France’s forever war in the Sahel
AT MIDDAY ON January 2nd the roar of motorbikes cut through the quiet near Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye, two villages in western Niger. Next came the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Then came the screaming, as jihadists slaughtered more than 100 villagers, despite the presence of thousands of local, French and allied forces in the region.That same weekend in Bounti, in central Mali, a group of men gathered to celebrate a wedding. A religious injunction against allowing men to mingle with women meant the event was all male, and perhaps a little fishy-looking when viewed from a drone. As the smell of grilled mutton wafted into the air, two French jets swooped in, bombing the gathering and killing 19 people. The French government insists it was a jihadist meeting. Eyewitnesses disagree.That grim weekend laid bare the conundrum of France’s military intervention in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, three of Africa’s poorest countries. Last year jihadist-related violence in these countries claimed some 6,200 lives, a 30% jump from the roughly 4,800 lives lost in 2019 (see chart). Fighting has forced almost 2m people from their homes; 31m are in urgent need of food. Outside military help is essential to shore up the region’s weak states, but it is excruciatingly hard to get right. On its own, it is not enough. French troops have been in the Sahel in force since 2013, when they stopped armed northern separatists and jihadists from sweeping towards Bamako, Mali’s capital. They have stayed to fight jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda and Islamic State.Last year, in the face of mounting civilian deaths, France sent another 600 soldiers, taking its total to 5,100, in the hope that this mini-surge would allow it to gain the upper hand. It has also drafted in commandos from European allies including the Czech Republic, Estonia and Sweden. In addition thousands of UN blue helmets patrol Mali while a force consisting of soldiers from the five countries in the region, known as the G5 Sahel, is also battling jihadists in the region.The French surge has had some successes. Last year French and allied forces killed scores of fighters, particularly those from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), as well as some of the jihadists’ leaders. Yet groups such as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), which is linked to al-Qaeda, are proving to be resilient and the region is vast; Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso are together more than four times the size of France. Overall, says an American defence official, “we don’t see anything that is dramatically turning the tide in favour of governments in the region.”One reason may be because they have been too focused on military solutions to problems that, at their root, are to do with poor governance. Even as French forces have proved able to “cut the grass” by killing jihadists, they have been unable to “stop jihadism from expanding and intensifying”, argues Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO. The militants recruit most easily from long-neglected villages without schools and clinics. France and its partners are supporting development, too. But, says the Crisis Group, many development projects have failed, and programmes often ignore tricky questions of who benefits from a sudden influx of aid money.This leaves France with the conundrum faced by others who have recently fought insurgencies in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. It is that of trying to improve security—which is almost impossible to do without development—and also drive development—which cannot happen without better security. And, like most democracies fighting wars in far-flung places, France needs to achieve victory, or at least find an honourable way out, before public support falters at home.When Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, spoke with the leaders of five Sahelian countries (including Chad and Niger) on February 16th, he warned them of “significant changes” to France’s presence in the region, though he also reassured them that this would not happen immediately. He may have had an eye on France’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for next year, and a new poll showing that a small majority of people in France opposes the intervention in the Sahel. He may also have had an eye on growing protests in countries such as Mali against the presence of French troops.Yet even as Mr Macron may be looking for the exit, governments in the Sahel want French troops to stay because they have little hope of holding back the jihadists without them. Regional forces have improved markedly, thanks in part to training by Western commandos. In late 2019 jihadists attacking a barracks in Boulikessi in Mali killed at least 40 soldiers. Dozens more simply fled. Two weeks ago jihadists attacked the same barracks but this time Malian troops repelled them for the loss of six of their own.Even so, Mali’s army remains weak. Aly Tounkara of the Centre for Security and Strategic Studies in the Sahel, a think-tank in Bamako, reckons that it could take another ten years before they are ready to replace the French. Local forces also have an appalling human-rights record. Since late 2019 they have murdered more than 600 people, according to Human Rights Watch, a watchdog. Last year more unarmed civilians were killed by security forces than by extremists, reckons José Luengo-Cabrera of the OECD. Such abuses drive angry young men into the arms of jihadist recruiters.Politicians in Mali and Burkina Faso are pushing for another approach: negotiating with the enemy. Mali’s interim prime minister, Moctar Ouane, says there is a “need for an offer of dialogue with the [jihadist] armed groups”. Talks are not on the cards with the most bloodthirsty outfits, such as ISGS, the group blamed for the slaughter in western Niger on January 2nd. But back-channel communications are already open with JNIM thanks to a prisoner swap last year. In central Mali three local peace agreements were recently signed between rival ethnic groups. Few believe that could have happened without jihadist involvement. Agreements like these can also allow basic state services to return.Burkina Faso’s prime minister, Christophe Dabiré, has also recently spoken of the need to talk to jihadists. In fact, says Heni Nsaibia of Menastream, a consultancy, the Burkinabe government has already negotiated with JNIM in some places. One example of a deal may be Djibo, a city in northern Burkina Faso. For months, it was blockaded by jihadists. Then, almost overnight, buses and trucks began travelling freely.Ferdaous Bouhlel of the University of Tours argues that, beneficial as local deals are, it is only national agreements that can stem widespread violence. Iyad Ag Ghali, JNIM’s leader, has said he is willing to talk to the Malian government but only after French and UN forces have left. Whether this is a bottom line, or simply a negotiating ploy, is not clear.Publicly France says it does not negotiate with terrorists. France’s intelligence chief, Bernard Émié, recently called jihadist leaders in the Sahel the “direct heirs to Osama bin Laden”. In private, however, some French officials admit that their opposition to Sahelian governments talking with some jihadist groups is not absolute. Even so, agreeing to talks is far easier than reaching a deal. The chances of failure are enormous. But after years of bloodshed many in the Sahel, if not quite so many in Paris, are willing to try.