In several countries of the Sahel, the French presence is more and more sharply called into question, in a context marked by the resurgence of military putsches.
In Mali and Burkina Faso, the deterioration of the security situation has delegitimized the regimes of Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (recently deceased, he had been reversed in August 2020) and Roch Marc Christian Kaboré (who has just been reversed in turn).
Unable to cope with the rise of armed groups and the multiplication of massacres despite their foreign support, these regimes have become unpopular. Their fall makes French policy untenable.
The time of the colonels
On November 14, 2021, the Inata's killing, in northern Burkina Faso, when at least 50 gendarmes deprived of supplies were assassinated, was one defeat too many, the one that sealed the divorce between the soldiers and the president. In the Sahel, the more the security situation deteriorates, the more the tension between the civil authorities and the military authorities increases and the more the soldiers will be tempted to take power with – and this is a major innovation – the consent of the street. .
We must, in fact, remember that in 2014 it was the street that had put an end to the twenty-seven-year reign of Blaise Compaoré and that she did not move for Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, dismissed by a peaceful coup in the middle of his second term like his Malian counterpart. These accepted, even celebrated, putsches reflect popular disaffection for the regimes in place. As elections failed to produce governments capable of resolving conflicts, coups in the Sahel have become an acceptable method of alternation for the population – as long as they are peaceful.
Victim of the domino effect, the entire Sahel strip, from Khartoum to Conakry, is falling into “colonelism” (all putschists have the rank of colonel). If at Chad the army was de facto in power but hidden behind a very thin civil-democratic screen, in other countries, it is making a comeback thanks to political crises (Guinea et Sudan) and some security crisis regional crisis that is destabilizing a large part of the Sahel.
Although it embodies in its own way the revenge of the cadets and the demand for generational renewal (in Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso, all the putschists are in their forties), the colonels' regime has little chance of resolving the security crisis. underway, but it poses a serious problem for the French military intervention in the Sahel. Operation Barkhane already no longer has any popular legitimacy, as shown by the monitoring of social networks, the anti-French demonstrations in the capitals of the region and the saga of the French military convoy at the end of last year.
Blocked by demonstrators in Burkina Faso, this convoy which was going to Mali had to turn back and a another showdown with crowds in Niger resulted in three protester deaths. The pro-French protests that celebrated Operation Serval in 2013 turned into anti-French protests with Barkhane.
The political delegitimization of the French presence
To this loss of popular legitimacy of Barkhane, the putschs add the loss of political legitimacy.
On the one hand, the French military commitment alongside the putschists in dark glasses will contradict the defense of democracy regularly invoked by Paris and once again put the French government at odds with its stated principles. On the other hand, the putschists in Ouagadougou risk being tempted to follow the example of their counterparts in Bamako who call into question the relationship with France and hear the replace with Russia.
Indeed, the Burkinabe soldiers face the same challenges: a population in need of security, very weak combat capacities, internal divisions and popular Francophobia. Under these circumstances, the Burkinabé putschists will seek other security partnerships (the Wagner group is in ambush) and be tempted to exploit the political capital represented by the rejection of the French military intervention in local public opinion. And this, especially since the horizon is very cloudy.
The worse is yet to come
The Sahel having entered the season of putschs, a little foresight is essential. Like the civil powers, the juntas may prove incapable of reversing the regional dynamic of insecurity and of acting on the root cause of this regional crisis: poor governance and its consequence, the silent disintegration of States.
Malian metastases have reached northern Burkina Faso and western Niger and risk contaminating the coastal countries (northern Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, Togo, etc.) which, worried about this prospect, have launched Accra Initiative. The support of Russia, and possibly other foreign actors, will not be enough to resolve a war made up of multiple conflicts over a vast territory.
Behind the struggle for the creation of a caliphate by the local franchises of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, there is an unnamed civil war, settling of accounts intercommunity, local struggles and even smugglers wars.
Moreover, if the Malian junta and Wagner's mercenaries inflicted a defeat on the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the jihadists could easily relocate to a weaker country.
The street being versatile, if the Malian and Burkinabé juntas do not improve the security situation, they will quickly be discredited and, in the long term, they will make the bed of popular Islamism which is already gaining ground in Mali.
Faced with diplomatic condemnations, the putschist regimes will show solidarity and the united front of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has imposed sanctions in Mali, is already cracking. Suspended from ECOWAS, Colonel Doumbouya's Guinea has already announced that it will not apply the ECOWAS sanctions against Mali (open border, setting up a Bamako-Conakry flight, etc.). This regional organization will be put to the test by the multiplication of putschs.
Finally, hostility to French military intervention is far from being limited to Mali. The French military convoy was blocked by the population in Niger and Burkina Faso; nigerian trade unions demand the departure of the French soldiers ; French flags were burned in the Burkinabe capital at the announcement of the putsch and, even in Chad, considered France's best ally in the region, popular hostility is strong. In addition to their historic resentment, Sahelian public opinion has seen that, for several years, Barkhane's "tactical successes" have resulted in more insecurity, abuses and displaced people.
Looking for a way out
Caught between the putschist contagion, the Islamist threat and hostility to its military diplomacy, the French government devised a exit strategy which is now obsolete. It was based on:
- the re-operationalization of the Malian army with which the divorce is now consummated;
- a regional military coalition (the G5 Sahel) created in 2017, the effectiveness of which remains to be proven;
- the Europeanization of training and support for the Sahelian armies (the EUTM mission and the Takuba task force) rejected by the Malian junta.
Currently, the absence of an exit strategy and the paralysis of the French executive during the election period raise worrying scenarios:
- the rise in power of anti-French demonstrations which can lead to clashes, even blunders, involving French forces;
- repeated attacks by terrorist groups against French soldiers and interests;
- after Mali, the questioning of the security partnership with Burkina Faso and perhaps other countries.
While Mali, which is the epicenter of the regional security crisis, is sounding the end of the French military intervention, the urgency is no longer to reconfigure Barkhane or to define red lines to negotiate with the Islamist armed groups, but to get out of the Sahel quagmire before they are simply kicked out.
Thierry vircoulon, Coordinator of the Observatory for Central and Southern Africa of the French Institute of International Relations, member of the Research Group on Eugenics and Racism, University of Paris