Is the Sahelian Knot Tightening Up?

On February 15-16, the capital of Chad N'Djamena hosted a regular summit of The Sahel Five (G5), a group dedicated to the fight against terrorism in this region of Africa. In addition to the leaders of local states, French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country has been conducting the Barkhane peacekeeping operation for eight years, took part in the meeting remotely. After similar events in Pau and Nouakchott, Mauritania (January, June 2020), this summit became the third in a year, which speaks of the increased interest of Paris in the events in the region, as well as the urgency of the tasks.

Let's note that on the eve of the talks, the media and experts were rather sceptical. Despite tactical successes, such as the destruction of individual terrorist leaders, from a strategic perspective the Barkhane Operation  has not yet yielded visible results. From the countries of the Sahel, almost every week there are reports of attacks by al-Qaeda or ISIS militants [organisations banned in Russia].

Pro-government armies are still very fragile formations, and the coronavirus pandemic has only complicated the socio-economic situation of African states. M. Goya, a military expert from the Institut Montaigne, noted that perhaps the time has come for France to reduce its military presence in the conflict zone: instead of a fairly large grouping (more than 5,000 troops and hundreds of units of equipment , it could be better to deploy "rapid response" teams that will only intervene in the most critical situations. 

There were also more radical opinions that the war in Sahel has turned into a dead end for French African politics, from which an exit is possible at the cost of only completely curtailing its presence.   According to a January Ifop survey, slightly more than half of the French (51%) oppose the further presence of the forces of the Fifth Republic in the Sahel.  Such a high rate has been observed for the first time since the beginning of the operation.

However, as the results of the summit demonstrated, the predictions in favour of the end of the expedition turned out to be premature. President Macron confirmed that Paris is not going to withdraw or reduce its contingent in the near future; a complete withdrawal right now, from his point of view, would be a mistake, although such an option has indeed been studied.  The French side has once again declared its readiness to support its African allies in the fight against terrorism and to attract large financial resources for this. However, the final communiqué , distributed at the end of the summit, showed several details that are indicative from the point of view of what the modern peacekeeping policy of France is striving for. In a broader sense, this also applies to peacekeeping within Europe as a whole, given the presence of other European powers in the Sahel (through the MINUSMA, EUTM or Takuba missions), as well as the prominent role of Paris in recent pan-European projects in the field of defence and security.

Military dimension

First, the parties agreed to develop the method of warfare that French troops have been using over the past year - not only to fight terrorist groups in general, but also, above all, to deliver pinpoint strikes against their command structures and leaders. As president Macron said, we are talking about “beheading” the jihadist movement in the Sahel and neutralising the main distributors of its ideology. Such an emphasis is largely beneficial to Paris, since it allows it to periodically declare combat successes, using a smaller number of forces and means (pinpoint missions of special forces instead of combined arms operations). Another concern is that the effectiveness of such approach being practiced in the Sahel is very relative: extremist structures haven’t been denied access to the sources which supply them with weapons and personnel, so they are able to recover over time.

Secondly, emphasis is placed on the use of African troops in the format of a joint G5 contingent. One of the main tasks of Operation Barkhane is to help train the national armed forces in order to later transfer to them the bulk of the burden of the fight against terrorism. Obviously, Paris does not want to abandon this path, considering it the most suitable strategy for getting out of the conflict, even if so far it has led to a dead end. In N'Djamena, as before in Pau, there was talk about working out the inter-army cooperation of the countries of the Sahel Five, establishing common staff structures, etc. A notable emphasis was placed on attracting additional units of the Chadian army - according to experts, they are more combat-ready than their neighbours ... 

Third, considerable attention is paid to attracting France's European allies to the conflict zone. In the eyes of Paris, the Takuba Special Forces mission in Mali is a landmark on the path to building common European defence potential, strengthening the EU’s ability to conduct its own military operations abroad. Military personnel from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Germany are already present in the conflict zone (within the framework of MINUSMA); the participation of Sweden and Italy has been announced. France seeks to convince its colleagues that the fight against terrorism in the Sahel should be the collective concern of the European Union, given the region's proximity to its borders. After the departure of the Trump administration, which sought to reduce the American military presence in Africa, the preservation of logistical and intelligence assistance is likely to be expected from the United States.

In fact, the "military" part of the statements made in N'Djamena mean that Paris, while maintaining its presence, is less and less inclined to ensure the security of African countries on its own. France is solving the problem by maximising the involvement of the allied forces: the Africans and Europeans themselves – which it hopes will redistribute some of the costs, and hence responsibility for the events taking place there.

Betting on development 

Another notable direction of France's peacekeeping policy in the Sahel is humanitarian activities in the broadest sense of the word - assistance in the restoration and development of local states, their economies, healthcare systems, education, etc. Among France’s European allies, this vector arouses more interest than participation in direct hostilities, given the traditional inclination, for example, of the FRG to perform predominantly non-combat missions in all peacekeeping theatres. In recent years, France has been actively replicating various coordination formats, including the Sahel Alliance (2017), the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel (2019) and the Sahel Coalition (2020). As the experts noted, all these projects have had a relatively low rate of return, since they did not differ in organisational structure, overlapped in the composition of participants and largely duplicated each other's activity. 

Meanwhile, at the meeting in N'Djamena, an attempt was made to generalise the above platforms, turning them into a single workable mechanism. Apparently, the Coalition will now play the role of an umbrella structure with a permanent secretariat, streamlining the activities of other players; the Partnership will function as a pillar of law enforcement cooperation, and the Alliance will aggregate specific development assistance projects (it has already managed to collect 17 billion euros from various sponsors). Paris, Berlin and Brussels, in cooperation with the UN, IMF, African Union and ECOWAS naturally find themselves at the junction of all formats. One of the priority areas of cooperation is the "Great Green Wall" project with a length of more than 7 thousand km, with which help it is planned not only to stop the desertification of the Sahel, but also to create new jobs in the agriculture sector of African countries.

On the whole, it is characteristic that if, militarily, France is increasingly thinking about reducing the degree of its involvement in the Sahel, then the opposite situation is observed with respect to humanitarian initiatives. This is confirmed not only by multilateral diplomatic activity, but also by Macron's decision to increase the amount of state aid for development needs allocated from the French budget. Just shortly before the N'Djamena summit, the government presented a bill according to which in 2021 this item of expenditure will be brought to 0.55% of France's GNI (in absolute terms - about 14-15 billion euros annually). 

Subsequently, it is proposed to reach the 0.7% level recommended by the UN for developed countries. The main geographic priority of the aid policy is the countries of the Sahel and, more broadly, all of francophone Africa, although Paris does not exclude the possibility of going beyond the borders of its former colonial empire.

Possible role of Russia

Although the events and actions of the European countries taking place in the Sahel, at first glance, are geographically remote from Russia, one can notice that they still have an indirect relationship to Russian interests. As the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit has shown, Moscow seeks to increase cooperation with the Black Continent, bearing in mind the various sectors of trade, resource extraction, industry and infrastructure. As the authors of one of the Valdai Club reports noted, Russia's African strategy has a favourable value background, since, unlike the Western states, it did not participate in the colonisation of the continent, supports the independent potential of the states located there and does not perceive them only as a source of threats. 

Two years ago, the leaders of the Sahelian countries called on Russia to become more actively involved in the affairs of the region, meaning the intensification of military-technical cooperation and the participation of Russia in multilateral formats (for example, in the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel).  Perhaps, in theory, Moscow could take some steps in this direction, relying on the successful experience of its operations in Syria. There is little doubt, however, that any attempt to make Russia join the Sahelian peace process will immediately come under the scrutiny of Paris. Thus, according to Western experts, it is France that continues to block Moscow from obtaining observer status with the "Sahel Five".  Using the example of the Central African Republic, Quai d'Orsay once called the Russian presence in Africa “anti-French”  , reflecting their concerns about the appearance of an extra competitor. Thus, Paris makes it clear that the issue of leadership in African affairs is still a matter of principle and it is only ready to share its position with its closest allies.
Meanwhile, it seems that while the implementation of a full-scale military-political presence of Russia in the region remains difficult to implement (and hardly necessary, given the unresolved conflicts closer to Russia’s borders), Moscow is able to prove itself more effectively in the Sahel on the humanitarian track. While France and Europe are creating multi-storey diplomatic structures for the region, the advantage of the Russian side lies in the ability to promptly provide concrete assistance on the most sensitive issues. In this sense, theoretically, a valuable trump card can be, for example, the supply to the Sahel of the Russian vaccine against coronavirus infection, which has already been approved in some other African countries.  Further bilateral contacts between individual ministries, government agencies, research centres and universities, and non-profit organisations may be fruitful. Realisation of the modern potential of Russia's “soft power” in the eyes of African states will open the way to the next stage of relations, when the factor of French opposition may lose its force after the inevitable end of Operation Barkhane.

Russia and Africa: If There Is No Communication
Little is known about Africa in Russia, as well as about Russia in Africa. Both are presented poorly in the information space, and this is a drawback. The civil societies of our countries practically never interact, and communication must be the basis of peace and development, said Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club, at the plenary session of the 2nd Russian-African Public Forum (RAPF 2020), which opened on November 5 in Moscow.
Club events
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.