The Sahel region in Africa is a vast and arid area that spans several countries, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania. It is also a hotspot of violent conflict, where jihadist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State have been waging a brutal insurgency against the local governments and security forces.
France, the former colonial power in the region, has been leading a counter-terrorism operation since 2013, with about 5,100 troops deployed across the Sahel.
However, France’s military presence and influence in the region have been facing growing challenges and criticisms in recent years. Some of the main factors that contribute to this situation are:
The deteriorating security situation: Despite France’s efforts, the jihadist threat has not been eliminated, but rather diversified and expanded. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has emerged as a formidable adversary, carrying out deadly attacks on civilians and soldiers alike. The violence has also spilled over to neighboring countries, such as Burkina Faso and Niger, where hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and humanitarian needs have increased.
The political instability: The Sahel countries have been struggling with weak governance, corruption, poverty and social grievances that fuel discontent and radicalization among the population. Several of them have also experienced political crises and coups d’état that have undermined the legitimacy and effectiveness of the authorities. For instance, Mali has witnessed two military takeovers since 2012, the latest one in August 2020, which led to the suspension of its membership in the regional bloc ECOWAS and the imposition of sanctions by France.
The anti-French sentiment: France’s involvement in the Sahel has been met with increasing resentment and hostility by some segments of the local society, who perceive it as a form of neo-colonialism or interference in their internal affairs. Protests against France have erupted in several countries, such as Mali and Niger, where French troops have been blocked or attacked by angry demonstrators. Some political leaders have also expressed their dissatisfaction or defiance towards France, such as Mali’s Prime Minister Choguel Maïga, who accused France of “abandoning his country in mid-flight” after President Emmanuel Macron announced a reduction of French troops in the region.
The regional and international dynamics: France’s role in the Sahel has also been affected by the changing geopolitical landscape and the emergence of new actors and interests in the region. For example, Russia and Turkey have been expanding their influence and presence in Africa, offering alternative sources of support or partnership to some Sahel countries. Moreover, some regional organizations, such as ECOWAS and the African Union, have been asserting their autonomy and leadership in addressing the security and political challenges in the Sahel .
Based on these factors, it is possible to argue that France is losing its control and leverage on the Sahel region in Africa. However, this does not mean that France will completely withdraw or abandon its engagement in the region. Rather, France is likely to adapt its strategy and approach to the evolving situation and circumstances. Some of the possible steps that France could take are:
Reinforcing its cooperation with regional and international partners: France has already initiated a process of dialogue and coordination with other actors involved in the Sahel, such as ECOWAS, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. The aim is to share the burden and responsibility of stabilizing and developing the region, as well as to harmonize their policies and actions. For instance, France has welcomed the deployment of a European special forces task force called Takuba, which provides training and assistance to local forces.
Focusing on capacity-building and development: France has also shifted its emphasis from a purely military intervention to a more comprehensive approach that combines security and development objectives. The idea is to support the Sahel countries in strengthening their institutions, governance, economy and social cohesion, as well as to address the root causes of conflict and extremism. France has pledged to increase its aid to Africa by 50% by 2025.
Respecting the sovereignty and aspirations of the Sahel countries: France has also recognized that its presence and influence in the region depend on its acceptance and legitimacy among the local population and authorities. Therefore, France has tried to adopt a more respectful and consultative attitude towards its African partners, taking into account their needs and preferences. France has agreed to respect Mali’s decision to engage in dialogue with some jihadist groups.
In conclusion, France is facing a complex and challenging situation in the Sahel region in Africa, where its control and influence are being contested and eroded by various factors. However, France is not likely to give up on its interests and commitments in the region, but rather to adjust and adapt its strategy and approach to the changing reality and circumstances. France’s future role and impact in the Sahel will depend on its ability to cooperate with other actors, to balance security and development goals, and to respect the sovereignty and aspirations of the Sahel countries.