The Sahel G5: France’s Foothold in the Sahel

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch02 Feb 2017Abdelkader Abderrahmane

The G5 Sahel consists of Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania and is headquartered in Nouakchott, Mauritania. The group was created in 2014 to coordinate the fight against terrorism and ensure security and development. It followed Serval, the French military intervention in Mali in 2013, which has been transformed into the Barkhane operation in the Sahel. However, three years after its inception, its raison d’être remains blurred and its effectiveness doubtful. Moreover, the G5 Sahel indicates that the security policy and strategy of Francophone West Africa and the Sahel is still under the tight control of France.

In its current form, the G5 Sahel cannot provide sustainable solutions for the region, as security in the countries that make up the G5 does not depend solely on reinforced interstate cooperation. Indeed, terrorism in the region spans a much wider geographical area, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to Egypt, Senegal and even Sudan. Despite the G5 countries joining forces, the G5 Sahel remains weak and has limited ability to take on such an enormous regional task. Clearly, the fight against terrorism in the Sahel cannot be conducted or succeed without the full support and participation of key regional states such as Senegal, Nigeria and Algeria, which all share many long borders with Sahelian states.

The multiplication of initiatives and regional blocs only weakens existing regional and continental cooperation and, more importantly, has counterproductive side-effects. For instance, rather than strengthening and improving existing bodies, such as the Common Operational Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CEMOC), which was created in 2009 by Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, the G5 was founded instead. As the CEMOC already involves three of the G5 Sahel countries, and because security in the Sahel concerns more than only these countries, it would have been more logical to simply reinforce the CEMOC. Another example is the Nouakchott Process launched by the African Union (AU) in March 2013, which brings together 11 Maghreb, Sahel and West African countries to promote regional security cooperation; this process is also duplicated by the France-backed G5 Sahel.

France’s patronage of the G5 Sahel

It is difficult not to view France’s strategy as a way to regain its lost economic share in its former West African colonies, as well as to strengthen its military presence in the region. For the past decade, West African countries have diversified their economies and formed new partnerships globally. Niger, for instance, where the French company Areva has a near monopoly in terms of uranium production, is the second largest producer of uranium in the world, while Mali is believed to be the third largest gold producer in Africa. France seems eager to keep the largest share of these markets for itself. Moreover, in the creation of the G5 Sahel, France sees an excellent opportunity to counter Algeria’s military and strategic influence in the region.

Additionally, France’s treasury guarantees the currency of West African countries, the CFA, which initially stood for Colonies Françaises d’Afrique (French Colonies of Africa) and now Communauté Financière Africaine (African Financial Community). The CFA is also printed in France. As the CFA’s value is pegged to the euro, these African states and their respective central banks cannot take any economic decision without the agreement of France’s Central Bank. In December 2013, Hubert Védrine, the former French Minister of Foreign Affairs even called for ‘the reconquest of Africa’.

So while France has promised the G5 Sahel countries to fully support them in international forums such as the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In return, French companies are often given priority when competing for markets in G5 Sahel countries. Likewise, France can count on the G5 Sahel states to lobby on its behalf in the AU on different issues, such as the unresolved Western Sahara conflict, for instance.

The G5 Sahel headquarters in Nouakchott, located opposite the massive French Embassy, is a strong symbol of what French professor of international relations, Bertrand Badie, calls France’s arrogant diplomacy. Indeed, the proximity of the two buildings is hardly a coincidence. As the Mauritanian journalist and director of the Arabic newspaper Alakhbar, Cheikh Sidati (as well as other Mauritanian officials and academics) points out, ‘Big brother is watching you’! Another sign of this paternalistic relationship is the way in which French President François Hollande publicly called the Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta by his first name during his recent visit to Bamako – an attitude Hollande would never dare exhibit with his German or American counterparts.

Francophone African leaders have long understood that in order for them to avoid too much pressure from France and the international community about their shortcomings (e.g. in relation to democracy and human rights) they simply need to adhere to France’s strategies and ideas – even if these go against the interests of their respective country and its people. This is evidenced by the fact that in April 2011 the current Ivory Coast President, Alassane Ouattara, was installed with the help of the French army, although it has never been proven that he won the presidential elections.

Africa belongs to Africans

French and international military presence is unlikely to bring about lasting peace and stability in the Sahel. On the contrary, French multiform interventionism in the Sahel is flawed, and the strategies that follow from it only exacerbate the region’s long-term problems. Although the G5 Sahel may achieve some results (as long as they have the financial and logistical support of France and the EU), it is not a panacea to the Sahel’s deep-rooted problems. Moreover, as South African president, Jacob Zuma, said during the 50th anniversary of the AU in 2013, “a free and self-sustaining Africa will be a pipe dream if we remain beholden to external sources”.

West Africans who have never really managed to detach from their former master bear a heavy responsibility for France’s presence, as well as its humiliating and patronising attitude. Yet, for the sake of African security, stability and development, African, French and other leaders would do well to consider the wise, yet simple, credo of King Massinissa (238–148 BC), who declared in those early years to Rome that: “Africa belongs to Africans”.