The world must step up to help a troubled Sahel

France's troop withdrawal is unlikely to solve regional issues such as terrorist attacks and military rulers clinging to power

A convoy of French troops based in Niger prepare to leave the country on October 22. The objective of withdrawing 1,400 soldiers from Niger by December 31 was announced at the end of September by French President Emmanuel Macron. Reuters
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After weeks of uncertainty, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal of his country’s forces from Niger on September 24. This follows the withdrawal of France’s military presence in Mali and Burkina Faso in the past two years. At the regional level, Paris now has diplomatic and military relations with Mauritania and Chad, just two out of the five member states of the G5 Sahel – an organisation that France helped to create in 2014 and which was meant to support regional stability.

For French officers, the disengagement from Niger will be a painful addition to the termination last year of Operation Barkhane, which had covered the Sahel region since 2014. The government of Mr Macron will be forced to fundamentally rethink France's approach in Africa. Meanwhile, the retreat leaves a security vacuum that will amplify instability in the Sahel, something already evidenced by a steady rise in terrorist attacks over the past few months.

For the past decade, France’s strategy for the Sahel built on its initial 2013 success in rescuing the government of Mali from an offensive being carried out by Islamist factions from the north of the country. Quickly though, the government of Francois Hollande, France’s president at the time, made several mistakes.

First, Operation Barkhane had an impossible mission. It relied on 3,000 soldiers to secure a region, the Sahel, which is as big as continental Europe. Whereas the initial operation in Mali had a concrete and limited objective – preventing a terrorist takeover of the capital, Bamako – Barkhane had no clear endgame. Paris believed that strengthening the capabilities of the five Sahel nations’ armed forces would avoid the need for an endless military commitment, with Barkhane eventually leading to a transfer of responsibilities.

Initially, that French-African partnership seemed to be promising and some tactical successes in joint operations gave credence to the gamble. However, the training of under-resourced Sahelian forces proved difficult. The rise in terrorist attacks across the region, and particularly in the border area between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger put tremendous pressure on African soldiers, whose frustration kept growing.

Increasingly, France looked like an obvious scapegoat. It supported civilian governments deemed by the soldiers to be incompetent and got caught in the middle of domestic power struggles. Soon, officers and political opponents in Bamako, Ouagadougou and Niamey accused the French government of having colonialist designs.

This could have been mitigated if France had rallied more western partners behind its intervention. The US provided modest logistical support to the French operation and Paris actively lobbied the EU to share the burden in the Sahel. Overall, however, the response was underwhelming. A small EU task force, Takuba, provided security assistance to Malian forces between 2020 and 2022 but it failed to truly "Europeanise" Operation Barkhane. For many EU member states, the worsening of the security situation in Eastern Europe after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 became a much bigger priority than the Sahel’s crises.

Operation Barkhane had an impossible mission. It relied on 3,000 soldiers to secure a region, the Sahel, which is as big as continental Europe

But the Europeans' reluctance to support France in the Sahel was also the result of French strategic confusion. After Mr Macron became President in 2017, he announced his desire to reduce France’s military footprint in the region. In January 2020, he publicly demanded that African leaders stop cultivating anti-French sentiments among the local population and increase their share of carrying the security burden. But then he announced an increase of French troops to reach the threshold of 5,000 soldiers.

France's political treatment of its local partners also proved to be inconsistent. On the one hand, the French government denounced the military coups in Mali between 2020 and 2021, Burkina Faso in 2022 and Niger this year. It also emphasised its support for democracy. But on the other hand, Mr Macron accommodated himself to the takeover by Mahamat Deby of Chad in 2021 after the killing of his father – and long-time ally of France – Idriss Deby. This double standard had a disastrous impact: it weakened French credibility among local public opinion and thwarted its ability to maintain a channel of communication with the juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. In the latter case, it is telling that French troops were forced to leave but the US military mission in Niamey is so far staying.

Understanding all the causes and consequences of those mistakes will take time for French officials who want to believe that the nearly 60 French soldiers who lost their lives while on duty in the Sahel did not die in vain. A critical review of Operation Barkhane should also lead to a broader revision of French approach in Africa. Mr Macron has repeatedly affirmed that the "Francafrique" – an expression depicting the close ties between the French government, business circles and authoritarian African regimes – is over. However, the decade that followed the French operation in Mali was marked by a military-centric policy in Africa. The country embarked on its own little "war on terror" and neglected the importance of other domains of co-operation, such as trade and development. Hopefully, Mr Macron’s government will recalibrate this focus.

Sadly, for the population of the Sahel, the French military retreat is unlikely to solve any of the local issues. First, the juntas in the three countries have yet to demonstrate any intention of relinquishing power. They are unlikely to address the social and economic issues that have undermined the development of those countries for many years. Finally, since the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, both countries have proved incapable of turning the tide against terrorist groups. Similarly in Niger, the junta confirmed on October 3 that 29 soldiers died in an attack near the border with Mali.

Altogether, the combination of military rulers clinging to power and unabated terrorist attacks do not bode well for the future of the Sahel. It will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis and the flow of refugees fleeing the region. France will not have the answer to that new situation but the international community, starting with the Economic Community of West African States and the UN, should step up.

Published: October 31, 2023, 7:00 AM