The French military in Africa: successes, challenges ahead?

opération barkhane_photo Ministère de la DéfenseBy Tony Chafer – France has since January 2013 been engaged in two major new military operations in the Sahel/Sahara, but major problems persist. Operation Serval, the 2013 combined French-Chadian military intervention in Mali, was widely regarded as a military success. On 1 August 2014, Serval came to an end and was replaced by a new, regional Sahel-Sahara military mission, Operation Barkhane, undertaken in partnership with the so-called ‘G5 Sahel’ countries: Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad. Yet the continuing insecurity in Mali is a clear indication that the underlying problems have not been resolved by Operation Serval. A political solution seems as distant a prospect as ever; yet without it and without an effective counter-insurgency strategy to win over and sustain the support of the local population, there is no basis for an enduring peace.

The French military intervention in Central African Republic (CAR), which was launched in December 2013, has also faced challenges. Security has not returned to the country, despite the deployment of EU and UN forces alongside the French forces in 2014, and, to add to the difficulties, in May 2015 Paris launched a criminal inquiry into alleged sex abuse of children by French peacekeepers in CAR.

The serious abuse allegations made against French soldiers in CAR are an extremely sensitive issue in France. Accusations of torture in Algeria and French military support for the Rwandan regime that was responsible for the 1994 genocide tarnished the army’s image. President Hollande promised a new partnership with Africa and has sought to portray French forces as a force for good on the continent, conducting anti-terrorist operations in Mali and the Sahel, supporting the fight against Boko Haram in the Chad Basin and protecting civilians in CAR. He has staked his foreign policy and presidential image on military intervention in Africa.

Yet French policy in Africa continues to face challenges. There is, so far, no sign of a quick resolution to the abuse allegations. Its alliances with authoritarian regimes across the region are a threat to its humanitarian credentials and may in the long term undermine support for the French military presence and operations. France is keen to transfer greater responsibility for peacekeeping to multinational (UN, EU, African) forces so as to reduce the political risks of its military involvements in Africa, but this is also fraught with problems.

Legitimising France’s military presence on the continent since 9/11

The overarching strategic structural conditions within which the French president is constrained to act go back some twenty years. Following the Rwanda genocide and accusations that the French had been complicit in the genocide because of its military support for the Habyarimana regime that was responsible for the genocide, France has needed to re-legitimise its military presence in Africa. To do this, it initially turned to the EU and partnership with the UK (announced at the 1998 Franco-British summit in Saint-Malo) on African issues, in an effort to share the costs and offset the political risks of its military presence and interventions in Africa. However, since the French-inspired EU operation in Chad/CAR (EUFOR Chad/CAR 2008-9), EU member states – notably Germany – have been wary of France’s military activism in Africa, suspecting it of using EU resources and political cover to pursue its own agenda in Africa.

Since 9/11, but more particularly since 2010, the French military presence in Africa has been justified by reference to its humanitarian role and as part of the international struggle against terrorism. Against this background, President Hollande had little room for manoeuvre when, in January 2013, French military intelligence services warned him that Islamist militants were about to seize the strategically important military airport of Sevare and were less than 700 kilometres from Mali’s capital, Bamako, which they could reach within days. As a UNSC permanent member that had for several years been warning about the security risks posed by terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region, and with a military presence that was justified by reference to the role it was playing in the fight against terrorism, it would have been difficult for France not to intervene.

Under President Obama, and particularly since the 2011 Libyan intervention to topple Colonel Gadaffi, the US has been reluctant to undertake new military operations overseas. However, the US shares French concerns about the threat of terrorism in the ‘ungoverned spaces’ of the Sahel-Sahara. It therefore cooperates closely with France in the region, providing intelligence and surveillance support (including American drones). It has supported the French interventions in Mali and CAR and is a strong supporter of Operation Barkhane.

Moreover, deeply concerned about the security implications for their countries and for the region of an Islamist takeover in Mali and frustrated by the failures and inaction of the UN, the AU and ECOWAS, the presidents of Niger (Mahamadou Issoufou) and Senegal (Macky Sall) pressed France to intervene.

Against this background, the 2013 interventions in Mali and CAR cannot be seen in the same light as previous French unilateral military interventions, when France was accused of acting as the ’gendarme of Africa’.

Was the Mali intervention a success?

From a military point of view, the Mali intervention was a success. It prevented the takeover of the country by Islamist militants and pushed them back into their northern heartlands or over the border into neighbouring countries. President Issoufou described it as France’s most popular military intervention on the continent. But it has not brought peace, security or reconciliation to the country. Operation Serval has been scaled up into a much larger regional Operation Barkhane. Well-armed rebels, often supported by experienced fighters from Gaddafi’s Libya, have continued to mount sporadic attacks across the north and, in 2015, in Bamako itself, when a number of people were killed.

Long-term stability will require sustained efforts at reconciliation, significant decentralisation of powers to the north and a major development effort to provide jobs for northerners. Yet none of these is forthcoming. The international community, led by France, has hitherto been unable to galvanise the government into action, resulting in political inaction.

Moreover, the ‘peace interventions’ in the region have resulted in the growing militarisation of the Sahel. This has transformed it as a geographical space and radically altered the economic and social relations and political dynamics of the region. Islamist movements are routinely portrayed as potential Al-Qaeda or Isis affiliates, which fails to recognise the local nature and identities of African Islamist movements and the ways in which they are grounded in long-standing local grievances. The long-term consequences of this militarisation are unclear.

What is clear is that militarisation does not tackle insecurity at its roots, for example by providing people with the means to earn livelihoods without resorting to transnational organised crime, and that French, and indeed international, peace interveners are not equipped, and do not have the resources, to implement the wide-ranging development programmes that are needed.
President Hollande declared that France would not put ‘boots on the ground’ in Mali or CAR. Yet French troops were subsequently deployed to both countries. This has led some commentators to question Hollande’s commitment to break with the corrupt, neo-colonial practices of Françafrique and establish a new partnership with Africa. As several commentators have pointed out, his predecessor as president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made similar promises.
The 2013 French Defence White Paper attached increased strategic importance to Africa. It noted the increasing, and increasingly complex, security threats in the Sahel-Sahara region and put forward three basic principles to guide policy: multilateralism, Africanisation, and maintenance of the capacity for France to intervene alone.

Multilateralism is problematic, as the US and other EU member states are reluctant to get involved militarily and the UN has no mandate for war-fighting. This results in a de facto division of labour, as happened in Mali, where war fighting is done by French forces, while UN forces in MINUSMA take on the role of peacekeeping. Africanisation of peace and security is also problematic, given the lack of capacity (in terms of equipment, logistics, intelligence and inter-operability) of African forces and the difficulties involved in obtaining political agreement between African governments for intervention. The result is that, when new threats emerge, France seems likely to continue to be expected to undertake military interventions on its own when crises arise.

France is therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. In this region, others are unwilling or unable to intervene, so it feels obliged, or indeed is called upon, to intervene. France is indeed the only power with the political will and military capability to undertake an effective intervention. Yet, when it intervenes unilaterally, there is a fundamental legitimacy problem. First, unilateral actions risk looking like Françafrique and run the risk that France will again be accused of being a neo-colonial power. Second, there is what Colin Powell once called the ‘you break it you own it problem’; in other words, if France intervenes unilaterally, it owns the consequences, whatever they may be and even if they are not its fault.
What can we conclude from this? Does Hollande have a military strategy in Africa? Is it new? Or is he simply reproducing the patterns of the past, when France was often accused of being the ’gendarme of Africa’? While the discourse has changed from Sarkozy to Hollande – there is now greater emphasis on partnership with Africans – the strategic context has not. There will therefore continue to be pressure on France to intervene militarily in Africa. This poses a number of challenges for France:

  • If security is not restored, if peace fails to return in Mali and CAR, France will find it hard to sustain support for its military operations across the Sahel-Sahara region.
  • Alliances with authoritarian regimes (e.g. Chad) with poor human rights records may well, in the medium term, generate opposition to the French military presence and operations in the region.
  • Linked to the above, France faces a fundamental tension between the challenge of needing, or being expected, to “do something”, and the risk of de-legitimation when it does intervene.
  • If any further allegations emerge about abuses by French soldiers, President Hollande will find it difficult to continue to promote France’s military presence in Africa as a force for good.
  • With some 10,000 troops now stationed in Africa and Operation Barkhane spanning five countries, the cost of its military presence and actions on the continent is high. President Hollande recently announced an increase in the defence budget, but sustaining all of France’s military commitments in the current difficult economic context will remain challenging.








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