Operation Barkhane has never been this unpopular. A poll conducted in early January 2021 by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) revealed that 51% of France’s population no longer support the military intervention in the Sahel. This is the lowest backing it’s had since it started eight years ago.
Echoing public concerns, the National Assembly and Senate called for debates on the country’s role in the Sahel. This was just days before a meeting of the leaders of the Group of Five Sahel countries (G5 Sahel) on 15 and 16 February in N’Djamena, Chad. These include Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. The meeting will assess the Sahel’s security situation and take stock of the military cooperation largely centred around Barkhane. France will attend remotely.
This high-level event follows the January 2020 summit in Pau, France, which resulted in strengthening the cooperation. Following that meeting, France deployed an additional 600 soldiers to the Sahel, bringing the Barkhane force to 5 100.
A year later, France has lost 12 more soldiers (57 in total since the beginning of its intervention in January 2013) in a war which – from the perspective of its citizens – seems distant and never-ending.
To maintain their engagement in an increasingly unpopular overseas military operation, French authorities must be persuasive. They are trying hard, insisting on the ‘neutralisation’ of some of the leaders of violent extremist groups, which they present as decisive strategic achievements.
Just a year from the next French presidential elections due in April 2022, President Emmanuel Macron has reasons to worry. He knows that what happens in the Sahel will considerably influence voters’ assessment of his foreign policy.
The results of the IFOP poll reveal the collective fatigue of French citizens towards a military operation that carries a high human and financial cost. They also show the frustration of taxpayers who might not consider funding overseas military operations a priority, given how hard the national economy was hit by Covid-19.
To make things worse, part of the Sahel’s population meant to ‘benefit’ from this international solidarity perceives France’s presence as a form of neo-colonial occupation and doesn’t hide its hostility. This may not be a majority opinion, but it’s amplified by wide media coverage and recurrent protests, especially in Mali where the French presence is most visible.
Given colonial history, it isn’t surprising that some Sahelians are suspicious of France’s military engagement in the region. Accusations of arrogance and hidden agendas are common. However, there are also current reasons to question the relevance and effectiveness of the model of military cooperation.
Many Sahelians – especially Malians – don’t understand why Barkhane’s mandate focuses on counter-terrorism and not the protection of civilians. The fact that the national armed forces and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) are tasked with safeguarding civilians, and complement Barkhane’s counter-terrorism efforts, doesn’t convince everyone. More civilians died from the violence of local militias and national forces than attacks by violent extremists in 2020, both in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Barkhane’s proven or alleged blunders on the ground compound the issue. Most recently, airstrikes on 3 January by French forces on Bounti, a village in central Mali, generated controversy. While Paris claims to have targeted only clearly identified members of an armed terrorist group, local witnesses mention civilian victims gathered for a wedding.
MINUSMA has launched an investigation into the incident, but damage to trust is done. This is not the first time that foreign troops, including France’s, are cited in alleged or confirmed incidents of violence against civilians.
In this context, the N’Djamena summit could mark a change of direction. Ahead of the meeting, French authorities have started alluding to the possibility of ‘adjusting’ their operational presence in the Sahel. This could involve a drawdown of Operation Barkhane, starting by recalling the 600 personnel sent as backup after the Pau summit. A decrease in Barkhane’s staffing could align with public opinion both in France and the Sahel.
But its impact on security on the ground could be hazardous. It might mark the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of French troops from the Sahel, while terrorist groups continue to thrive and national armies remain vulnerable.
In theory, operationalising the Takuba force could help compensate for a reduction of France’s military footprint with greater involvement of other European partners. But for now, this remains wishful thinking. Takuba is expected to accompany the Malian army in combat, but its build-up has been slow, raising questions about its ability to live up to that scenario.
The announced reshuffling in France’s military set-up in the Sahel might also free up human and financial resources that could be reassigned to existing cooperation areas in West African coastal countries. The head of French foreign intelligence, Bernard Emié, recently mentioned the risk of an expansion of the jihadist threat towards the Gulf of Guinea.
This isn’t breaking news. Research by the Institute for Security Studies and the International Crisis Group has pointed to the danger of a spillover of jihadist groups from Sahel to coastal states at least since 2017.
But there is a reason Emié made a point of it in a rare media address just days before the N’Djamena summit. He could be alluding to a reorientation of France’s approach to dealing with the links of Sahel-based terrorist groups in coastal countries. One would hope such a strategy pays more attention to prevention and development issues considering that the current one is largely reactive and militarily-focused.
It is possible that Emié was merely trying to legitimise existing operations by broadening the stakes beyond the Sahel, but without intending to draw strategic and operational consequences from it. Such manipulation could however have the opposite effect and exacerbate mistrust from French and Sahelian citizens.
Written by Ornella Moderan, Head, Sahel Programme, ISS Bamako and Remadji Hoinathy, Senior Researcher, Lake Chad Basin Programme, ISS Dakar
This article was produced with the support of the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands.