Operation Barkhane, launched in 2014, formally ended on 9 November 2022. But although France no longer has any troops in Mali, it still has nearly 3,000 military personnel in nearby Niger and Chad – as many as it did eight years ago. Refusing to admit defeat (1), it continues to do battle in the Sahel with ill-defined enemies conveniently labelled ‘terrorists’. This is a war of indefinite duration. Its legal basis is unclear (and never discussed by politicians) and it uses opaque methods that France even plans to extend to neighbouring countries on the Gulf of Guinea.
‘Barkhane 2’, as it is sometimes known, is headquartered in Niger’s capital, Niamey, where France has drones and fighter jets and around 1,200 troops. Most of the military land vehicles have already been shipped back to France but the air component remains in place for surveillance and air strikes. The remaining troops are stationed at French army bases in Dakar (Senegal), N’Djamena (Chad) and Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). Special forces units were based in Ouagadougou from 2010 until Burkina Faso’s ruling junta ordered them out in late January this year.
France also plans to create military reconnaissance posts, whose locations will vary according to the current threat and strategy adopted to deal with it. French troops have already been sighted in Tanguiéta and Kandi in northern Benin, where jihadist groups have carried out several attacks in the last two years. These soldiers, whose presence is unofficial, are on ‘training’ missions.
The French government and defence staff claim to have learned from past mistakes. So to avoid being seen as an occupation force, French troops will no longer have a frontline role. Nor will they undertake any action without approval from the host country’s government, as they did for years in Mali. A ministerial advisor told me they will try to be ‘as discreet as possible’.
From now, France is offering tailor-made defence cooperation to meet each country’s needs, ranging from training to providing military equipment and operational support, and intelligence sharing. Niger has already chosen a comprehensive package that includes ground combat and air strikes; some other Sahel countries are less keen to see French troops on their territory.
‘France isn’t really leaving’
This is far from a complete change of strategy. A West African researcher who works for a regional organisation said, ‘The French give the impression that they’re leaving, without actually leaving. They will always have bases here, and defence cooperation will continue. So what’s changed?’ According to an Élysée source, France has no plans to review the defence cooperation agreements negotiated in the late 2000s and early 2010s with eight of its former colonies (Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Gabon, Senegal, Togo). Earlier agreements signed when these countries gained independence contained secret clauses allowing France to intervene in case of internal troubles; in principle, the new agreements do not.
The changes under Barkhane 2 are superficial. France still believes it is fighting a global war, even a war of civilisations, and that military intervention is the best answer to the Sahel crisis, which may soon spread to the Gulf of Guinea. Sahel politicians at every level (local and central government, ministers) believe it’s time to start talking to jihadist groups and find political solutions.
How can we explain that terrorists have been creating chaos in our country since 2015, and that no one seems to care, unless it’s because some of our so-called partners are colluding with them?
Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla
Before the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, the Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger governments held secret talks with insurgents. A number of local agreements were struck in central Mali, though with limited success. In 2018 and 2020 the Mali government, under Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, appointed intermediaries to talk with the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin), linked to Al-Qaida.
Burkina Faso negotiated an unofficial temporary ceasefire during the 2020 presidential and general election campaigns to ensure they could be conducted freely. Niger’s president Mohamed Bazoum announced in February 2022 that he had begun talks with jihadist groups. However, as France’s leaders still see them as ‘terrorists’, dialogue remains all but impossible.
The military setup envisaged is much like that put in place after African countries gained independence to ensure that France retained control of its former colonies. Researchers Thomas Borrel and Yanis Thomas point out that it was then a matter of ‘maintaining a network of military bases to support rapid intervention forces that would be able to project themselves into the heart of Africa, and of ensuring close supervision of the new satellite states’ national armies’ (2).
‘Times have changed’
This idea is back in favour, though it was questioned in France in the 2000s, mainly because of its cost. Besides Dakar, N’Djamena, Abidjan and Niamey, there are French troops in Libreville (Gabon) and Djibouti. The French overseas department of Mayotte also has a permanent base that enables military interventions in East Africa and the Indian Ocean.
But people in Africa have had enough. ‘French politicians don’t seem to realise times have changed,’ said the West African researcher quoted earlier. ‘People don’t want to see French army officers wearing their uniforms in the context of development cooperation. And they no longer want foreign military bases in their country.’ Interviewed last November about the special forces presence in Ouagadougou, France’s army minister Sébastien Lecornu said the bases ‘will need to maintain certain capabilities – to protect our nationals for example’.
That’s a bad idea, and disingenuous too, according to the same West African researcher. The existence of a French camp on the outskirts of Ouagadougou with 250-300 special forces personnel (the Sabre unit) was long kept secret. In January 2013 it was this unit which intervened in Mali on the orders of President Hollande. The camp, which could no longer be concealed, was justified as necessary for the war on terror. But in October 2014 that same unit helped Burkina Faso’s president Blaise Compaoré to escape justice by leaving the country. The episode, fresh in Burkinabe memories, continues to fuel anti-French sentiment.
Some Africans even spread conspiracy theories that the French have been helping jihadists as a way of getting access to the Sahel’s mineral wealth. Alassane Sawadogo, coordinator of the Homeland Defence Front, a Burkinabe movement founded in 2020 under the slogan ‘The French must go’, asked how it was possible, ‘with all the resources at their disposal, that the French haven’t been able to defeat these armed groups?’
Last November Burkina Faso’s newly appointed prime minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla had similar doubts: ‘We may be wrong in suspecting that some of our partners have not always been loyal. But how else can we explain that terrorists have been creating chaos in our country since 2015, and that no one seems to care, unless it’s because some of our so-called partners are colluding with them?’
That’s a popular theory in Niger and Mali too. In August and October last year, Mali’s junta complained to the UN that France was arming the jihadists. Though they claimed to have proof, they never produced any. Ali Idrissa, a civil society activist in Niger who is highly critical of French policy, isn’t surprised the theory is popular, though he has never subscribed to it personally: ‘People can’t understand why the jihadists are gaining ground when one of the world’s most powerful armies has spent so many years fighting terrorism. It’s inconceivable to them. They’ve reached the conclusion that Barkhane wasn’t here to help us.’
For Sahel politicians, it may be easier to criticise France or accuse it of double-dealing than to work closely with it and recognise that their own armies are incapable of defeating the jihadists. For Niger’s President Bazoum and Côte d’Ivoire’s Alassane Ouattara, favoured allies of France, it’s a balancing act. The West African researcher said, ‘It’s a high-risk strategy vis-à-vis voters, and also their own general staff, because a number of army officers would like to escape France’s guardianship and diversify their alliances.’ One of Bazoum’s advisors said, ‘The president is in a delicate position. He’s taken it on himself to form an alliance with France, though he knows that’s unpopular. There’s a lot of anger among political activists and in religious circles.’
‘It’s a tricky situation’
By pursuing this war openly, France paradoxically risks undermining its allies. Bazoum’s advisor said, ‘It’s a tricky situation. What we gain in terms of fighting terrorism, we could lose in internal stability, by fuelling opposition.’ In Benin, which President Emmanuel Macron visited last July, President Patrice Talon is walking on eggshells: he seems grateful for France’s military support, but also knows that some Beninese don’t like it. One of his advisors told me, ‘We have to be as discreet as possible.’
Instead of looking for the real reason why Sahel people mistrust France so much, French politicians blame Russian propaganda and want to increase France’s media presence in the region still further. Macron’s address to France’s ambassadors last September illustrated this failure of perception. He said one of the lessons to be learned from France’s military engagement in the Sahel was that ‘our military power is key’ and ‘a strength for France’. He urged the diplomats to throw themselves into the information war. They must, he said, ‘embrace a strategy focusing on France’s influence and outreach’. For the last few months, the French government has been building an information warfare machine for Africa, with a special task force at the foreign ministry and a specialist unit at the armed forces ministry (3).
Last October General Thierry Burkhard, chief of France’s defence staff, told the senate that ‘after Barkhane, the goal is to change the nature of our presence in Africa.’ France needed to ‘win back the hearts and minds’ of the peoples of the Sahel, he said. That’s not a new idea: it was central to French army strategy during the colonial expansion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (4), and was a mantra of the general staff of Operation Barkhane. And we know how well that went.
https://mondediplo.com/2023/06/09sahel Has France lost its way in the Sahel?, by Rémi Carayol (Le Monde diplomatique