What exactly are foreign troops protecting in the Sahel?

Officially they are there to fight terror, but external interventions may be more about self-interest.

Foreign military footprints, especially those of the United States (US) and France, are expanding in West Africa, particularly in the Sahel. This presence is receiving increasingly hostile public criticism. It is often considered invasive, and at times ill-adapted and ineffective against growing insecurity, and even counterproductive.

Regarding the opening of a US military base in Ghana, President Nana Akufo-Addo said in April, ‘So let me state with the clearest affirmation that Ghana has not offered a military base, and will not offer a military base to the United States of America.’ This statement came in response to protests that shook the country after a defence cooperation agreement was signed with the United States.

Four months earlier, Nigerien authorities denied having authorised the deployment of Italian military personnel in the north of the country, which would have added to the existing US and French military bases in the region of Agadez.

Presenting the Sahel as the new frontier of global jihad carries significant risks

Foreign military presence in the region was previously restricted to advising, training and equipping national armies. However since the start of the 2012 Malian crisis it has expanded to include active ground troops, with the installation of logistical and military bases. The occupation of northern Mali by extremists triggered a French military intervention in January 2013. This helped stop the progress of violent extremists moving towards the south, and contributed to driving them out of major cities.

In this military frenzy, Mali and Niger, at the crossroads of regional instability, have also become epicentres of Western power security dynamics in the Sahel. Despite using similar security rhetoric to justify their presence, Western powers seem to have different agendas.

If the war against terror remains the US’s top priority in the region, it seems that European partners such as Germany and Italy are guided by motives to control migration. The Italian government’s decision in December last year to send troops to Niger to combat terrorism seems more about controlling migration flows. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 75% of migrants and refugees arriving in Europe in 2017 landed in Italy and most moved through Niger.

French forces, largely welcomed in Mali in 2013, are now facing growing public criticism

Germany’s contribution of 1 000 soldiers to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the opening of a German logistics base in Niger’s capital, Niamey, reinforce the country’s presence in the Sahel and its drive to be at the forefront of the fight against irregular migration.

While the rise of violent extremism and organised crime in the Sahel have accelerated foreign military presence, so has a weakening of the states in the region. Poor state governance in the Sahel is characterised in most countries by endemic corruption, a weak justice system, an inability to provide basic social services and an ineffective integration of peripheral regions. This creates an enabling environment for extremist groups to deepen their local connections and strengthen their efforts.

If France intervened in 2013 at the request the Malian transitional authorities, it was in the name of a common past, but also to protect its own nationals and defend its strategic and economic interests in the region.

For example, the country continues to import uranium, essential for its nuclear energy, from neighbouring Niger. The intervention, known as ‘Operation Serval’, was replaced six months later by Barkhane. It costs about €1 million a day and is present across the five countries of the G5 Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

While the French presence is widely publicised, other countries such as the US and Germany are more discreet. In October 2017, four US commandos and five Nigerien soldiers died in Tongo Tongo, a village near the border with Mali. The Islamic State in the Great Sahara claimed responsibility for the ambush. The attack revealed not only the extent of the US military presence in Niger, but its expanding military footprint in the region. It also showed that despite regional efforts, complex and sophisticated attacks by extremists continue.

The rhetoric following the Tongo Tongo attack – presenting the Sahel as the new frontier of global jihad – carries significant risks. Numerous studies, including by the Institute for Security Studies, have highlighted the importance of local dynamics when considering the emergence and expansion of terrorist groups in the region. These groups exploit people’s grievances against state governance, and community tensions between, for example, farmers and herders.

The foreign military presence in Mali has expanded to include active ground troops and military bases

Furthermore, the US decision to weaken rules of engagement for the troops deployed on the ground seems risky. Targeting errors can be exploited by violent extremist groups to consolidate their presence and thus influence the effectiveness of interventions.

Popular dissatisfaction with the foreign military presence has increased in the region, and the French forces, welcomed by quasi-general consensus in Mali in 2013, are facing growing public criticism. Protests across Mali have denounced French policy, perceived as seeking only to protect its interests to the detriment of those of the local populations. In Niger, too, protesters responding to the call of a coalition of civil society organisations chanted last February, ‘French, American and German armies, go away!’

On the whole, the many military interventions in the Sahel show Western powers’ desire to defend their strategic security, political, diplomatic or economic interests. Trying to mask this only amplifies the impression of a region that’s victim to the geo-political calculations of foreign powers.

Ibrahim Maïga, Researcher, ISS Bamako and Nadia Adam, Junior Fellow, ISS Dakar

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Picture: Fred Marie/Flickr

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