France And West African Nations Launch Force To Combat Militant Groups

On July 2nd, France alongside five African states, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, launched a multinational coalition to fight armed groups and violent extremists in the Sahel region. The meeting between France and the five African nations, formally known as the G5 Sahel Force, took place in the Malian capital, Bamako. During the summit, leaders of the G5 Sahel nations inaugurated the new force, which will operate in close conjunction with French troops and MINUSMA, Mali’s UN peacekeeping mission. President Emmanuel Macron pledged that this force will be active in just a “matter of weeks,” with France providing 70 vehicles and $9 million of funding. The G5 countries will provide 5,000 ground troops, in order to, as Macron expressed, “combat terrorists, thugs, murderers, whose names and faces we must forget, but whom we must steadfastly and with determination eradicate together.”

The establishment of this force comes as the threat posed by jihadists and other armed groups in the Sahel continues to grow. Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita highlighted the gravity of the situation: “our countries are now theatres in which to hide weapons of all kind, a haven for foreign fighters, terrorists running away from Syria as well as fighters travelling through our region trying to get to Europe.”

The threat of militant Islamists in the Sahel region is a long-standing and persistent one: in March 2012, following the military coup in Mali, MUJAO (The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), along with AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took control of the Malian cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. In response, Paris waged Operation Serval in cooperation with Western African forces, which successfully recaptured control of Timbuktu, Gao and other cities in northern Mali. Despite these efforts, these militant factions have not entirely subsided: in fact, France’s military intervention merely displaced them. A series of terror attacks in recent years have violently illustrated the ongoing threat – last year, 17 soldiers were killed in an attack on a Malian military base in Nampala. This attack was claimed by the Ansar Dine.

The Human Rights Watch reported that militant armed groups have carried out a wave of killings since January 2017. The killings, attributed to Islamist armed groups, self-defence militias and in some cases, government soldiers, have resulted in at least 52 deaths, and have displaced over 10,000 people. Since January, three local government representatives in the Mopti region have been assassinated, allegedly by Islamist militants.

Recently, this long-running violence in Mali has taken on a broader dimension: spilling across Mali’s borders into Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as taking shape in the kidnappings of Western journalists. On Saturday 1 July, JNIM (The Group for Support of Islam and Muslims), al Qaeda’s branch in West Africa, released a video showing six Western hostages kidnapped in the region in recent years. Among them was French citizen Sophie Pétronin, whose kidnappers President Macron said France would “put all our energy towards eradicating.”

Macron’s statement highlights the crux of France’s national interest in securing the Sahel region from further violence. The terrorist attacks carried out in Paris since early 2015 mean that France is particularly invested in the future of the Sahel, given its potential to become a breeding ground for radical militants to plan attacks against Europe. With ISIS slowly being stripped of its key strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the threat of its fighters dispersing to parts of weak African states looms large.

It must be said, however, that although the West African nations can positively look to France for support, the real solution must come from the inside out. Across the Sahel region, civilians are deeply troubled with their governments, as the issues of corruption, poverty, food insecurity and failed states remain unresolved. Committing troops and vehicles to fight off the armed groups might temporarily abate the immediate threat of attacks, but it does little to address the underlying causes of such violence. Though the link between poverty and radicalization is complex, brighter financial prospects for young men in the Sahel region, particularly in northern Mali, can significantly diminish the appeal of armed militias that offer them a stable income, while exploiting their deepest fears.

To this end, France and its allies have a constructive role to play, offering sustainable development aid to help the world’s poorest nations to provide services to their populations. The responsibility of the international community at large lies, not just in expressing a commitment by way of arms and troops, but rests in the sustained endeavour to develop infrastructure, public services, and economic opportunities in nations that have suffered poverty and corruption for decades.

Hina Khalid