The decision by France to withdraw more than 2,000 of its troops from the anti-terrorism force in Africa’s Sahel region by early 2022 could be in response to domestic and external factors, but the move could further complicate the fragile security situation in that region and West Africa.
After a virtual meeting on Friday with leaders of the G5 Sahel nations of Mali, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, President Emmanuel Macron said the 5,100-strong French Balkhane forces headquartered in Chad, and which are supporting the G5 countries in the fight against terrorism and Islamists insurrections would be transformed into an international force.
It is no secret that French military presence is not only controversial at home, but has also stirred anti-French sentiments in some former French colonies in Africa, including Chad and Mali, two nations that witnessed military takeover of governments recently.
After two military coups within nine months, Macron last month announced the suspension of French military cooperation with Mali. And in an apparent reinforcement of that position what becomes of Chad, whose former leader Idriss Deby, was a very strong ally of France before his sudden death in the hands of rebels and his replacement by his son Gen. Mahamat Deby?
Mali, which has three Barkhane bases continues to endure separatist upheavals in its northern region, and remains the epicentre of insecurity in the Sahel from where groups linked to Al-Qaida, Islamic State and other militant groups continue to launch deadly attacks on neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mali’s 18-month political transition programme under the leadership of coup leader Col. Assimi Goita is shaky, with the country under suspension from the African Union and the regional bloc, ECOWAS, which is trying to mediate the crisis.
French troops have been in Mali since 2013, when they intervened as Operation Serval to dislodge Islamic extremist rebels from power in the north of the country.
Serval was later replaced by the Barkhane operation with other countries joining in the effort to help stabilize Mali and the Sahel region.
But despite the presence of the Barkhane forces, the Mali military and some 14,000-strong UN Mission in Mali, MINUSMA, Mali and the Sahel region are still rooted in insecurity and political instability.
While governments in the Sahel largely welcome French military support, critics have likened the development to a continuation of French imperialism in Africa.
Only recently, the Chairman of the African Union, President Felix Tshisekedi of DR Congo was in Paris to seek French support against rebels fighting his government.
But it must be stated that Africa-France relations, and specifically French military presence in its former colonies in Africa is not out of benevolence or charity.
Paris has entrenched intetests in these countries, where it is believed to be netting some Euro 500 billion annually, including from so-called “colonial taxes.
Part of the political and economic influence which France exerts on its 14 former African colonies is through their common currency the CFA franc, domiciled and managed by the French Treasury.
France also has the right of first refusal in the exploration and explotation of the mineral resources of these countries under colonial pacts, which also involves military cooperation.
With these entanglements, some international relations experts even argue that French presence is rather constituting a hindrance to the development of these countries.
But the question is, after more than 60 years of nominal independence from France, why are thesr African countries still running to former colonial powers for economic and military bailouts?