France’s decade-long Sahel strategy finally crumbles

President of France Emmanuel Macron. (File photo: Jordan News)


The writer is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. ©Syndication Bureau.

To France, it will look like a humiliation, on par with America’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago. To Niger’s military leaders, it will appear a victory – as they crowed in a statement shortly after the announcement. To the rest of West Africa, it seems like a warning: the Western presence in the region is collapsing.اضافة اعلان

Two months after Emmanuel Macron promised an “immediate and uncompromising” response if French citizens were attacked after a military coup in Niger, and 10 days after he declared the French ambassador in the country was being held hostage, the French president appears to have backed down.

French forces would leave Niger, he announced, in the next few weeks, with a complete withdrawal of the estimated 1,500 troops by the end of the year. The French presence in Niger will come to an end – and by extension the 10 year strategy in the Sahel will finally, ignominiously, crumble.

French troops have been in the region for decades, but the latest attempt to control and stabilize the countries of the Sahel started when troops were deployed to Mali in 2013 to stop a jihadist advance against the French-backed government. Operation Barkhane, as the deployment across five countries was called, had some success, but began to break apart three years ago as anti-French sentiment rose.

First, a coup in Mali in 2020 pushed out French troops, followed a year later by another coup in Burkina Faso, leading to the end of France’s footprint there. Niger became the center of French operations, until this summer, when the French-backed president was removed from power.

Violence in the region has exploded over the past six years. Thousands of civilians have lost their lives and the countries seem unable to get a grip on their vast ungoverned spaces of territory. Barkhane, whose primary purpose was counterinsurgency, seemed powerless to stop the violence against civilians – and indeed, as in 2021 when a French air strike in Mali hit a wedding party by mistake, killing 19 civilians, actually contributed to it. Public anger against their governments and France, as well as the long, inglorious history of France’s corrupt dealings on the continent, contributed to an atmosphere that welcomed the coups.

Yet France’s departure is not good news, neither for the Nigeriens, nor the wider region. The cosy relationship between France and the Sahel’s elites has lasted for decades, and the departure of French troops may bring it to an end. But what will replace it?

Therein lies the central issue for the future of these countries. The most generous interpretation of the coups that have swept the region is that populations sick of corruption, poverty and jihadist attacks, and noting that French influence has not managed to halt any of them, have replaced their French-backed leaders with popular ones. But this is an extraordinarily generous interpretation. For one thing, none of the countries that toppled governments have replaced them with representative leaders. All are still run by soldiers.

Second, it ignores what made large areas of these countries fertile ground for Islamist influence – the lack of development. Living standards are unlikely to suddenly improve with the men holding guns in charge and rich nations departing.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is no outside force willing to help stabilize these countries. Russia, often talked about as usurping French influence – and a country whose flag could be seen flying at pro-junta rallies in Niger – has no interest in replacing the vast French military footprint.

Even in the region, there is little consensus. The regional grouping, ECOWAS, which threatened a military intervention in Niger to restore the elected President Mohamed Bazoum, is now at odds with the juntas of the three countries.

Two weeks ago, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed a defense pact, which while framed as a front against terrorism was an obvious response to the threat from ECOWAS. But it is clear the military leaders believe there is more to be gained in standing together against internal and external threats, rather than taking part in multilateral institutions.

That pact means that, in reality, ECOWAS has been split in two: A southern belt stretching from the coast to Nigeria, and a northern belt composed of three military regimes. Consensus is further away than ever.

Still, France is unlikely to leave the region entirely. The country has a military footprint in other places in West Africa, in Chad, Senegal and the Ivory Coast.

The major question now is what will happen to United States forces in Niger? The US has more than a thousand troops across two bases, and relies on the country to launch drone operations across the wider region. In a sign of how the junta has focused on anti-French, rather than a broader anti-Western, sentiment, little has been said about these troops.

With a lack of consensus in the region and beyond it, the most decisive actors look like the coup leaders. But the end of France's Sahelian strategy doesn't mean anyone else has a better one. Indeed, the replacement of a system where French guns supported Sahelian political leaders, to one where Sahelian political leaders carry guns, seems like a small, and not particularly beneficial, step.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai

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