France stays the course in the Sahel


Despite setbacks, France reaffirmed its commitment to intensify its fight against Islamist insurgents in the Sahel region and sees South Africa as an ally in establishing peace in the region.

Speaking by virtual link at the G5 Sahel summit held in N’Djamena, Chad last month, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that recent military achievements over the past year served as an incentive to continue operations, increase commitments from local governments and European allies and create economic opportunities for those living in the region.

Whilst the leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger met in N’Djamena, the European and US participants, amongst others, joined the two-day summit via video conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eight years after France launched a military operation in northern Mali, it is facing increasing pressure at home and in the Sahel to withdraw as Islamic unrest spreads through the vast region. At the first G5 conference held in the French city of Pau in January 2020, France increased its deployment of 5 000 soldiers to Operation Barkhane by an extra 600. Many commentators expected Macron to announce a troop reduction, but Macron said that “rushing a French withdrawal, which is one of the options I have reviewed, would be a mistake.”

There have been successes in 2020 since the Pau summit. There is now greater coordination between troops operating in the region. Successes included the killing of the leader of al-Qaeda in north Africa, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and a few months later Malian jihadist Bah Ag Moussa was also killed, and coordinated attacks against Malian military bases have decreased. But coalition troops have also seen an increase in deaths (29 Malian, UN and French troops have been killed since the start of the year) and a rise of anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, particularly amongst the youth.

The region has seen an increase in international efforts to contain the situation and bring about a new dynamic. France acknowledges that bringing peace to the area relies on three pillars: defence, diplomacy and social development. More is required to get the three pillars working together.

Generally, the coordination between the different forces in the region has improved, with strengthening of the local and regional capacities working well.

The Pau conference had already established a joint command centre for the zone between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, which has seen an increasing threat from terrorist groups in the last year. The command centre has a rotating presidency, with Chad just having just taken over from Mauritania. Chad announced in late February that it will send 1 200 troops to this flashpoint area.

Other European countries have also increased their participation. A new special forces unit called Takuba is comprised of soldiers from the Czech Republic, Estonia and Sweden. Thus, besides France as the only European country actively involved in Operation Barkhane, other countries are also providing active support, not just liaison officers, intelligence gatherers or trainers.

The EUTM Mali (European Union Training Mission in Mali) consisting of many EU and non-EU countries has also been training the Malian Armed Forces (MaAF) and assisting with increasing local capacities.

The US already provides military support to Operation Barkhane and France is hopeful that the new Biden administration will provide even more assistance.

The UN also has a peacekeeping mission in Mali, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

Algeria, not a Sahel G5 member, is nevertheless an important player because of its strategic geographic location and intelligence capacity. Despite tricky relations with France, it is believed Algeria is supportive of the overall strategy.

The crisis in the Sahel region and its stability is also regularly raised by France with South Africa. This was particularly true when South African president Cyril Ramaphosa chaired the African Union (AU), from February 2020 to 6 February 2021 and South Africa sat as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Besides the permanent surge in French troops, France is also pushing for increased foreign civilian assistance for the Sahel region. Macron noted that it was essential for states fighting jihadists to win public support for counter-insurgency efforts.

Local officials will negotiate with civilian armed groups to lay down their arms and commit to the fight against the extremist groups.

It is hopeful that access to better education, water and justice will show the people of the Sahel region that the civilian and development component of the strategy is also moving forward.

The Sahel Alliance has been created to coordinate the various civilian assistance programmes. Although based in Brussels, it is led by Sahel countries and is to ensure that the investments and development projects fall within the regional strategy.

With France, against expectations, committing to its increased contribution to Operation Barkhane, it is more imperative than ever that a political solution be found to the conflict ravaged region and the strategy driven by the Sahel countries.