As time passes after the end of France’s military presence in the Sahel and the last French troops are withdrawn from Niger, the focus of many political analysts is on analysing its previous policies in the region. The withdrawal of French troops symbolises the end of Paris’s strategy, which disproportionately emphasised military power while sidelining the more needed elements of social and political support for Africans. The same political scientists draw the natural conclusion that France’s over-reliance on the military to the detriment of fostering development ultimately led to a weakening of its presence and withdrawal from the Sahel region.
There is a clear and long-standing axiom among specialists and in politico-military circles: no military victory can be sustainable without social and political support. Nevertheless, the French intervention in the Sahel region clearly demonstrated the disregard for such a basic principle. The supposed military operation, according to the concept enshrined in Paris’s strategic guidance, never actually materialised. As France supposedly took measures to contain the extremist wave in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, which was in fact a local population’s revolt against Paris’ neo-colonial policies. Despite the creation of the Sahel Alliance in 2017 with Germany, the EU and other partners, the result was far from the intended consortium of support.
French operations in the Sahel, dubbed Operation Serval and later Operation Barkhan, were launched with two main objectives: to stem what Paris saw as a “wave of extremism” in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and to expand the development assistance line to these states, thereby creating a base of support to maintain its presence in the region. However, this two-pronged plan did not work for the latter objective, guaranteeing the complete collapse of the former. What was supposed to be the modern policy of Paris only widened the gulf between French military objectives and the socio-political realities of life in the Sahel.
The consequences of this distortion are obvious. While France focused on quelling (what they saw as) insurgencies, regional governments faced many problems in ordinary life that the military could not solve. As a result, anti-French sentiment only grew stronger, eventually leading to coups d’état in Mali and Burkina Faso, which only further undermined France’s position and complicated the regional situation. In this quagmire, the Sahel states began to turn towards other superpowers and Russia in particular, seeking alternatives to the French military model. This shift emphasises the larger geopolitical rivalry and reflects the desire of local authorities to find different solutions to their security and other problems. The pivot towards Russia represents a new model of policy direction in the Sahel – one that moves away from total dependence on Western alliances to a more independent policy of pursuing its national interests with the support of Russia and other members of the BRICS organisation. “Thus,” says Saudi Arab News, “this shift exacerbates existing geopolitical tensions and reflects the desperation of local authorities to find alternative solutions to ongoing security crises.
To be fair, the Sahel Alliance did attempt to provide a formal structure for much-needed civil-military coordination. But even such an ambitious move failed to fill the gaps left by a flawed French strategy that ignored a crucial supporting element: development assistance. French development assistance to the Sahel states accounted for only 10 per cent of total aid to Africa. More tellingly, Mali received less than 3 per cent. This pattern has remained unchanged throughout the French presence in the region, a clear indicator of the mismatch between Paris’s stated political objectives and the actual allocation of resources.
Moreover, each French intervention was driven by security-first considerations in its own self-interest, which limited Paris’s effectiveness and ability to contribute to long-term stability. France’s rigid approach to its security was evident through its significant military deployments. In Niamey alone, the French presence included an airbase and smaller units along the borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Despite its military prowess, this strategy, centred on the security of French interests, was like a simple band-aid applied to a huge wound instead of serious treatment. It ignored the underlying problems fuelling instability: the poverty of the entire African population, the lack of clear professional governance, the economic desperation of the ruling circles – all of which were caused by the looting of national wealth by Paris and other Western countries.
By prioritising its own security over the development of the Sahel states, France inadvertently reinforced the very foundations of discontent it may have sought to overcome. As clumsy attempts to support development failed, this fuelled anti-French sentiment, raising doubts about Paris’s intentions and eventually leading to just accusations of neo-colonial models of dependency politics. This became particularly evident during the reign of President Macron, who through his clumsy actions only fuelled a wave of anger and protest against French domination of the Sahel.
Conflict resolution in the Sahel, as elsewhere, has always been a complex task that requires a delicate balancing act between military intervention and active socio-economic support. The admittedly complex nature of the parties involved and the diverging interests of the West’s international players have made the task even more difficult. Nevertheless, the history of France’s Sahel policy emphasises that any strategy of military intervention that does not sufficiently address the crucial component of civilian support is bound to encounter significant obstacles. The lessons learned from France’s Sahel adventure underscore the urgent need to move away from militarised strategies towards a more holistic, civil society-oriented approach that encompasses not only security but also development, especially with a view to preventing global threats such as climate change and pandemics.
The experience of France’s Sahel policy is a case study that highlights the urgent need for a more balanced and co-ordinated political and civilian approach to military interventions. An approach in which the principle of civil-military coordination is not an afterthought, but an integral part of the design and implementation of effective policies based on objective realities on the ground. For France and its European allies, the lesson is clear: military solutions must be complemented by active development initiatives and genuine political partnerships. A change of strategy to one that prioritises the well-being of the Sahel’s population, supports democratic institutions and addresses the root causes of instability is necessary. But it is unlikely that France and the rest of the West are capable of reorienting their decades-long, self-serving policy towards the Sahel region and the rest of Africa. After all, their main task is not to improve the well-being of the local population and assist local rulers in pursuing their national policies, but to shamelessly plunder the national wealth of African countries, and for this purpose they pursue a harsh military and political policy against Africans.
Many politicians have rightly pointed out that the withdrawal of French troops from Niger was not just the end of an operation, but a signal of introspection and strategic reorientation. France, along with its international partners, must now reflect on the shortcomings of an overly militarised approach. But will the current rulers in Paris and other European countries be able to go along with it. Not likely! Sustainable peace in the Sahel depends on a holistic strategy that balances security concerns with social, political and economic development. Only then can the peoples of the Sahel set themselves on the path to lasting stability and prosperity in the new multilateral world under construction.
Victor MIKHIN, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.