Over 5,000 French soldiers will continue to stay in the troubled Sahel region in what has been dubbed Operation Barkhane, the anti-insurgent military operation aimed at subduing the threats posed by Islamist fighters, rebels, and groups of bandits in the desert area.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron revealed this on February 16 in Paris while talking to reporters. This announcement comes even before Macron holds a virtual meeting with the leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, the five countries that are most threatened by insecurity in the Sahel.
Macron was quoted saying: “Changes that are likely to be significant will be made to our military deployment in the Sahel when the time comes, but they will not be made immediately. They will result first of all from a collective discussion with our Sahel partners and with the partners who have accepted to help us, and they will be based on the results obtained and the degree of engagement from our partners.”
What has informed this decision?
It is better to understand that an earlier expectation of withdrawal of troops or even a reduction in the number of soldiers stationed in the region was unrealistic in the short term. The Sahel remains one of the most dangerous places in Africa and the growing security challenges threaten the stability of more than the countries enumerated above.
In 2020, the Global Peace Index named Mali one of the most volatile countries in the world. The country’s government has been unstable since 2012 when a coup interrupted a period of tranquility. Mali is currently under the leadership of an African Union-backed army-and-civilian interim government. The French would know first-hand what the task in Mali entails having lost soldiers and other compatriots in the turbulence in Timbuktu as well as Gaou. Other westerners have also either been in hostage with requests for ransoms or killed by insurgents. Still, Mali is only about half the story.
About Burkina Faso, a United States government report in 2020 said the situation in that country “is deteriorating faster than anywhere else in the Sahel”. The West African nation has been forced to enlist the help of civilians whose military training has been fast-tracked to help in combating Islamists. That plan is not only inefficient but also tricky. Arms in the possession of civilians of a country with its own socioeconomic challenges and fragile central government can be a recipe for disaster. The Burkinabe authorities have argued, however, that they are not left with much of an option as Islamists continue to make inroads in the north of that country.
Chad, Mauritania and Niger – three of the poorest countries in Africa – will continue to depend on the support of international partners to manage their shares of the problem which comes with ethnic and political dimensions.
The leader of Chad, Idriss Déby, has already announced he will be seeking a sixth term in office, having been head of state since 1990. As one would expect, that and Déby’s corrupt governance are not what troubles the French the most. His cooperation towards the goal of eradicating the insurgents and the insurgency has been the quality the French have looked out for. The French have literally gone to war for Déby, launching airstrikes in the north of the country where there are Chadian rebels.
There was very little reason to expect the French to pull away now from the Sahel when American involvement in reigning in order has been tempered down. It was one of the decisions taken by former President Donald Trump to demilitarize US involvements abroad. The decision to cut down on US African Command (AFRICOM) was criticized by partners and experts.
Macron would no doubt lobby new US leader Joe Biden into reconsidering his predecessor’s decision. Such a dialogue would focus on the potential difficulties presented by terrorist threats to emerging economies. Biden has spoken of the need for his country to retake a leadership role in global affairs ranging from climate change to international security.
The French president also hinted that he will speak to his African counterparts. One would expect that these leaders would maintain the need for further French support into arresting the menace. France should be committed to this as well.