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France at odds with the US in the Sahel

28th Dec 2017

Ahmed Rajab

G5 Sahel Summit, which was held in Paris on December 14 under the tutelage of French President, Emmanuel Macron, was essentially a fundraising exercise by Macron to buttress the new but cash-strapped G5 Sahel force (FC-G5S).  This was one of the reasons which prompted Macron to invite Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the summit.

However, despite the commitment of the Gulf moneybags, pledges made in Paris fell far short of the estimated $300 million needed to make the nascent force operational. [Disbursement mechanism of the funds has yet to be discussed.]

Therein lies the dilemma facing the Sahelian countries in confronting their major security challenge which is compounded by fragile state structures and fissures in their governance credentials. In addition, the five countries simply lack the wherewithal for operational costs and provisions of military hardware.

Another summit is now planned for February in Brussels at which European and African governments will be urged to fill in the missing funding gaps. Defence ministers with their military commanders will also meet at the end of February to coordinate their anti-terrorist military strategies.

G5 du Sahel or G5S was set up on February 16, 2014, when the presidents of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, all former French colonies, met in Nouakchott, Mauritania. High on their agenda was how to confront the widening wave of terrorist attacks in their region.

Three critical regional players, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Algeria and Morocco, were not included in the act. The regional organisation ECOWAS was not consulted on some crucial aspects of the G5S initiative at its inception and has since adopted an ambivalent position towards it.

But ECOWAS is handicapped by the fact that its own security architecture is weak, underfunded and lack a coherence that is vital in combating cross-border terrorism and contraband networks.  ECOWAS’s Standby Force, its regional security framework, has to date not been able to deploy troops to the Sahel.

France, the main driving force behind the G5, views both Algeria and Morocco with mistrust.  Algeria, which fancies itself as a regional “security power broker” is suspected of dubious dealings with the terrorists. This, despite the fact that the Algerian regime faces threats from several active terrorist groups, some with links to the Daesh.

Morocco, on its part, has long been accused of involvement in the drug smuggling networks in the Sahel as well as in human trafficking.

Although security analysts estimate that there are fewer than a thousand terrorists fighting in the Sahel (some put the figure as low as 500), they have proved to be a hard nut to crack. In contrast, France whose forces routed the terrorists from northern Mali in early 2013, has about 4,000 troops in Mali alone.

Western intelligence sources fear that with the collapse of the so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria terrorists might try to relocate to North Africa and southwards to the Sahara and Sahel regions.

Terrorist groups operating in the regions include al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Boko Haram, Jamaat al-Nasr al-Islam, Al-Mourabitoun as well as Ansar al-Dine. There is evidence that some of the groups such as MUJWA are funded by the illicit but highly lucrative cocaine business.

The world had a foretaste of what terrorists could do when they wrested control of northern Mali in 2012.

Already, the Sahel is a crowded security space with multiple forces confronting an enemy which is amorphous and with a capacity to reinvent itself.

In combating the terrorist groups, the 5,000-strong G5 Forces will join about 12,000 UN troops, 4,000 French and an unknown number of American troops believed to be close to 1,000.

A recent report (‘Finding the Right Role for the G5 Sahel Joint Force’) by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group bears this out.

The various forces with their myriad initiatives prompt the question of the quality of their coordination strategy.

In addition, the two major outside players, the US and France, have different priorities in the Sahelian initiatives. While the US’s main focus is on fighting terrorism, France’s main preoccupation is in stemming out the tide of illegal immigrants to Europe.

Despite being the power behind the G5S, France does not want to be seen as the face of the group’s operations. Macron is treading carefully because of the dynamics of France’s internal politics. Any French casualties in the Sahel/Sahara regions may provoke awkward questions and could further erode his support base at home.

The G5S operations are planned to start in early 2018, with the French Berkhane forces and the US special command providing operational, intelligence and tactical support to the G5’s troops. The French forces have been in the region since 2013 when they were deployed in Operation Serval to fight an al-Qa’ida linked Tuareg insurgency in northern Mali. Serval was expanded to the region as Operation Berkhane in 2014.

The G5 troops are faced with a very complex situation. Burkina Faso, for example, has a serious problem in its northern region whose Peul and Tuareg population feel abandoned by the Government in Ouagadougou. Matters are compounded by the deployment thereof the G5 troops. The local population who consider the G5 “black soldiers” as invaders, appear to be collaborating with the terrorists.

The terrorists are killing teachers and administrators, thereby forcing them to desert their posts. As a result, the State presence in the region has been considerably reduced.

Ahmed Rajab, Board Member, Gusau Institute

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