France is shifting its African policy approach in Sahel region

There are concerns, however, that an ill-coordinated drawdown and ad-hoc coalition with fewer soldiers won’t be able to bring security and will significantly affect the various international development projects in the Sahel.


France is shifting its African policy approach in Sahel region

Eight years after French soldiers arrived in the Sahel region to fight militant groups, France’s counter-terrorism approach is shifting. As a part of a new strategy, French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that France will start closing its bases in northern Mali as part of a drawdown of French troops fighting militant groups in the Sahel region.

France will be reducing their 5,100 troops by half, focusing on the restive border area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet. The tri-border area, as the region is known, has become the epicentre of brutal conflict after the violence unleashed by various armed groups linked to Daesh (ISIS) and Al Qaeda, split from Mali over the years into the semi-desert of the Sahel region, nearly the size of Western Europe.

Macron’s announcement indicates that the remaining French troops will be a part of a wider European military effort, marking the end of France’s Operation Barkhane which was launched seven years ago to force militant groups from the areas across the Sahel with the help of local forces.

The end of Barkhane 

French forces with Operation Barkhane have been the main pillar of the international military engagement with the conflict in the Sahel. While they have conducted operations to target high profile members of the armed groups, they have also trained local armed forces and provided important intelligence and logistic support for the other forces such as the UN Peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

As years passed by, the conflict, as well as the tactics of armed groups, have evolved and become more sophisticated, said Daniel Eizenga, who is a research fellow at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

“Despite its [Operation Barkhane] successes, the threat posed by militant groups in the region has grown both in its reach and intensity. This suggests that a strategic change of tack is needed to address the current situation,” Eizenga told African Policy.

But in the face of ever-growing violence, the years-long counter-terrorism operation with no end in sight has financially and politically become too costly for Paris. And to share the burden, France has sought to externalise and internationalise the military response, which hasn’t been successful so far.

In that sense, the Takuba international task force was established last year as an extension of the EU Training Mission (EUTM). The task force is designed to carry out operations with Malian and potentially other local forces while EUTM organises training programs.

The force currently comprises around 600 soldiers, half of them French. So far the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy and Sweden have answered Macron’s calls for contributions, while the US and Germany have largely remained reluctant to be involved in the fighting. With the integration of the remaining 2,500-3,000 French troops, France will be the largest bulk of the force.

“The idea to multilateralise and Europeanise the risks and costs of French intervention has been a slow, complicated and rough process”, Professor Bruno Charbonneau at Royal Military College Saint-Jean in Canada said.

“But Barkhane might be the moment when the practice becomes real. Especially with the new counter-terrorism academy in Ivory Coast, the West African intelligence centre being built in Dakar, the EU’s Sahel strategy and the Alliance Sahel”, Prof Charbonneau told African Policy.

Niger’s role 

Macron made the announcement in a press conference alongside the President of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum. Niger has been chosen to host the headquarters of the Takuba task force.

Unlike Mali, which military forces have concentrated on, or Chad, which used to play a vital role in the French security apparatus, this time Niger seems to be taking centre stage.

One reason, Eizenga says, is its capital Niamey offers a closer location to the tri-border area, the main area of intervention which France wants to focus on.

“Strategically, Niamey’s proximity to the tri-border zone and its infrastructure offer advantages for force deployment. The Nigerien armed forces have also come a long way in building up their capabilities, many see them as the exemplar for security partnerships in the region,” Eizenga said.

Niger, a key transit point on the Mediterranean refugee route, has long positioned itself over the past years as a reliable ally in the region to the European Union who is desperately trying to stop refugee influx to Europe.

Nigerien President Bazoum, after quelling an attempted coup, took office in early April in the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history.

“Niger appears to present a less problematic cooperation partner for the West. The newly elected Bazoum has already closely cooperated with Niger’s partners in his previous role as interior minister and presents significantly fewer challenges in cooperation than Mali and Chad,” Anna Schmauder, Sahel Researcher at Clingendael Institute told African Policy.

The end of Barkhane, as well as the new French approach, reflects France’s frustration over major political changes that have occurred in Mali and Chad over the past year.

“The second coup in Mali and the death of Chad’s Déby, provided the ideal context/situation to transform Barkhane for France,” said Prof Charbonneau.

While large swatches of Mali are under the control of militant groups, the country has seen two military coups in less than a year. This May, General Assimi Goita imprisoned and then ousted the civilian president and prime minister of the transitional council, which was set up after the ouster of French-backed President Ibrahim Keita following mass protests last year.

The lack of political stability and a weak state structure have particularly angered France, which believed in the importance of “return of the state” in the areas which were saved from militant groups as a long-term solution.

Moreover, although Paris resumed military cooperation with the Malian army earlier this month after a brief suspension, the relationship between Paris and the Malian military is rocky. There is a “mistrust” between the two countries, Macron said.

Also, the death of Chad’s President Idris Deby has signalled to France the necessity of the shift in its military strategy. During his 30-year repressive rule, Deby had served the interest of French military operations in West and Central Africa by sending his troops and hosting Operation Barkhane.

Even though Macron endorsed the military takeover led by Deby’s 37-year-old General Mahamat Idriss Deby, Paris is well aware that the strongman system Deby left without a strongman is not sustainable. And mixed signals over handing power to civilian rule from the military pose risks to the ongoing transition and political stability in Chad.

However, there are concerns that an ill-coordinated drawdown and ad-hoc coalition with fewer soldiers won’t be able to bring security and will significantly affect the various development and stabilisation projects put in place by the international community in the Sahel.

But more importantly, the geographical focus at the tri-border area in the new strategy would witness a surge in violence in other parts of the Sahel.

“The focus at [the] tri-border area is in fact not new but points to a continuation of the previous focal point,” Schmauder said.

“As previous counter-terror operations were often characterised by a replacement effect where violent extremist organisations moved into new territory further south, it will also be crucial to keep an eye on spill-over effects such as northern Benin and Ivory Coast.”

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