France In The Sahel: A Help Or A Hindrance?

The Sahel region of West and Central Africa is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of violence and forced displacement perpetrated by militant groups loosely associated with Islamic State and Al Qaeda. According to Mohamed Ibn Chambas, UN Special Representative and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, “The region has experienced a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets,” he further elaborated on the situation, adding that terrorist-attack casualties in Burkina Faso Mali and Niger have leapt five-fold since 2016, soaring to more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 alone, and displacement has grown ten-fold to about half a million. In the midst of this crisis France, one of the most influential international actors in the region, is failing to use its financial and political power to efficiently subdue the crisis. Though this hesitation is for good reason, the populations of the five former French colonies in the Sahel are understandably hostile, the support that has been offered by the French has been increasingly blamed for the misery experienced. France, the United States and the European Union have all funded the national armies fighting the militant groups, however they themselves have committed atrocities, carrying out multiple massacres, which have pushed more people into the militants’ arms. Malians are demanding the departure of the French counterterrorism force, chanting slogans and burning the French flag, while anti-France demonstrations have also taken place in Niger and Burkina Faso. President Emmanuel Macron expressed his concern, recently stating that “I can’t have French troops on the ground in the Sahel when there is ambiguity toward anti-French movements and sometimes comments made by politicians and ministers.”

This uncertainty has been somewhat addressed after a quick summit meeting between France and five West and Central African states. They agreed that French troops would remain in the fight against Islamist militants in the region, with France agreeing to pledge an additional 220 French troops to the region, adding to the force of 4,500 already there. The political incentive from the perspective of France was to make clear, in public, that the African governments wanted French forces to stay, an aim in which they were successful, the leaders of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad “have expressed their wish for the pursuit of France’s military engagement in the Sahel.”

The fundamental problem with French involvement in the Sahel region is the fact that they are trying to restore a state when there’s a public rejection of the state, it’s a lose-lose situation. If France puts in place a long-term political strategy that supports popular governments, it is possible that it could avoid the dilemma that it finds itself in at the moment.

Zac Williams