French President François Hollande on Thursday starts a three-nation West African visit to Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad as the French military operation in the restive Sahel region has expanded.
Just days after a French soldier was killed in northern Mali as Paris reorganises its military mission in the country, Hollande begins a three-day West Africa visit aimed at tackling the jihadist threat across the region.
The latest presidential tour include three former French colonies, where France has been flexing its military muscles – despite declarations that Paris can no longer play gendarme in its African pré carré (backyard) amid calls for “African solutions to African problems,” which get drowned by African pleas for help to tackle the latest security threat.
In recent years, French presidents have tried to close the decades-old chapter on Françafrique, a reference to France’s opaque web of political, economic and military dealings in its former African colonies.
Former President Nicolas Sarkozy initiated a move to lighten France’s footprint in its pré carré, which reportedly envisaged reducing the number of French military bases in Africa to a mere two, in Djibouti and Gabon. It did not come to pass.
In October 2012, a newly-elected Hollande told the Senegalese National Assembly that “the era of Françafrique is over” during his first presidential trip to Africa.
Barely three months later, in January 2013, the French president, responding to a Malian call for help, launched a French military intervention in northern Mali. By the end of the year, France was involved in another military mission in CAR (Central African Republic).
“The fact is, France was forced to intervene in Africa, to be present militarily in a number of African countries, which requires a type of Françafrique behaviour. So, Françafrique is still alive under François Hollande. And I do not see how he can get rid of it since France is so engulfed in protecting its allies and interests in the region,” said Mustapha Tossa, editor-in-chief of Monte Carlo Doualiya, FRANCE 24’s Arabic language sister radio station, in an interview with the French language show, Demain à la Une.
Hollande is set to spend a day respectively in Ivory Coast, Niger and Chad, where he will focus on economic issues and rooting out terror threats in the Sahel, the region comprising the southern fringe of the Sahara desert.
Goodbye Operation Serval, hello Operation Barkhane
The French president’s trip comes days after France announced the end of Operation Serval, the military offensive in Mali, which has been replaced by an extended, expanded Operation Barkhane (the name of a croissant-shaped sand dune).
The new mission will feature around 3,000 French troops operating out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad and its regional scope will cut across some of the world’s most remote, dangerous borders across the rugged, lawless scrubland of the Sahel.
But while Operation Serval did manage to liberate northern Mali from the grip of a motley mix of jihadist and Tuareg separatist groups, the situation is far from stable in the former French colony.
On Tuesday, a French soldier was killed in a suicide attack in the northern Malian city of Gao, the ninth French casualty since the January 2013 intervention.
Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the attack in a video posted on the Internet on Thursday. A spokesman for Belmokhtar’s al-Mourabitoun militant Islamist group said the attack in the region of Al Moustarat, north of Gao, was "a response to French claims that they had annihilated the Mujahideen". There was no immediate verification of the claim.
In May, 50 Malian soldiers were killed in an attempt to seize the Tuareg stronghold of Kidal from MNLA, a separatist group that triggered the Malian crisis after it declared the independence of northern Mali in March 2012.
First stop: Ivory Coast
But while Mali continues to dominate the French security effort in the region, the West African nation is not on Hollande’s official agenda released weeks before the trip.
Mali’s omission from Hollande’s official schedule is not being viewed as a snub by experts – although there is always the possibility of an unannounced, last-minute visit due to security concerns.
A planned French presidential visit to Ivory Coast was postponed earlier this year when Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara spent a month in France undergoing medical treatment. Analysts believe Niger and Chad were added to the president’s schedule following the expansion of the French military mission across the Sahel region.
Bilateral trade will dominate the agenda in Ivory Coast, the world’s top cocoa producer and onetime regional economic powerhouse.
Drones over Niger
Hollande’s visit to Niger – an impoverished, West African country – will include a visit to a French military base in the capital of Niamey from where surveillance drones are deployed in the region.
A landlocked nation surrounded by jihadist-hit regions including northern Nigeria, southern Libya and Algeria, Niger has been suffering from the shockwaves of terrorist threats across its borders.
Last year, for instance, Belmokhtar, a former AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) commander, took credit for twin attacks on a military base and French uranium mine in Niger. Belmokhtar was the mastermind of the January 2013 mass hostage-taking at a southern Algerian gas facility. The coordinated attacks in Niger were put down by French special forces assisting Niger troops.
With its rich uranium deposits, which provide a fifth of the fuel for France’s nuclear reactors, Niger is a strategically important French partner.
Niger’s President Mahmadou Issoufou, a socialist, enjoys close ties with his French counterpart and the former French colony has been a firm ally of France and the US in the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel. Those ties have also been used to help secure the release of French hostages captured in Niger.
Niger is also home to a US drone base, where liaison officers from the host nation as well as France and Chad work alongside US Air Force personnel who launch and land the drones from the base in Niamey, according to the Washington Post.
Mission accomplished or mission creep?
On the last stop of his three-nation tour, Hollande will visit the headquarters of Operation Barkhane in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena from where troops as well as military hardware including fighter jets, transport planes, drones and armoured vehicles will be deployed in the new anti-terror fight in the Sahel.
Paris is in the process of reorganising its troop deployment in the region, with its 1,700 soldiers in Mali being folded into the 3,000-strong, Sahel-wide Operation Barkhane.
“This mini-tour coincides with the end of the Operation Serval in Mali and Paris must announce the repositioning of French troops from Mali to Chad. But this issue is problematic because it’s an open question whether the situation in northern Mali is sufficiently pacified to be able to withdraw forces and deploy them in Chad,” said Tossa.
The recent killing of a French soldier in Gao in the first suicide attack targeting French troops in northern Mali underscores the continuing security threat despite official declarations hailing the successful end of Operation Serval.
In a statement released on the eve of the July 14 Bastille Day commemorations, Hollande noted that, “Thanks to Operation Serval, which has completed its task, there are no more terrorist sanctuaries and therefore it’s a mission perfectly accomplished.”
But some wonder whether it’s more of a mission creep or mission simply renamed and repositioned. More than two years into his presidential term, Hollande is not likely to talk about a lighter French footprint in France’s African pré carré.
Date created : 2014-07-16