UN Dispatch: France has a Big Opportunity to Help Stabilize the Sahel

This piece was originally published in UN Dispatch.

Soaring violence and displacement are taking over much of the Sahel. As the situations worsen in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, the spread of armed groups and intercommunal violence now threaten neighboring West African states. Yet France, the most influential international player in the region, is failing to use its financial and political sway to effectively quell the crisis. 

However, today brings an opportunity to change course. Heads of state of several countries in Western Africa and the Sahel region are holding a summit Pau, France to discuss a common strategic plan for the region. 

Now that French President Emmanuel Macron is sitting down with his G5 Sahel counterparts to discuss France’s engagement in the region at the Pau Summit, he can use the moment to redirect French resources to better address the roots and human consequences of the violence and compel regional leaders to take ownership of the response to the security and humanitarian crises they face. 

Over the last year, the Sahel’s Liptako Gourma region—spanning across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger—has seen a rise in armed group attacks and intercommunal violence. Security incidents occur daily; resulting in massive humanitarian needs and forcing more than 1.3 million people into displacement. The French anti-insurgent Barkhane Operation and the G5 Sahel Force (made up of forces from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger) have thus far failed to pacify armed groups or stymie the spread of violence and pay the price in frequent casualties. 

Given the limited success of the operation and high levels of violence, the French president is under pressure to decrease France’s military footprint. His government’s calls for support from other European countries have mostly gone unanswered, and anti-French sentiments are brewing locally throughout the Sahel. It’s time for France to change its approach.

France’s historic role in the region creates both a responsibility and an opportunity to act boldly. All three countries gained their independence from France in 1960. But ties between their respective governments and France have remained important. French military presence in the Sahel began in 2013 when the Malian government asked France to help regain swaths of land taken over by a coalition of armed groups that had a litany of grievances with the government. But despite recapturing territory, security gains have been limited, and militants have spread their reach throughout the Sahel—notably in Niger and more recently and more rapidly in Burkina Faso. 

And while the presence of 4,500 French military personnel in the region is not well-received by the local population, France still has more leverage than other international powers to usher in change, but has failed to use its influence and assistance to address the political roots of the conflict. Nor has it demonstrated a genuine commitment to address overwhelming humanitarian needs. With humanitarian contributions of just $9.8 million to all three countries in 2019, France does not even figure among the top 10 humanitarian donors to countries impacted by the conflict. At the same time, the French government spent $797 million on its Barkhane military operation in 2019, and also contributes to the millions provided to the G5 Sahel Force through the European Union. France must address and correct this dramatic imbalance.

In Pau, Macron has the opportunity to compel his regional counterparts to do more to address the drivers of political conflict at home. In Mali in particular, the international presence has effectively replaced and delegitimized the state authority and simultaneously provided local officials with an excuse not to fulfill their duties to protect and provide for its population. France and other donors have thus far failed to use their influence to incentivize regional leaders to improve governance practices. Macron should use the summit as an opportunity to press local leaders to be more responsive and transparent in their work to deescalate the crisis. If he fails to do so, instability and ongoing conflict will continue to metastasize. 

Despite pressure to play a smaller role in determining the Sahel’s fate, President Macron can use today’s Pau Summit to pledge France’s support to provide more assistance to populations in need as well as work with regional leaders to create a more comprehensive and deliberate approach that improves governance and addresses the decades of grievances, while addressing imminent threats to security. If not, grievances will fester, armed groups will gain traction and millions more will require humanitarian protection.