The story so far: On November 9, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the end of the decade-long Operation Barkhane in Africa. Mr. Macron said that, “Our military support for African countries will continue, but according to new principles that we have defined with them.”
France began its military operations in Sahel in January 2013. Titled Operation Serval, it was limited to targeting Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took control of northern Mali. However, in 2014, the mission was scaled up, renamed Operation Barkhane and was aimed at counter-terrorism. The objective was to assist local armed forces to prevent the resurgence of non-state armed groups across the Sahel region. Around 4,500 French personnel were deployed with the local joint counter-terrorism force.
France has a mixed record in achieving its military objectives, with failures more evident than the successes. French operations had two objectives in the Sahel. First, to liberate Mali from the insurgency in the north and second, to see through counter-terrorism operations in West Africa, including the neutralisation of key terrorists.
In its major successes, France regained Mali’s northern regions from the extremists in 2014 through Operation Serval. In 2020, Abdel Malek Droukdel and Bah Ag Moussa, key leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al-Qaeda-affiliate Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans were killed in French-led operations. The 2014 success led to the inception of Operation Barkhane aimed at counter-terrorism in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad. However, Operation Barkhane saw a series of failures.
First the region, despite the operation, witnessed the growth of new groups affiliated to terrorist organisations, including the Islamic State.
Second, the failure of the operation led to a humanitarian crisis. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the violence had claimed 5,450 lives across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger in just the first half of 2022, recording a significant increase from the previous years. Further, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies recorded 2,005 incidents of Islamist violence in the Sahel in 2021, compared to the 1,180 incidents in the previous year. Third, Operation Barkhane’s unfulfilled objective to resolve the region’s insurgencies sparked an increase in civilian support to the military and has contributed to the subsequent political uncertainties in the Sahel.
First, France’s relations with the military rulers grew hostile after a series of coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. Relations between France and Mali soured after the latter expelled the French ambassador when he disagreed with the junta’s decision to remain in power until 2025. In addition, France was contemptuous about Malian authorities negotiating a peace deal with insurgent groups. Secondly, since Operation Barkhane was widely perceived as a failure, anti-French sentiments and questions over France’s intentions flared up, with a further demand for France’s withdrawal from the region.
Finally, France, and other Western countries claim that the Wagner Group, a private military company close to the Kremlin, is playing a major role in fuelling the insurgency and discrediting French withdrawal. For Africa, the Wagner Group is an alternative that engages with military governments, without abiding to human rights and democratic standards.
First, France’s relations with Africa are undergoing an unprecedented transition under Mr. Macron. The end of Operation Barkhane signifies France’s acknowledgement that it did not achieve their intended objectives. The French decision is unlikely to improve Africa’s security situation and may lead to the assumption that Paris abandoned the continent.
Second, Macron’s statement indicates a willingness to restructure the French approach to Africa. However, if France aims to address its anti-French sentiment, then Paris needs to look beyond military operations and needs to engage with the political leadership, push for dialogue and understand the complex dynamics of the actors in the conflict.
Third, for the African leadership, particularly authoritarian and military leaders, partnering with Russia is easier. Therefore, to remain an important external partner, Paris has to fasten restructuring its Africa policy.
The authors are researchers at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru