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French ‘summons’ on Operation Barkhane raises hackles in Mali and Burkina Faso

By Aïssatou Diallo and Benjamin Roger
Posted on Monday, 9 December 2019 13:10

French President Emmanuel Macron prepares to meet Sahelian leaders at the Elysee Palace on 12 November. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

French President Emmanuel Macron's invitation to G5 Sahel heads of state for a 16 December meeting to clarify their position on France’s military presence has caused controversy in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Macron wants “clear-cut answers”. In Watford, outside London, where he was taking part in a NATO summit on 4 December, the French president declared that extending Operation Barkhane would be contingent on clarifying the G5 Sahel member states’ position on France’s military presence in the region.

I can’t have – and I don’t want to have – troops on the ground in the Sahel when there is ambiguity toward anti-French movements and sometimes comments made by politicians and ministers,” Macron said during a press conference.

Macron tweeted that to “reassess the terms of our legitimate presence in the Sahel”, he would invite his G5 member state counterparts to Pau, in southern France, on 16 December for a summit on Operation Barkhane.

French deaths spark invitation

Macron extended the invitation – addressed to the presidents of Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad – after a national tribute to the 13 French troops killed in a helicopter collision in northern Mali on 25 November. The choice of Pau was no coincidence, as seven of the 13 soldiers killed were from the helicopter combat regiment based there.

A source at the Élysée Palace told Jeune Afrique that Macron had contacted his Sahelian peers a few days after the tragedy to suggest the 16 December meeting. His objective: to clear up any misunderstandings and find joint solutions to the spread of increasingly negative perceptions – affecting both France and the region – about France’s intervention in the Sahel, especially in Burkina Faso and Mali. In these two countries, anti-French sentiment has risen palpably over the past few months.

“We need to leave Pau with a totally clear message from the Sahelians, who have got to say why they’re asking France to be by their side. If they’re not upfront with us or if they tell us to leave, we’ll leave. It’s not the preferred scenario, but the option is on the table”, our source revealed.

‘No reason to bite the hand that feeds us’

More broadly, Macron wants to change France’s military engagement in the Sahel. Since he was elected, France, with nearly 4,500 military personnel deployed in the region, has tried to garner more support from its EU partners. The French president has also called on its NATO allies to “be more involved” in the fight against “terrorism” in the region. “In a true alliance, actions speak louder than words,” Macron added.

The region’s rulers have on several occasions reiterated their requests for French support and for other partners’ backing, particularly to finance the G5 Sahel Joint Force. When asked by Burkina Faso media about his participation in the meeting, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré replied that he was going to “accept the invitation”, which for him provides “an opportunity to talk frankly about the issues that confront us today and the joint action we’re taking to fight terrorism”.

Paying tribute to the fallen French soldiers at a ceremony in Paris on 1 December, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta recalled Malian soldiers’s involvement in the world wars and in peacekeeping missions: “We have no reason to brag about having helped those who needed it in the past,” he said. “But we also have no reason to bite the hand that feeds us today.”

Criticism of form and content

Despite the show of support, Macron’s invitation was met with criticism in Mali and Burkina Faso, where public opinion has turned increasingly negative towards the former colonial power, especially concerning France’s military presence.

People see it as paternalistic, as if it is saying, ‘France summons its African lackeys’

“General speaking, the invitation was not well received by the public. People are comparing it to the La Baule summit in 1990 with François Mitterrand and see it as paternalistic, as if it is saying, ‘France summons its African lackeys’,” says Bréma Ely Dicko, a sociologist at Bamako University.

He says Sahelian people expect “synergistic action and better coordination between Barkhane soldiers and local armed forces”. “At a time when anti-French sentiment is growing, the meeting isn’t a guarantee of public support,” Dicko adds.

For the former Malian prime minister Moussa Mara, “a meeting about Operation Barkhane could be a positive thing given that the operation is struggling to achieve its strategic objective of fighting terrorism”. However, he regrets the way the meeting was initiated: “It would have been more appropriate if it had come off as a jointly convened meeting.”

A backdrop of distrust

“France is partly responsible for the current situation since it all goes back to when they helped bomb Libya,” says Hervé Ouattara, the head of the Front Anti-CFA in Burkina Faso and a harsh critic of France’s policy on the continent: “It’s time for these five heads of state to reaffirm their independence and to discuss issues on an equal footing and with mutual respect. We also get the impression that the French troops are depriving us of our raw materials. Their presence has only extended Françafrique [the neo-colonialist relation between France and its former colonies in Africa]”

For political scientist Abdoul Karim Saïdou, “basically, Pau will just be a way to re-pledge allegiance to France because none of our presidents will ask the Barkhane forces to leave. What’s at stake is that the States’ diplomatic monopoly is being challenged. African civil societies are getting more and more involved on the world stage to influence foreign policy in their countries.” He added: “What’s happening here is part of a process to reshape international policy, which was long considered ‘high politics’ and inaccessible to the lower classes.”

With protests planned in Bamako on 10 January against the presence of foreign forces in Mali, Paris – for the first time ever – seems to be seriously contemplating the option of a troop withdrawal. “If our Sahelian partners aren’t clear with us, we’ll leave. At a time when other countries are being asked to support the operation, no one is going to give money to the cause if the only power currently involved is being attacked,” a source close to the French president said.

This seems to send the message that the presidents “invited” to Pau on 16 December have little choice in the matter – unless they decide to follow the example of former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré. In 1995, he refused to go to Dakar, where he was “summoned” by French president Jacques Chirac to participate in a summit bringing together all West African heads of state. Konaré said that he refused to submit to what he saw as a convocation issued by a colonial minister on an inspection round.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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