French plans to withdraw from Africa are on hold

2013-06-21

On Wednesday 5 June, French President Francois Hollande received UNESCO’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize for the country’s military intervention in Mali. Nine West African heads of state attended the ceremony at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where Hollande was praised for his swift action to drive Islamic militants from the north of Mali. Earlier, during a televised interview on 31 May, Hollande confirmed that only 1 000 of the over 4 000 French troops who participated in Operation Serval would be left at the end of the year. Yet he suggested that many of these troops would be staying on in the region, where France has military bases in Chad, Senegal and Côte d'Ivoire.

Clearly, France can argue that the terrorist threat in Mali, which has now spread to Niger, is an issue of international peace and security, recognised as such by United Nations (UN) Resolution 2071. Furthermore, the French intervention in Mali in January 2013 was at the invitation of the Malian government and with the blessing of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). However, a growing French military presence in West Africa and the Sahel is clearly contrary to France’s earlier plans for gradually closing down its military bases in Africa. It would also be in contradiction with Africa’s attempts at operationalising the AU’s African Standby Force (ASF). How did we get here?

During a speech in Cape Town in 2008, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that the defence agreements France had with its former colonies would be renegotiated and that ‘France will not indefinitely maintain armed forces in Africa’. An important military base in the Central African Republic (CAR) had already been closed down. Plans were in the pipeline to drastically reduce the number of French troops in Gabon, Senegal and Chad, and to close down the French base in Côte d’Ivoire, while keeping only one important French military base in Djibouti. The situation in Mali seems to have changed all of this.

On 25 May, during the OAU/AU’s 50th anniversary celebrations in Addis Ababa, Hollande controversially invited African heads of state to Paris for a summit meeting on peace and security later this year. He also offered France’s assistance with African efforts to solve the continent’s security problems. Some observers criticised this announcement as being another way in which France is trying to run African affairs. Hollande should clearly state his intentions now that France’s plans to withdraw militarily from the continent have been placed on the backburner.

While African heads of state across the board applauded the French military intervention in Mali, which clearly saved the country from being overtaken by radical al Qaeda-linked rebels, they were embarrassed that Africa didn’t have the military capability to do so itself. At the same AU summit in Addis Ababa, South African President Jacob Zuma lobbied heavily in favour of the AU decision to create a new African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC).

This planned initiative is seemingly a direct response to the events in Mali. Understood as a temporary measure because of the failure to fully operationalise the Rapid Deployment Capacity (RDC) of the ASF, the ACIRC is a military intervention tool aimed at implementing operations under ‘scenario six’ of the ASF.This plan by African governments to provide African solutions to African security problems, and the general understanding that African countries were not able to react appropriately to the challenges in the Sahel, will have a number of consequences.

Firstly, countries will probably have to increase their defence budgets to provide for the recruitment and training of elite troops capable of undertaking these specialised operations. In many countries the post-colonial period saw African leaders surrounding themselves with a small presidential guard, very often under foreign command, in order to protect themselves from military coups. The regular armies in general have been notoriously under-resourced.

Secondly, much more money will have to be spent on expensive and sophisticated military hardware if Africa’s intervention force is to be truly independent. Importantly, more emphasis should be placed on rebuilding and re-orienting the capacity of intelligence services, especially when faced with new threats like elusive radical Islamic militants. Since all of this costs money and comes at a time when there is increasing pressure on African governments to up spending on socio-economic development, this might be controversial.

In this context it will be crucial for African governments to become more transparent about defence spending and budgeting. Taking greater ownership of African security will require that the defence sector becomes more accountable to parliaments than is currently the case.The row that ensued after 15 South African soldiers were killed in the CAR in March this year wouldn’t have been as bitter if the government had clearly informed parliament of the details of this operation beforehand.

It will also be crucial for heads of state to demonstrate that countries do not misuse the ACIRC to protect unpopular leaders from being removed from power. President Zuma, one of the champions of the ACIRC, was heavily criticised for sending troops to protect the regime of former president Francois Bozize, a leader who came to power through a coup d’état and had not made any substantial efforts to pacify his country beyond the capital city.

Finally, continental peacekeeping might also have to transcend regional affiliations. The regional force in Mali, initially planned as an ECOWAS operation, saw Chad, from Central Africa, playing a major role. The new intervention force is also set to go beyond the traditional prerogative of regional economic communities (RECs) over crises in their region.

African leaders agree that leaving peace and security on the continent to foreign actors is unacceptable and has dire consequences for the countries concerned. The situation in Kidal in northern Mali is a case in point. For several weeks the French army prevented the Malian army from occupying Kidal, which was still in the hands of the Tuareg-led Movement National de Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA). An agreement signed on 18 June between the Malian government and the Tuareg rebels in Ouagadougou will hopefully put an end to this stalemate. France had its own reasons for doing so, probably linked to its efforts to free French hostages being held in the region and fear of reprisals against the Tuaregs. However, with elections being planned in Mali for the end of July, this situation was clearly unacceptable.

The worst example of the consequences of foreign military interference is the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011. Africa is now paying the price of the chaotic aftermath of the ousting of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, with arms and militia groups proliferating across the region. Attacks last month in Niger have also been attributed to militia groups that have fled Mali and regrouped in the south of Libya.

Of course, it is not only France that has a military presence in Africa. The United States has a number of operations on the continent, managed by its African Command (Africom). Troops are on the ground in Uganda and the CAR, for example, to track down the elusive Joseph Kony. It is clear that African states will have to speed up their plans and work together or live with the reality of an increasing number of foreign troops on their soil. But the capacity gap in Africa will not be closed in only few years.

Paul-Simon Handy, Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS consultant, ISS Pretoria

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