Macron charts high-risk strategy to exit Sahel gridlock

·4 min read

In scaling back France's military footprint in the Sahel, President Emmanuel Macron is betting that Paris can extract itself from strategic gridlock and that local and international allies will step up to help quell jihadist insurgencies in Africa's most volatile region.

The drawdown of France's 5,100-strong Barkhane force marks the latest move by Macron to reframe Paris's relation with African nations, laid out in a 2017 speech in Ouagadougou just months after taking office.

"I don't think we should replace a sovereign nation and build up its future in its place," Macron said Thursday.

He has vowed to end decades of what critics denounce as Paris's patronising and outsize influence over its former colonies, widely known as "francafrique", and has pushed West African leaders to take more responsibility for security and improving government services.

"Here he's stirring up the hornets' nest to try to resume this strategy -- no more French army alone in the Sahel but an international coalition spearheaded by Europeans," said Antoine Glaser, a veteran Africa specialist and founder of the Lettre du Continent investigative newsletter.

But after eight years of relying on support from French troops, forcing under-equipped local armies to quickly step up their game against Islamist rebels might prove too ambitious.

Cooperation among forces from the so-called G5 countries -- Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania and Chad -- remains difficult and training has not significantly improved, French military sources told AFP.

"Malians, Nigerians, Burkinabe and the joint G5 Sahel force are going to have to tell us how many units they are capable of getting on the ground, so that we can evaluate their needs for help in combat," an officer said, asking not to be identified by name.

- Europe's 'southern frontier' -

French Defence Minister Florence Parly insisted Friday that "the time has come because the armed forces of the Sahel are in a better position to confront their enemies."

"It's also possible because Europeans are increasingly present," she told France Info radio.

But for two years Macron has struggled to convince Western allies to join the international Takuba force, which counts just 600 members -- half of them French.

Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic participate and Italy and Denmark have said they will.

Securing soldiers from larger EU members would probably require parliamentary approval in each country, and lawmakers might insist on caveats that would restrict Takuba to being little more than a training and logistics force.

It also remains unclear if Britain will continue providing Chinook heavy transport helicopters to a scaled-back Barkhane.

France insists that securing the Sahel is necessary to prevent Islamic State and other jihadists from establishing a base on what Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described Thursday as "the southern frontier of Europe."

Beating back the insurgencies would also let local governments stabilise their economies and improve access to services such as health care and schools, which could curb migration flows north.

"Europeans are increasingly aware of the security stakes at play in the Sahel, particularly in terms of migration," a French military official told AFP.

- 'Sense of fatigue' -

A sense that Sahel leaders are refusing to tackle corruption or commit to democracy likely played a role in Macron's strategy shift, after saying in February that no significant changes were planned in the short term.

The recent replacement of Chad's slain president Idriss Deby Itno by his son underscored the governance concerns, as did the ousting of Mali's government last month by army colonel Assimi Goita.

"With Mali, (Macron) had to swallow a lot of insults -- the coup in August, the release of 200 jihadist fighters in a hostage exchange, and the power grab by Goita," Glaser said.

Domestic pressures may also have pushed Macron to wind up a deployment that has cost the lives of 50 French soldiers, even if it means leaving local forces to take up the slack.

"We have to admit there's a sense of fatigue and a widespread sentiment that we're no longer sure why we're there," said Macron, who is facing a re-election fight next April.

"The recent events in Chad and Mali exposed the limits of the strategy in place up to now," said Gilles Yabi, founder of the Wathi think-tank in Dakar.

"But you have to keep in mind that domestic politics always have a role in these types of decisions," he said.