The European Union should step up where the French president has failed.
PARIS — The show must go on!
French President Emmanuel Macron has not displayed a flicker of recognition that his strategy to stabilize the Sahel region by fighting jihadist groups has failed after another Paris-backed African strongman bit the dust last week in Chad, killed trying to fend off an umpteenth armed rebellion.
On the contrary, Macron rushed to N’Djamena for the funeral of veteran President Idriss Déby, declared the fallen autocrat a “courageous friend” and vowed that “France will not let anybody call into question or threaten today or tomorrow Chad’s stability and integrity.”
Yet Déby’s violent death highlights the fundamental flaw at the heart of French policy throughout the troubled belt of five former colonies stretching from the Atlantic to the Sahara Desert that are among the world’s poorest nations.
By treating instability in the region as a counterterrorism problem to be tackled by military action in support of client regimes rather than as a profound failure of governance and economic development, exacerbated by climate change and rapid population growth, Paris has locked itself into an open-ended war which it cannot win but dare not lose.
France’s largely uncritical support for strongmen in its backyard is reminiscent of U.S. policy in Latin America in the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt reportedly said of one dictator that “he may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he’s our son-of-a-bitch.”
France’s partners in the European Union, who are spending about €1 billion a year on a major development, security training and humanitarian program in the Sahel, should step up where France has failed. They must insist that, in return for continued budget support, governments implement their own commitments to reform, end impunity for atrocities by their soldiers and allied militias and restore public services in areas retaken from the rebels.
Otherwise, French military intervention and European assistance will keep giving elites in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad perverse incentives to sit back and postpone cleaning up their act.
Chad — 187th out of 189 in the United Nations Human Development Index — is France’s unsinkable aircraft carrier and a military heavyweight in the region. It hosts the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, the 5,100-strong French force fighting jihadist groups across an area bigger than Europe. It provides one of the largest contingents of U.N. peacekeepers in Mali and recently deployed 1,200 soldiers to Niger to strengthen the cross-border Joint Force created by the so-called G5 Sahel countries, which also includes Mauritania, to fight jihadist groups.
In return for Déby’s robust military help, France long closed its eyes to systematic human rights abuses, corruption and a parody of elections in the strategically vital country. When rebels came too close, the French helped the government repel them, where necessary with air strikes.
Successive French governments never leveraged that protection to press Déby to reform a rotten state, free political prisoners, allow freedom of expression or crack down on corruption, perhaps fearing his skill at playing off major powers against each other. Chad also has a security cooperation agreement with the United States.
For decades, Déby helped contain former Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s territorial ambitions, fought alongside Nigeria against Islamist Boko Haram insurgents, called the shots in the Central African Republic and withstood cross-border guerrilla conflicts with Sudan.
Macron’s trip to N’Djamena signaled French blessing for the unconstitutional succession of the marshal-president’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, at the head of a military junta that declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament. An impromptu summit on the sidelines of the funeral of the five G5 Sahel countries and Macron called for a “civilian-military transition” but stressed their main concern was “stability” in Chad.
Unlike the reaction to last year’s military coup in Mali, when international partners suspended financial aid and African neighbors took economic sanctions until the colonels agreed to appoint a civilian-led transitional government with an 18-month timetable to elections, there was no halt to trade or aid with Chad. However, G5 Sahel leaders did ask the presidents of Niger and Mauritania to try to mediate with the Chadian opposition.
Ironically, Déby died at the hands of rebels who until this year had been mercenaries serving another French-backed wannabe strongman — Libyan rebel leader Khalifa Haftar. “In other words, the friends of our friends are killing our friends,” military commentator Jean-Dominique Merchet wrote in the French newspaper L’Opinion.
Except for the far left and extreme right, the French political establishment still broadly backs the Sahel intervention in the name of fighting “Islamist terrorism” — but public support is ebbing. A poll taken in January, right after five French soldiers were killed by roadside bombs, showed for the first time a slim majority in favor of withdrawal.
With good reason. More than eight years after Paris intervened in Mali to repel the advance of jihadist-backed Tuareg rebels towards the capital, Bamako, violence has engulfed neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger and threatens to spread to more prosperous coastal states from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Guinea.
While the French military has scored tactical successes, killing two top Al Qaeda-linked rebel commanders and hundreds of fighters last year, jihadist recruitment continues, exploiting ethnic conflicts and disputes between herders and farmers. Measured by the number of casualties, violent incidents, internally displaced persons, schools closed and people facing food insecurity and needing emergency humanitarian assistance, 2020 was the worst year since the conflict began.
France’s Court of Auditors, in a critical report on Sahel policy, recommended last week that the government conduct a thorough review of Operation Barkhane and set criteria for bringing the intervention to an end while stepping up EU development aid.
Macron is expected to seek re-election in spring 2022 and although he decided in February to maintain Operation Barkhane at its current level, diplomats assume he will want to declare “mission accomplished” and reduce the military presence significantly before polling day.
Déby’s demise makes that harder. Furthermore, Paris is spooked by the U.S.’ decision to pull out of Afghanistan after negotiations with the Taliban — the Islamist movement that Washington intervened to oust after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.
Macron vehemently opposes any negotiation with jihadists in the Sahel, which would be politically embarrassing for him at home. However, the governments of Mali and Burkina Faso, perhaps sensing the French military shield will not be there forever, have opened back channels to explore at least local truces with some of the rebels.
The EU should support these dialogues and flex its financial muscle with Sahel governments to promote governance reform, national reconciliation, community-level dispute resolution and the protection of civilians so that the social and economic root causes of instability can be properly addressed.
On the day Déby was fatally wounded, EU foreign ministers adopted a new Integrated Strategy for the Sahel which implicitly recognizes the failure of past policies and hints at making assistance more conditional by talking of “mutual accountability” and “each partner’s responsibility to fulfil its commitments.”
The EU must follow through and apply tough love to the Sahel. Otherwise, Europeans are doomed to tag along behind the French in an indefinite no-win situation.
Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column. His report “Crossing the Wilderness — Europe and the Sahel” will be published by Friends of Europe on May 12.