Fighting terror, together? The questions facing France and West Africa.

Why We Wrote This

Fighting a force that crosses boundaries, like terrorism, takes partnership. But what should that actually look like? France’s forces in West Africa, where the colonial past hangs over its relationships, are an urgent case study.

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
French soldiers prepare on Jan. 13, 2020, for a ceremony with President Emmanuel Macron in Pau, France, to pay tribute to French soldiers who died in a helicopter crash in Mali.

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The last months of 2019 brought a wave of bad news for West Africa’s fight against jihadists: 160 Nigerien soldiers killed; 14 civilians, including children, killed by a roadside bomb in Burkina Faso; a series of attacks in Mali; 13 French soldiers killed in a collision. The region’s death toll from terror attacks has more than quadrupled in the past few years.

France has become a major military partner in the Sahel, the vast tract of arid land just south of the Sahara. But when French President Emmanuel Macron summoned the presidents of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania for a military summit last week, it underscored looming questions: Why is France so involved in this fight, anyway? And is it a fight they can win? 

Many West African armies have struggled to contain jihadist attacks. But security experts say the region’s conflicts have local roots, and demand localized solutions. France’s troubled history with its former colonies casts a further complication, with anti-French sentiment on the rise.

“Jihadism is only a symptom of the problem of weak states in the Sahel,” says political scientist Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos. “Fighting it cannot be the ultimate solution. That solution is political, and it’s in the hands of Africans, not the French.”

When French President Emmanuel Macron summoned the presidents of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania to the French city of Pau for a summit on counterterrorism last week, the backdrop was somber.

Two months earlier, during a late night anti-terror operation in Mali, two French military helicopters had collided in the moonless sky, killing all 13 soldiers on board. It was the French military’s highest single-day death toll since 1983. Meanwhile, in the capitals of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, protestors marched in the streets with a message for Mr. Macron and his troops. “France,” their signs read, “Get out.”

The soldiers’ deaths, combined with the French army’s tepid welcome in the region, had raised a looming question: What was France doing fighting West Africa’s war on terror, anyway? And was it even a fight they could win? 

Those questions have grown more pressing in recent months, as a new series of jihadist attacks have rattled the region – 89 Nigerien soldiers killed at an army outpost this month, and another 71 in December; 14 Burkinabé civilians, including 7 children, killed by a roadside bomb; a series of bloody attacks on military bases in Mali. Across the region, the death toll from terror is growing. Three years ago, 770 people died in terror attacks in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Last year, it was more than 4,000

But experts say ending the attacks will be far more complicated than simply bolstering French presence in the region. Violent conflicts in the region have local roots, they say, and demand localized solutions. Many West African armies have struggled to fight jihadism, but France’s involvement runs the risk of drawing the country into an ultimately unwinnable fight.

“Jihadism is only a symptom of the problem of weak states in the Sahel,” says Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, a French political scientist and the author of “Une Guerre Perdue: La France au Sahel” (A Lost War: France in the Sahel). “Fighting it cannot be the ultimate solution. That solution is political, and it’s in the hands of Africans, not the French.”

An evolving mission

The summit in Pau offered few reforms. In a statement after the two-hour meeting, the six presidents “reaffirmed their common determination to fight together against terrorist groups” in the Sahel – the 2,400-mile tract of arid land just south of the Sahara. Mr. Macron pledged 220 French troops to join the 4,500 already there, and the five African presidents affirmed that yes, they really did want the French to stay.

“Any time that a country asks that the French army leave, we will go,” Mr. Macron snapped at a Malian journalist who noted the opposition to the French military there. But until then, West Africans should ask themselves “who dies for their children.”

Mr. Macron’s defensiveness points to what experts say is the paradox of the French fight against terror groups in the region. It is hard for them to stay. But it would be harder for them to go.

“It has become a kind of trap,” says Niagalé Bagayoko, a French political scientist and expert on extremism in the Sahel. “France can’t afford to leave this war, or to lose it.”

Alvaro Barrientos/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron, center, poses with G5 African heads of state after the G5 Sahel summit in Pau, France, Jan.13, 2020. France is preparing its military to better target Islamic extremists in a West African region that has seen a surge of deadly violence.

That is in part because what France does in Africa “is closely linked with its place in the world,” she says – a main stage for its military interventions and aid. Since African independence in the 1960s, France has played a muscular role in the wars and conflicts of its former colonies, and it currently has four permanent bases in African countries (plus another two in African territories of mainland France).

When the current wave of French troops first arrived in the Sahel region seven years ago, Dr. Bagayoko says, the situation was different. They had a single, specific goal: help the Malian government drive back a constellation of rebel groups in the country’s rural north, many of them drawn from mercenaries who had returned home from Libya after that country’s 2011 collapse.

But as the insecurity began to seep over the region’s porous borders, the boundaries of the mission grew blurry. Instead of ending neatly, “that fight [in Mali] became the beginning of something else.”

Ostensibly, she says, France’s aims were to drive back terror groups and help the region’s governments reclaim control of territory threatened by militants. But in a region where the boundaries between Islamic terror, local rebellion, and simple banditry are often paper-thin, that quickly became a nearly impossible fight. Even helping governments reclaim their territory was a fraught mission in countries ruled by autocrats who often enjoyed little popular support. 

Over the years, the French government has claimed that fighting jihadism in the region is essential in the global struggle against terrorism. But despite the affiliation of some local militants with Al Qaeda and ISIS, “we are far from a global jihad in this region,” Dr. Pérouse de Montclos says. “Under the name ‘terrorist’ you find so many things, and in this case, the groups called terrorist by the West are mostly very local, and fighting for very local agendas.”

Troubled past

The shadow of France’s colonial history also hangs over its current presence in the region. Despite having a French president who speaks of the “crimes of colonization” and has promised a more equitable relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa, many here remain skeptical that the French could ever have Africans’ best interests at heart. 

Indeed, as opposition has built to the French military presence in the region, a parallel fight against French economic influence reached its own crescendo. In December, Mr. Macron and Alassane Ouattara, the president of Cote D’Ivoire, announced the end of a controversial French-backed regional currency called the CFA. The currency, which had existed since the colonial era, was pegged to the euro and required member states to keep half their foreign exchange reserves in the French treasury. (A new currency, the eco, will remain pegged to the euro but lose the other elements of French control.)

The anti-CFA movement and the protests against the French military “are surfing the same wave of discontent,” says Paul-Simon Handy, an expert on violent extremism in the Sahel at the Institute for Security Studies in Dakar. “France needs to do a serious analysis of its Africa policy to understand why it is losing the sympathy of so many sections of the population.”

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