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France’s Macron and G5 Sahel presidents united against jihadists

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Wednesday, 22 January 2020 11:21, updated on Tuesday, 11 February 2020 10:24

France's President Emmanuel Macron, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad's President Idriss Deby deliver a news conference as part of the G5 Sahel summit on the situation in the Sahel region in Pau, France January 13, 2020. Guillaume Horcajuelo/Pool via REUTERS

At a summit meeting in Pau, France, in mid-January, President Emmanuel Macron and the heads of the G5 Sahel adopted a joint declaration to strengthen their military and political cooperation against Sahelian jihadist groups.

Originally scheduled for mid-December, the summit was postponed due to the 10 December attack on the Inates garrison, which claimed the lives of 71 Nigerien soldiers. Additional casualties suffered by the army in Chingador, western Niger, which claimed the lives of 80 did not, however, upset the revised diplomatic agenda. Macron and the G5 Sahel counterparts went ahead with their meeting in Pau on Monday 13 January despite the attack that occurred a mere 72 hours earlier.

In the capital of Béarn, at the foot of the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees, France’s President and his Sahelian guests saluted the memory of these soldiers killed in the fight against jihadist groups. But above all, they strove to show their unity.

Common front

The objective was twofold: first, to show a common determination in the face of the jihadist forces plaguing the Sahel. Second, was to ease the tension arising from Macron’s demand of the heads of state of the G5 Sahel to “clarify” their positions about France at the beginning of December. Off the record, his entourage continued to criticise the “lack of strong responses from some” to the rise of anti-French sentiment in the Sahel and its attendant “flood of false information and manipulation”.

A “summons” that annoyed

From Bamako to N’Djamena via Ouagadougou, the tone used and, what many people took to be a “convocation” of the former colonial power, was not appreciated, even in the presidential palaces. After this diplomatic scramble, which led the presidents of the G5 Sahel to meet on 15 December in Niamey to harmonise their positions vis-à-vis France, French and Sahelian leaders were careful to soften the edges in the weeks ahead of the Pau summit.

“We had frank and fluid exchanges. In recent weeks, there have been strong public speeches in Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali, where counter-fires have been lit in response to anti-French rhetoric,” said at Macron from the Élysée Palace.

At the summit, Macron and his G5 Sahel peers ensured the latest misunderstandings had been cleared up. After a symbolic tribute ceremony to the seven members of the Pau Combat Helicopter Regiment who died in operations on 25 November in Mali, the six heads of state met behind closed doors at the Château de Pau. They were then joined by their defence and foreign affairs ministers, as well as the chiefs of staff and heads of intelligence services for an extended working meeting.

Credibility at stake

At the end of these sessions, Macron and his guests held a press conference and adopted a joint statement. As requested by Paris before the summit by way of “clarification”, the G5 Sahel heads of state expressed their “wish for the continuation of France’s military commitment in the Sahel and called for a strengthening of the international presence at their side”.

Macron, together with his Burkinabe counterpart Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, current president of the Sahelian organisation, also insisted on the need to obtain “rapid results”.

“We have no choice,” said Macron, while Kaboré said that the “credibility” of the Sahelian states was at stake.

New strategic framework

The group announced the establishment of a “new political, strategic and operational framework” to counter the jihadist groups that continued to expand their influence.

This would involve the formation of a new “coalition for the Sahel”, to bring together the G5 Sahel countries, France, “as well as all the countries and organisations that wish to contribute” —- though these were not clearly defined.

The coalition will be under the “joint command” of the Barkhane force and the G5 Sahel joint force and will concentrate its military efforts in the tri-border area of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where attacks have increased in recent months.

The proposed European special forces grouping, called “Takuba”, will be under the orders of this joint command. All have as their enemy the Islamic State in the Great Sahara, which is affiliated to the Islamic State Group and is the perpetrator of most of the recent deadly attacks in the region.

Macron also announced the immediate deployment of 220 additional troops to Barkhane to support the effort. In addition to military objectives, political objectives were also set, in order to allow the rapid return of the states and their administrations to all their territories, particularly to Kidal, Mali.

Fears of US withdrawal

While Washington announced on Sunday its wish to reduce its military presence in Africa, the presidents of the G5 Sahel also expressed “their gratitude for the crucial support provided by the United States and expressed the wish for its continuity”.

“If the Americans withdraw, it is obviously not good news for us,” said Macron. “I hope I can convince President Trump that the fight against terrorism is also being fought in Africa.”

The summit also stressed the urgency of finding a solution to the Libyan crisis, which the Sahelian presidents keep pointing out was a root cause of the destabilisation of the region.

A meeting has been set for the end of March on the sidelines of a European Union summit in Brussels, to take stock of these various commitments. Another will then take place in June in Nouakchott, an initiative of Mauritania, which will hold the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel.

According to a source at the Élysée Palace, a new assessment of France’s commitment to the Sahel will be made in the wake of this meeting.

“All options remain on the table, including a reduction in our military deployment in the Sahel. Everything will depend on the military results and the respect of the political commitments made by our Sahelian partners”, she said.

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