“Constructive Chaos” Extends Into the Sahel

In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval, which was to stop terrorist groups. Five years later, nothing has been solved and chaos is spreading in the region, a chaos that only security and arms companies benefit from.

French soldier of Barkhane military operation in Ansongo (south of Mali).
Fred Marie, December 2015.

On October 21, a meeting was held at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako (Mali) between UN Security Council ambassadors and the Peace Agreement Monitoring Committee (AMC) in order to take stock of “the latest developments in the implementation of the Peace and reconciliation Agreement for Mali reached through the Algiers Process1 and to urge the signatory parties to accelerate its implementation.” At the conclusion of the meeting, the members of the AMC held a press conference. Addressing a panel of journalists, the Algerian ambassador and chairman of the AMC, Ahmed Boutache, while paying tribute to the progress accomplished, exhorted the parties concerned “to redouble their efforts in terms of willingness, sincerity of commitment and above all greater trust and closer cooperation between the parties so that none shall miss their date with history [. . .].”

More than two years after the signing of the Algiers agreement, it must be acknowledged that the security situation in Mali remains precarious. Worse still, the Sahel has become a dangerous powder keg where the atmosphere is very heavy. Not a day goes by without a terrorist attack, a vehicle or weapons theft, a kidnapping. . . Often enough these are not even covered by the local press, let alone the international media. The “domino effect” on neighboring countries is a tangible reality, as shown by recent raids in Niger. Thus on October 21—the very day of that meeting in Bamako—13 police officers were killed in a raid on their base at Ayorou in the Tillaberi region, 200 km. to the northwest of the capital Niamey and not far from the Malian border. On last October 4, 8 soldiers (4 Americans and 4 Nigeriens) died in an ambush in the same region. According to UN figures, at least 46 armed raids took place in the Tillaberi region of Niger in 2016.

Under French Flag

We hear many different reasons for the increased foreign military presence in Mali and its neighbors: terrorism, controlling migration to Europe, stability, war on drugs. However it is hard to believe these arguments suffice to explain it. For while Operation Serval (2013-2014) did roll back the terrorists and prevent Mali from splitting into two, the one that followed in 2014, Operation Barkhane, which officially extended its surveillance to Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad but unofficially impinges on Libya and Northern Nigeria, has brought no good results.

One must question, moreover, the relevance of G5-Sahel (Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso). Its permanent secretariat is located, symbolically enough, just across the street from the huge French embassy in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Indeed there is good reason to doubt its military effectiveness against the terrorist threat to the region considering the group is seen to be flying the flag of France, the former colonial power. Nor can finance alone provide a satisfactory solution. We must remember that while the G5 operational headquarters are located in Mali, the actual reporting relationship of the G5-Sahel to Paris is via coordination and liaison unit attached to the Barkhane command post.

We may also have doubts as to the efficacy of Nigerien, Chadian or Burkinabe troops on the rugged Malian terrain against experienced terrorists whom the Malian army, in spite of its greater familiarity with the environment, has been unable to overcome. Thus there is a high risk that G5-Sahel may simply become a source of weaponry for the terrorists who, having killed or neutralized a number of soldiers will make off with their guns and ammunition. In this respect, a Malian army rebuilt with personnel from Azawad2 who are familiar with the topography and the local population could no doubt deal more efficiently with the terrorists.

Moreover, the presence of foreign troops is increasingly resented by the Malian and Nigerien populations. In Niger, people wonder a great deal about the endless rounds of troops, NGOs and diplomats. And with good reason! From Agadez to Niamey by way of Madama, Diffou or Zinder, foreign bases are mushrooming everywhere in Niger. Nor are Malians very comfortable with the increasing visibility of Western military forces at the very gates of Bamako. To which must be added the brutalities inflicted on civilians by African troops with French back-up or such “tragic incidents” as that child killed in November 2016 during Operation Barkhane.

At the conclusion of a seminar recently held in Bamako by the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), Abdoulaye Diop, the Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration and International Cooperation, declared that this was the beginning of “a strategic partnership between G5-Sahel and the French-speaking world”. Yet it is far from certain that such a partnership can solve the security problems of that region. And it can only make the nations of the Sahel more “dependent” on France. Which in the long run would not be good for either Paris or the Sahel. For while popular discontent may not yet be very audible, it is certainly real.

“Whoever Controls Mali Controls West Africa”

The countless seminars and other round-tables held in the region keep the hotel industry afloat. But most of these talkfests, all with the same or similar names, discussing issues like “transparency” or “good governance” never lead to anything but statements of good intention. They only serve to justify the funding received by the people who organize them. While the real tragedy taking place in the Sahel is totally neglected, obliterated. None of the things left unsaid by the various governments involved are ever discussed, except in asides among friends and colleagues. And yet today the Sahel region constitutes a geographical block of chaotic instability of which none can predict the outcome, except perhaps the military and political strategists whose attention has been focused on the region for years now. But one thing is sure: a happy ending for the countries and populations of the Sahel is most unlikely.

Notwithstanding all these questions, we should remember what the US economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006) once wrote: “only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change.” In this respect, the French military intervention in the Sahel is financially costly. And France must offset these costs by developing its African markets. Especially the “security and defense” markets, which hold a special place in Africa. And the least one can say is that private security is a flourishing business in Mali and Niger and sales of weapons “made in France” are thriving.

For the moment, the clomping of soldiers’ boots drowns out the rumors and other signs of discontent among the populations of the Sahel. But while the military may not hear or comprehend what the Malians and Nigeriens are whispering, the latter can see many things being concocted before their eyes in their own countries. And though they may not grasp all the ultimate implications, they pose a great many questions. The Fulani say: “feram boni” i.e. there is no strategy, no strategic vision. And yet what the countries of the region need far more than all those foreign military bases and soldiers is just that: a common strategy, endogenous and regional. Otherwise, neither Mali nor any of its neighbors can ensure the security and stability needed for the economic development of the region. As the Malian Doulaye Konate of the Association of African Historians puts it in the documentary Guerre de l’ombre au Sahara3, “whoever controls Mali controls West Africa, if not all of Africa.” No doubt that this is where the response to those endless rounds of soldiers and diplomats can be found.

1Editor’s note: Also known as the “Algiers agreement” signed on May 15 and June 20 2015 in Bamako following negotiations in Algiers between the Malian government and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CAM), an alliance of armed Tuareg and Arab groups.

2Editor’s note: Azawad: an almost entirely desert area located in northern Mali and including Saharan and Sahelian areas. Groups of Tuareg separatists proclaimed its independence in 2012 but gave up their claim the following year.

3Bob Coen and Eric Nadler, 2013. Co-production ARTE France and Crescendo Films.