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  • Writer's picturePauline Zaragoza

Sahel: A Ground of Chaos Haunted by its Colonial Past

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For ten years, the Sahel has been attracting the attention of both the academic and non-academic worlds (Charbonneau, 2019). This curiosity for the Sub-Saharan region is mainly due to the resurgence of terrorist armed groups making it one of the global hotspots of terrorism (Li et al., 2021). Indeed, as terrorism constitutes a global threat to peace and security, many foreign entities intervened on Sahelian grounds. Especially France who is one of the most involved countries from political, military, and diplomatic lenses, notably owing to its specific relationship with the countries of the Sahelian region. Since 2012, an endless French military presence is going on under the legitimation of counterterrorism efforts (Wing, 2016).

However, this involvement does not come without issues. France as a former colonial power is accused of using these military interventions as part of a neocolonial attempt to pursue hegemony in Africa. To avoid this label, France tried to focus its strategy on cooperation with local and global entities. However, far from the initial objectives of those interventions, the situation in the Sahel is turning into political and military turmoil.

In June 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron announced the slow withdrawal of the French forces from the Barkhane operation in the Sahel. This decision followed growing anti-French movements emerging from the Sahelian populations translated through an increase of demonstrations and the rise of an anti-French military junta at power in Mali thanks to a coup. Recently, to compensate for the French army’s departure, the new Malian government decided to employ the controversial Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. Wagner’s soldiers are accused of torture, taking advantage of local natural resources, and acting under Russian power interests. This new variable in the strained Sahelian context is creating a diplomatic crisis with France and more broadly with the European Union and the United Nations. This plot twist questions the peaceful prospects of the region as well as the role of the French, given its colonial past… and if this battle was already lost from the beginning.

A profusion of foreign military interventions

So how did this Sahelian crisis occur? This tricky situation emerged in Mali. In 2012, the country witnessed an increase of non-state armed groups in the North (e.g. AQMI, Islamic State, and Boko Haram) characterized by their expansion from remote to urban areas (Jayasundara-Smits, 2018). Following the inefficiency and permeability of a divided Malian army to face this threat, the Malian president wrote a letter to the French President François Hollande to get help. To avoid the ghost of the past, the left-wing French president tried to convey the issue to the UN Security Council (UNSC) without success (Charbonneau, 2019). Owing to this, he decided to launch in January 2013 the French operation Serval in Mali under the normative motives of shared interests in the fight against terrorism and to protect Malian democracy and sovereignty (Chafer et al., 2020). Nonetheless, in April 2013 the UNSC made up its mind to create a UN peacekeeping mission named MINUSMA.

Alongside these counter-terrorism and peacekeeping actions, a new organization named the G5 Sahel (composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) was founded in February 2014 to improve cooperation in terms of development and security policies between the countries of the Sahel Region. Moreover, in August 2014, the Malian-centered Serval Operation became the regional Barkhane action focusing on the Sahel as a whole (Charbonneau, 2019). The French Barkhane operation deployed 4000 French soldiers over the Sahelian territories to fight terrorist armed groups and avoid their expansion in the region. As well, those French troops aimed to supply tactical and operational training to Malian forces (Charbonneau, 2019). In 2014, the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Mali (EUCAP) was introduced. Moreover, a G5 Sahel joint force was created in February 2017.

The Barkhane and G5 Joint forces are focused on counterterrorism and kinetic actions whereas MINUSMA takes care of political and reconciliation aspects, with EUCAP in charge of training programs (Chafer et al., 2020). Some have argued that this profusion of missions, especially the combination of peacekeeping and counterterrorism actions, constitutes a necessity for the success of each other and bringing support to each other (Charbonneau 2019). For instance, in 2017 a resolution of the UNSC authorized UN peacekeeping missions to provide logistic and operational support to the G5 Joint Force. However, in reality, this mutual help clouded the distinction between the different missions and negatively affected the civilians who became collateral damage of this lack of differentiation (Chafer, 2020). In addition, this profusion and permanence of military intervention undermined the capacity to build peace in the region (Charbonneau, 2017).


Colonial Memories: a failed French strategy of multilateralism

Some authors criticized the French intervention in the Sahel to be a legacy of France’s colonial past as a way to uphold its hegemony in Africa (Chafer et al., 2020; Charbonneau, 2008). From the sixties to the nineties, France was categorized as the ‘Gendarme of Africa’ considering its heavy military and political presence. Nonetheless, when French President Francois Hollande came to power in 2012, one of the points of his agenda was to diminish troops in Africa considering this tricky contentious history. However, owing to the Malian emergency and the “special” relationship stemming from this colonial past, he decided to unilaterally intervene in Mali (Erforth, 2020). The main argument to legitimize the French military presence in the Sahel was based on the “domino effect” theory. By fighting terrorism and instability in the Sahel, France would help contain the spread of violence to Europe considering the geographical proximity of Europe to North Africa (Chafer et al., 2020).

Later with the introduction of the Barkhane intervention, a shift occurred to remove this colonialist label. This new military intervention aimed to be “much wider, open-ended and trans-Sahelian” with the embodiment of international regulations and the introduction of capacity-building dimensions (Chafer et al., 2020). Moreover, France worked on the multilateral aspect by advocating for the introduction of the UN peacekeepers, EU capacity building operation as well as the creation of the Sahel Joint Force. This would dissociate the French intervention from its colonial past and has been reiterated by the following French President, Emmanuel Macron, in his speech of Ougadougou in November 2017. In 2020, he reinforced this multilateral shift with the creation of the task force Tabuka (which involved Sweden, Denmark, and Estonia) as a component of the Barkhane operation (Gaulme, 2019).

The French intention to introduce multilateralism was real but they are still acting unilaterally in terms of operational and political actions (Erforth, 2020). Therefore, it still embodies a form of domination as the lead nation in the operation, as a permanent member of the UNSC, a key player in the EU, particularly on African issues due to its colonial background (Chafer et al., 2020). In addition, the asymmetric balance of power between France and the G5 Sahel countries reinforces this hegemonic attitude. Moreover, some authors such as Bruno Charbonneau argue that this multilateralisation and Europeanisation in Africa only aims to legitimize the neocolonialist actions of France. For him, this multilateral turn is only an instrument to uphold its hegemony and reproduce “mechanisms of dependency, domination, and subordination” (Charbonneau, 2008: 294). This point of view is shared by the local population with the rise of an anti-French movement, fuelled by successive operational failures.

An operational failure

One of the main objectives of those military operations was to provide training programs to reinforce African armies to fight Sahelian terrorist groups. Those programs involved the deployment of military counselors, financial and material support (Leboeuf, 2017). Nonetheless, they are questioned by their lack of efficiency even though they can constitute a long-term strategic asset. The main reason for their failure is the discrepancy with reality as they did not take into account the patchwork nature of African armies and lack of professionalization (Leboeuf, 2017). Indeed, these Sahelian armies embrace different military cultures and formations as well as possess different types of equipment than western armies. Therefore, instead of reinforcing African armies and taking into account their specificities, these training programs reinforced their dependency on western forces by, for instance, getting them used to rely on certain technologies they do not possess such as drones (Leboeuf, 2017).

Furthermore, the EU peace-building operation aimed to convey norms of “inclusivity, ownership and gender equality” and to respect the principles of democracy, good governance, and human rights which grounded its legitimacy (Jayasundara-Smits, 2018). However, those norms encountered either “zero adoption, selective adoption, or resistance” in Sahelian communities (Jayasundara-Smits, 2018). When it comes to gender equality, its adoption across cultures remains difficult as it lacks a clear assessment of local customs. This is especially important as the Sahel region is marked by deep gender inequalities (economic, social, and representation) with one of the highest levels of gender inequality worldwide (Alliance Sahel, 2021; Castillejo, 2015). Those gendered discriminations towards women are perceptible within some patriarchal local customs, such as:

· In Niger, 76% of girls are married before the age of 18 which severely limits their access to education (Alliance Sahel, 2021; Castillejo, 2015)

· Female genital mutilation is still a common practice with a rate of 69% in Mauritania, 89% in Mali, or 76% in Burkina Faso (OECD, 2016)

· In most Sahelian countries, Family Law is based on customary and Islamic Law which gives them very few rights (Castillejo, 2015)

Furthermore, in some Sahelian countries such as Mali, military institutions are highly gendered and patriarchal with the majority of authority figures and staff being male (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021). Therefore, the implementation of gender equality norms and values in this context is challenging. However, the EU and UN missions mostly failed in this matter due to their lack of efficiency as they tended to be small, underfunded, and disconnected from local challenges (Castillejo, 2015). Moreover, instead of conveying gender equality norms and values, the EU capacity-building mission was reinforced by representing gender stereotypes in public documents. For instance, the magazine La Gazelle’s photographs were picturing manliness with soldiers and women as civilians in traditional clothing bonded to motherhood, victimhood, and weakness (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021). In addition, the EUCAP failure is partially due to its approach to gender equality from a technical perspective rather than in terms of norms and values (Jayasundara-Smits, 2021).

This failure has consequences as shown by the recent rise in sexual crimes committed by some Malian Soldiers. A UNSC resolution on the 4th January 2022 reported 14 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, an increase of 9 compared with the previous period with one case being the rape of a woman by 12 elements of the Malian Armed Forces at the military camp in the town of Mopti on 22nd October (UNSC, 2022). As addressed by Nana Aïcha Cissé (Regional Coordinator of the G5 Sahel Women’s Platform), “women empowerment represents a key aspect to solve security and development issues in the Sahel” (Alliance Sahel, 2021). The failure to achieve this goal and lack of appreciation by EU missions is fuelling failing governance, the rise of extremism, and exacerbating the current security challenges in the region (Castillejo, 2015).

In addition, there has been a high rate of desertion in African forces following the completion of their training, with more than 80 Malian soldiers deserting in 2018 (Jayasundara-Smits, 2018). This issue mirrors the failures of the American training program in Afghanistan and questions the strength and motivations of some individuals in West African armies. In addition, the intervention in the Sahel represents an economic failure for France. Many authors claim this operation was guided by the will to exploit African natural resources and markets. The French operations in the Sahel have not been financially viable and represent a financial abyss with 521 million euros spent on troop maintenance and materials in 2014 and 690 million euros in 2017 (Pérousse de Montclos and Hommel, 2019).

Was this an unwinnable war? The involvement of French forces is characterized by a rut as the efficiency of the mission is questionable. It’s been 8 years since French soldiers first set foot on the Sahelian ground. They aimed to reduce terrorism in this area, but the contrary has happened. Since their engagement, terrorist attacks exploded as they almost doubled between 2012 and 2014 from 144 to 289 (Alexander, 2016). Moreover, their mission led to a rise in the number of fatalities from less than 1000 in 2013 to more than 6000 in 2020 (annual losses including civilians; troops, and police; and Jihadists and other armed groups) (Leymarie, 2020). As well, it has to be noted that in 2019 civilians represented more casualties than jihadists and other armed groups (Leymarie, 2020). In these operations, 57 French soldiers died. When it comes to insurgent casualties, no precise number has been communicated by French authorities even though at least hundreds of them have been killed including many leaders such as Abdelmalek Droukdal (leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: AQIM) (Pierre and Decroix, 2021). However, as stated by the aforementioned figures, these military successes have not been enough to stop the growth of terrorism and have perhaps fuelled it.


This failure shows how the French military missed a crucial aspect in this fight against terrorism. Instead of protecting them, civilians became collateral damage victims both of terrorist armed groups and French army “mistakes” in an environment marked by memories of past French atrocities during the colonial era. Neglecting this aspect, they failed to win over the hearts and minds of local populations which explains the current unwinnable nature of this war.

Leaving or staying: A rejection of France and the controversial incoming of Russia

For the past year, conflicts have been escalating due to the discontent of local populations to witness endless French military operations without convincing results as they are still threatened by terrorists (Idrissa, 2021). First seen as saviors, the French troops became invaders due to the fear and traumas of a painful colonial past which has been fuelled by local newspapers, politicians as well as social media (D’Orso, 2021; Magnard, 2021). In Mali, this instability led to two coups within a year, ultimately putting Colonel Assimi Goïta and his military junta in power. In response to those colonialist accusations, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to slowly pull out the French Barkhane troops to aid the European Tabuka Task Force, alongside a reappearance of terrorist attacks in the Sahel (D’Orso, 2021). One other factor that motivated this decision is the evolution of the conflict and the difficulties of Barkhane to respond to it. Armed terrorist groups are no longer the only threat to civilians as self-defense militias and national armies are responsible for 60/70% of civilians’ deaths (Lachkar, 2021). Symptomatic of that failure, and the current situation of chaos, a few weeks ago a French military convoy was blocked by violent anti-French demonstrators in Niger and Burkina Faso. During this event French soldiers opened fire and killed three protesters, fuelling the already substantial indignation towards them (AFP, 2021a).

These anti-French movements have been fuelled by many cases of French military misconduct. In February 2020, the Malian Ambassador in Paris accused French Foreign Legion soldiers of excesses in some Malian neighborhoods, creating a diplomatic incident between Paris and Bamako (Le Point Afrique, 2020). Often, French forces have been accused of human rights violations against the local population for crimes of rape, sexual assault, and the killing of civilians (Handy et al., 2021). In 2013, Amnesty International denounced an air raid that killed 5 civilians (Ibid). Recently, a UN investigation concluded that a Barkhane Force airstrike killed 22 civilians during a wedding celebration in Mali in January 2021 (UN News, 2021). However, the French government rejected those claims and argue that they killed Islamist fighters. A recent survey from the ACLED shows an increase in civilian harm from counter-terrorism forces. In 2020, they killed more civilians in Mali and Burkina Faso than extremist groups and communal violence (Handy et al., 2021).

Moreover, to fulfill the lack of French troops and the weakness of the Malian army, Assimi Goïta decided to hire the controversial Russian mercenary Wagner Group creating concerns for France, the EU, and the UN. Following this decision, Air France suspended its flights towards Mali and Sweden announced the departure of its troops from the conflict zone. Adding to already substantial sanctions by ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), the EU and UN are also considering further diplomatic and economic sanctions (AFP, 2021b).

So who are the Wagner forces? Wagner forces are part of a private military company suspected of implementing the interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Wagner forces are controversial and accused of severe human rights abuses against civilians including torture, extrajudicial killings, rape, sexual assaults, and robbed unarmed civilians in the Central African Republic’s (CAR) rural areas (Fabricius, 2021; BBC News, 2021). A 2020 UN report documented 500 incidents in CAR and the killing of civilians and prisoners in Libya which violate Human rights and Humanitarian Law (BBC News, 2021). Furthermore, a 2021 OHCHR press release reveals that

Civilians, including peacekeepers, journalists, aid workers and minorities in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been violently harassed and intimidated by so-called “Russian instructors” from the Wagner Group” (OHCHR, 2021)

The UN is concerned that these merceries have gone unabated and unpunished (OHCHR, 2021). They are also accused of similar human rights abuses in Libya, Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine (Fabricius, 2021). However, many analysts consider that there are not many differences between Russian and Western behavior in Africa as both are infringing on human rights (Ibid). But their intervention in the Sahel is more concerning since they are a private military company they are less likely to follow military doctrine which implies the risk of more civilian casualties. Moreover, Wagner forces are often called by “governments” who have not much regard for the implementation of democratic principles (Ibid). Therefore, in this case, rather than fighting terrorism, this army may have been hired to maintain the actual Malian military Junta’s hold on power.

These new incoming variables question whether French troops should stay or leave, as well as the European Tabuka task force more broadly. If France decides to preserve its military presence it could help to counteract this rising Russian influence (Pigeaud, 2018). However, considering the local discontent and the ongoing diplomatic pressures, French and European troops are likely to choose to leave a tumultuous situation after 10 years of effort. In this case, there is a risk of a repeat of the floundering departure of American troops from Afghanistan in 2021. The weak nature of the Sahelian political and military structures might constitute an opportunity for the armed terrorist groups to take power (Charbonneau, 2019). This chaotic situation shows that more than a military one, a political solution was needed since Sahelian terrorism stems from multiple local sources marked by social, economic, and political fractures (Pellerin, 2019). Perhaps the French intervention was meant to fail from the beginning considering the painful colonial memories and the inability to efficiently fight terrorism in this region. Considering recent events, the Sahel is far from witnessing the prospect of peace and as always civilians are going to be the ones paying the price of political and military failures.


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