‘A shame for Africans’
The optics however worked better for the summit host than his invited guests.
“One of the objectives of the summit was to make the presidents of the G5 Sahel countries commit themselves, and say publicly, that they want the French to remain. Of course that doesn’t mean they will say it in their own capitals, but they said it in Pau,” said Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos – director of the Marseille-based Research Institute for Develoment (IRD) and author of the book, “Une Guerre Perdue: La France au Sahel (“A Lost War: France in the Sahel”) – in a phone interview with FRANCE 24.
Paris has long been accused of playing gendarme in its former colonial pré carré (backyard) in a shadowy game of geostrategic influence dubbed françafrique. Successive French and African leaders have spoken out about the need to break with the past.
But the reality on the ground compels West African leaders to walk a humiliating tightrope between public opinion back home and diplomatic imperatives abroad.
“The presidents of the G5 Sahel countries have a dilemma,” noted Pérouse de Montclos. “On one side, they need a French military presence – also against their own security forces to prevent coups and mutinies. But at the same time, they can’t say that publicly because it’s a humiliation, a shame for Africans that so many decades after independence, they still need the French army to stabilise their own countries.”
‘We have no choice’
That need though has snowballed into a mission creep in the Sahel, sparking the sorts of debates that have plagued international military operations from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria.
The questions are familiar: are there enough troops and resources to bring and hold the peace in a conflict zone? Are international troops aiding or undermining peace chances? Do militant groups operating in distant, overseas terrain really pose a threat "back home"? And finally, is the loss of troops on foreign soil simply worth it?
The answers though are never easy and get more difficult as the duration of international anti-insurgency operations lengthen.
Reporting from Pau before the summit began Monday, FRANCE 24’s Armen Georgian noted that, “There’s a consensus that things are getting a lot worse. But there isn’t really a consensus on what is the best way out of this.”
By the end of the day, the G5 Sahel summit concluded with a consensus that more troops were needed on the ground.
Macron on Monday committed an extra 220 French troops in the Sahel and announced a plan to combine international and national military forces in the area under one command structure known as the Coalition for the Sahel.
Echoing a military consensus that more troops were needed to prevent G5 Sahel countries from collapsing in on themselves – causing uncontrolled terrorism and increased migration to Europe – Macron noted: "We have no choice. We need results."
Will the Americans stay or go?
Securing the vast southern fringe of the Sahara desert – roughly the size of Europe – much of it comprised of remote borderlands is a daunting task.
Militants linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group have strengthened their foothold, particularly in the Liptako-Gourma border region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
France has been calling for broader international support for counterterror efforts in the region, but its allies are either distracted or lack the military muscle power to tackle the threats in one of the world’s most dangerous zones.
In mid-December, US news reports said Washington was considering appointing a special envoy and taskforce to handle threats from the Sahel, where the US provides intelligence, logistical and drone support for France's forces.
By end-December though, headlines centered on reports of the Pentagon looking to reduce between 6,000 and 7,000 US troops in Africa, mainly in West Africa.
Speaking to reporters in Pau, Macron admitted he was worried about a likely US military withdrawal in the area.
"If the Americans were to decide to leave Africa it would be really bad news for us," said Macron. "I hope to be able to convince President [Donald] Trump that the fight against terrorism also plays out in this region."
In October 2017, when four US soldiers were killed in ambush by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), it sparked headlines in US news media on the “endless war” in a “remote African desert” and questions over how and why the US was deploying forces in yet another conflict zone.
Like many experts, Pérouse de Montclos refuses to be drawn into a guessing game on Trump’s likely intentions in the region. Nor does he put much stake in the ability of other European countries, such as Germany, to tackle the challenges of the Sahel. “The German military has little local knowledge of the zone, they don’t have experience in the region, nor do they possess language skills in the local Bambara or Tamasheq,” he noted in an interview with FRANCE 24’s French TV station Monday.
‘Diagnostic errors’ on jihadist causes and symptoms
Analyst warn that while a military approach tackles pressing security issues, it fails to focus on complex local contexts and critical socio-political issues that often fuel insecurity and increase jihadist recruitments.
“The French military operation is presented as part of the fight against terrorism. But jihadism is only a symptom of the weakness of the state. The conflict is portrayed as terrorism when in fact it’s a policing issue, not much of a military one,” said Pérouse de Montclos.
While participants of Monday’s summit pledged their commitment to security in the Sahel, there were no public statements on corruption and human rights abuses by national armies and paramilitary forces.
“Our military presence does not encourage these governments to reform and in particular to fight against corruption – which means, for example, that military equipment is not where it is supposed to be because the money was misappropriated. Nor does it tackle impunity, which means that [local security] troops and their militias too often kill civilians, which encourages young Muslims to join the ranks of insurgents to protect themselves from the aggression of the security forces,” noted Pérouse de Montclos.
The solution, according to Pérouse de Montclos, lies “in the hands of the Africans, because from the beginning there was a bit of a diagnostic error. We focused on the jihadist threat, presented it as a global threat when in fact the root of the problem are national crises and the solution is local, not in the hands of the Europeans or the Élysée,” he noted, referring to the French presidential office.