Even as more and more African countries are asking French forces to leave their territory, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces announced on 11 September that it would resume military training and cooperation activities in Central Africa “on a case-by-case basis.”
The decision has raised questions about why the French military is in Africa to begin with and why one African nation after another is asking it to leave. Mounting dissatisfaction with French policy has led many African countries in the former Francophone sphere of Africa, especially the Sub-Saharan African countries, to ask the French to leave.
The Central African Republic (CAR) took the lead in 2021, when Bangui demanded the departure of the French military forces that had been stationed in the country since the start of the UN Security Council-sanctioned Operation Sangaris in 2013.
In the summer of 2021, Paris suspended military cooperation with Bangui, and by December 2021 the last of France’s 130 troops had left and relations between the two countries were severed.
Mali followed suit in August 2022 when the new military leaders who had come to power two years earlier demanded the departure of the 5,000-strong French force that had been in the country in the framework of Operations Serval (2013) and Barkhane (2014). Afterwards, relations between Bamako and Paris were also severed.
Next came Burkina Faso, where France had a base garrisoned by some 400 soldiers in accordance with a cooperation agreement signed in 2018. In January 2023, the government of President Ibrahim Traore, who had assumed power the previous autumn, ordered the forces to leave.
In Niger, the new military council that overthrew the regime of president Mohamed Bazoum in July this year demanded the withdrawal of the 1,500 soldiers at the French base in Niamey, along with the officers and soldiers whom the French had evacuated from the CAR, Mali, and Burkina Faso.
On 3 September, and in response to the widespread anti-French sentiments expressed in mass demonstrations in the capital, the new Nigerian leaders asked the French ambassador to Niger to leave.
The present situation contrasts sharply with that in the later decades of the last century, since in 1960 France had around 100 military bases in Africa. These have now been reduced to five: in Djibouti, Senegal, Gabon, Chad, and the Ivory Coast.
France’s purposes in maintaining military bases in the African Sahel and elsewhere are varied and interrelated. Economically, these countries offer large markets for French businesses and major sources of raw materials for French industries. The Sahel is rich in oil, gold, iron, and copper, not to mention Niger’s uranium which powers the lion’s share of the nuclear energy produced in France.
The area from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa is also strategically important to France for its political and security needs. Paris has a number of bilateral and collective defence and security agreements with countries in the Sahel to fight terrorism, and it has a base in Djibouti that helps it to monitor the southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic juncture in the international maritime routes to and from the Mediterranean and Europe.
France has also been keen to safeguard the stability of African regimes that it sees as bastions against potential outbreaks of tribal and ethnic strife. Sometimes it will support existing regimes, despite their drawbacks, if it perceives that their fall could give rise to anarchy or to governments that do not serve French interests.
This helps to explain the French attitude towards the overthrow of Bazoum in Niger and more recently of president Ali Bongo in Gabon.
France’s multiple relations with many African countries is also an important source of its political weight in the UN, being one reason why it can retain great power status with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and an ability to influence the global economic, military, and diplomatic balance of power.
However, one after the other, the peoples of the CAR, Mali, Niger, Gabon, and Burkina Faso have been taking to the streets shouting chants telling the French to get out of their countries. This anti-French sentiment did not appear overnight, but has been festering for years for various reasons.
One main reason is that Paris’ policies towards its former African colonies have been unrelentingly condescending and patronising. The fact that it has never apologised for its past mistakes and continues to act as though it can tell Africans what is best for them rankles deeply in many African societies.
At the same time, France and its Western allies have been unable to stem the spread of terrorism across the African Sahel and Sahara, and the various French military interventions have only aggravated the problem. As terrorist attacks have increased and terrorist groups have proliferated in the region, a new generation of African young people has begun to question the efficacy of Western-led counterterrorist operations.
They have also questioned the purpose of the foreign forces in their countries, beginning to see them as a concrete manifestation of a new colonialism that cares little for the interests and welfare of African people. As a result, they have begun to look for other partners without colonialist legacies in Africa, among them China, Turkey, and Russia.
These countries seem to have the wherewithal to help the African countries with their security concerns as well as with their economic straits, which have worsened due to the rise in terrorism, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine.
NEW STRATEGY: In response to such developments, France has adopted a new strategy for dealing with the wave of calls for it to leave the West African and Sahel nations.
French President Emmanuel Macron revealed its contours in a speech at the Elysée Palace in Paris in February this year before setting off on a tour of several African countries.
This new strategy may be being implemented in Niger, where not only has Paris refused to recognise the new military council there, but it has also refused to recall its ambassador to Niamey and to withdraw French forces.
This tougher posture appears to be aimed at compelling the new leaders in Niamey to come to an agreement on France’s terms regarding the status of Bazoum, French economic interests in Niger, and the presence of French forces there.
The new strategy has also been evident in French Minister of the Armed Forces Sébastien Lecornu’s recent statements to the French newspaper Le Figaro regarding French military training and cooperation activities in Central Africa resuming “on a case-by-case basis.”
This indicates that consultations are in progress between Paris and the military leaderships in the Central African and Sahel countries over new modes of cooperation. The purpose is to keep French forces in the region, but in fewer numbers and with redefined missions.
France could be working its way around to recognising the new realities in the so-called “coup belt” in West Africa as long as it can reach formulas for safeguarding its interests in such countries. This would be in line with the substance of Macron’s speech ahead of his February trip to Gabon, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Congo.
Macron spoke of a new era in which France would no longer view Africa as its “backyard” but would instead address the African countries as partners with which France “shared interests and balanced, reciprocal, accountable responsibilities”.
He also said that France would reduce the number of its troops in Africa in the framework of a new security partnership in which it would work together with the African countries on military training and education until they could take over the provision of the military’s educational and training requirements.
For many, Macron’s speech brought to mind a similar speech he made in Ouagadougou in 2017 in which he stressed his country’s resolve to change its post-colonial policies towards Africa. In that speech, too, he called for a “new phase,” a “new philosophy,” and a “new partnership,” saying he wanted to reach out to African young people who may have been harbouring growing doubts and misgivings towards France.
It thus appears that an ongoing dynamic is at work: France hopes to hold on to its African backyard, while the Africans want it out. The question remains of whether France will be able to mollify them and to find a way to preserve its interests and the global influence that has been strengthened by its presence in Africa.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly