Sahel security of concern to Arab world

Setbacks in the fight against jihadist groups provoked increasing disenchantment with France’s presence in West Africa.
Sunday 19/01/2020
France's President Emmanuel Macron gestures next to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad's President Idriss Deby during a news conference as part of the G5 Sahel summit on the situation in the Sahel region in Pau, France January 13. (Reuters)
France's President Emmanuel Macron gestures next to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad's President Idriss Deby during a news conference as part of the G5 Sahel summit on the situation in the Sahel region in Pau, France January 13. (Reuters)

The summit attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and five West African leaders put the spotlight on the precarious security situation in the Sahara and Sahel region, a region crucial to the peace and stability of the Arab world.

“The priority is Islamic State in the Grand Sahara… It is our priority because it is the most dangerous,” Macron said.

The leaders at the summit January 13 emphasised that the war in Libya “continues to foster instability in the Sahel.” The security threat, however, works both ways as terrorists continue to infiltrate Libya’s porous borders from sub-Saharan Africa as well.

Many experts expressed doubt on whether the meeting decisively addressed all concerns. France announced the deployment of an additional 220 soldiers on top of the 4,500 French troops already operating in the region.

Leaders agreed on a new command structure, called the Coalition for the Sahel, that would enhance the efficiency of the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliates.

There is the issue of France’s fraying support for its military role in the region. During the summit, Paris received the backing of West African leaders “for the pursuit of France’s military engagement in the Sahel.”

Setbacks in the fight against jihadist groups provoked increasing disenchantment with France’s presence in West Africa. Hundreds of demonstrators marched in Bamako, Mali, before the France-Sahel summit carrying signs reading “Down with France, Barkhane must leave,” referring to the name of the French military operation, and “France is a brake on our development.”

Macron accused “foreign powers” of sparking protests to undermine French influence. Experts said radical Islamist preachers have fuelled resentment of the French presence.

“The statements I’ve heard these past weeks are shameful… because they serve other interests, either those of terrorist groups… or foreign powers who want to push out Europeans because they have their own agenda — a mercenary agenda, ” said Macron.

Many say it is an issue of unconvincing military strategy. “Today, more than ever, the fact is that the results, despite the effort, are below the expectations of the population,” Burkina Faso President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said during a news conference.

UN Envoy for West Africa and the Sahel Mohamed Ibn Chambas warned recently that “unprecedented terrorist violence” had shaken the African countries’ confidence in the French-led operation.

French officials are said to be unhappy about the limited role other European countries are playing in the anti-terrorism effort. They are also wary of US intentions to draw down their forces in Africa.

“I hope to convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism is playing out in this region as well,” said Macron.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff US Army General Mark Milley said US military resources “could be reduced and then shifted, either to increase readiness of the force in the continental US or shifted” to the Pacific. In recent days, US President Donald Trump has called on NATO to shift its operations to the Middle East.

France would like international donors to fulfil their financial pledges. In 2019, $300 million of the pledged $400 million came through, the French presidency said.

The United States and many other countries have raised questions about the efficiency of the fight compared to the efforts and troops already deployed. About 7,000 US special forces carry out operations in Africa against jihadists, especially in Somalia. An additional 2,000 soldiers train troops in 40 African countries and assist France’s Operation Barkhane in Mali. The United Nations keeps 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali.

Despite these means, jihadist terror is dangerously spreading in West Africa.

Murderous attacks are costing the lives of African and French troops. Since 2016, there has been a five-fold increase in attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The death toll shot up from 770 in 2016 to 4,000 in 2019, noted Ibn Chambas. On January 9, 89 soldiers were killed in Niger.

The effect of the military operations on local populations has been huge with thousands of civilians killed and more than 1 million displaced.

The broader issue is that of inadequate models of development, which encourage marginalisation of youth and radicalisation as well as illegal migrant trafficking from West to North Africa with the hope of reaching European shores.

Another problem is the widespread distrust of African governments by their own populations. International generosity and broader military presence might not be enough to resolve the security problem.

Much rides on the anti-terrorism effort in the Sahel. Some warn that, if that effort fails, there may be a broad “jihadist arch” stretching from Africa to the Middle East.

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