Europe must back French support for Sahel

Chad’s acting President, Mahamat Idriss Déby, who stepped in to head a transitional council after his father Idriss Déby Itno was killed at the hand of rebel forces, was recently welcomed at the Élysée.

The “friendship and working visit” in early July was Déby’s first excursion outside of Africa as acting Chadian leader and strengthened ties between N’Djamena and Paris, with French President Emmanuel Macron pledging new financial aid for Chad during the summit.

The French leader is keen to have reliable allies like Chad on the ground in the Sahel, because Macron’s longer-term aim is to wind down Paris’s military involvement in the Sahel region. Operation Barkhane, which comprises 5,100 French boots on African ground, has proven to be a costly and unpopular endeavour of late, both at home and among local populations, which is why Paris intends to replace it with a more international task force.

As yet, cooperation and commitment from other Western powers has not been very forthcoming, though that situation must change if the Sahel is to have a peaceful and prosperous future.

Macron reiterates Chadian commitment

The visit to Paris was Déby’s third diplomatic trip (after visits to Niger and Nigeria) and his first outside of Africa since he came to power in April to ensure that his father’s battlefield death did not destabilise Chad and the broader region. The “closed doors” nature of the meeting means that journalists were not able to document what was discussed, but a joint press release signed by the two leaders indicates that Macron and Déby did discuss the timeline to free and fair elections that was previously promised.

Both leaders emphasised their commitment to “an inclusive, peaceful and successful transition” of power, with Macron clearly focused on the all-important stability which Déby’s government can bring.

In fact, it’s likely that the lion’s share of the meeting minutes was taken up by deliberations over the seemingly interminable fight against insurgency and terrorism in Chad and the wider Sahel region.

France is no stranger to those affairs, having first landed troops in the Sahel in 2013 to fend off an attempted coup in Mali. It has maintained a military presence in the region ever since, though French citizens have grown increasingly weary of the dragged-out conflict and there has been some pushback among local communities over France’s involvement—two key reasons why Macron has signaled his intention to shut down Barkhane.

France cannot fight regional fires alone

Instead, the French President hopes to strengthen an international task force – nicknamed Takuba – to take over from his withdrawing forces. To date, just 600 soldiers have been assigned to the project, half of which are French.

Indeed, it often seems like Paris is the only international power interested in addressing the worsening crisis in the Sahel; the US has provided 1,100 troops in recent years, though they are focused exclusively on offering intelligence, training and logistical support. The UN’s 13,000- strong peacekeeping force is occupied solely with civilian protection.

While the West’s reluctance to become embroiled in a deteriorating conflict that killed around 7,000 people and displaced some two million more last year alone is perhaps understandable, it is not tenable.

A UN Security Council report has underlined how African forces are being stretched thin by the proliferation of insurgency outfits, while recent attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger – as well as Mali’s second coup in nine months – have sparked fears that the cessation of Barkhane could lead to a power vacuum in the region.

If jihadist groups do not capitalize upon such a scenario, other world powers like China and Russia surely will. The latter has already signed agreements with a number of Sahelian nations and would dearly love to consolidate its influence in Africa, to the unmistakable detriment of European interests.

Europe cannot shirk Sahelian responsibilities any longer

With that in mind, Europe can no longer afford to prevaricate or procrastinate when it comes to the issue of the Sahel. It should be remembered that the volatility and violence that the region is currently suffering is a symptom a wider societal problem – inequality and unemployment.

Florence Parly Wiki

In fact, a recent UN report found that the number one reason for terrorist group recruitment was a chance at a job and a wage, rather than any ideological beliefs. Given that Europe has a trade surplus of $1.2 billion with Mali – a country whose average GDP per capita is less than $1,000 – it’s time for the continent’s major powers to step up and shoulder some of the responsibility for their actions.

That means encouraging economic opportunities through the promotion of African agriculture and industry, but it also means quelling rebellions and dousing the flames of insurgency wherever they surface. Such a course of action would also be motivated by self-interest, with French Defence Minister Florence Parly (pictured) pointing out that “Europeans have a collective responsibility to secure the southern flank of Europe” by ensuring the Sahel doesn’t become a “shelter and expansion area” for terrorism.

Coming just days before the next G5 Sahel videoconference, Macron’s meeting with Déby set the tone for European engagements with Sahel countries; it’s now incumbent on his regional counterparts to follow suit.

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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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