“The glass is half full, it’s complex and we have a lot to do, but I’m convinced we are on the right track.” French Defence Minister Florence Parly at the Munich Security conference on February 16th 2019, said that French presence in the G5 Sahel countries (Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso) will improve the security situation in the region.
More than six years after French troops intervened in Mali to stop Islamist militants advancing on the capital Bamako through Opération Serval first and Opération Barkhane later, the northern region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have been suffering some of the deadliest attacks to record in the past year.
On April 3rd 2019, Islamic State Amaq Agency released its first video footage of an alleged attack against French forces in Mali on the border with Niger. At the Munich Security Conference Foreign Minister of Burkina Faso Mamadou Alpha Barry also lamented increasing instability in the region, stating that the money promised to the G5 Sahel force is yet to be disbursed. France, due to its colonial ties to the region, has kept about 4,500 troops and pushed for the creation of a force made up of soldiers from the G5 group to combat jihadist extremism. In addition to the lack of resources, the G5 Force impact has been reduced due to poor coordination amongst the five African countries.
In September 2017, Italy and Niger have also signed an agreement to develop bilateral cooperation on security matters: it was believed that the agreement would only deal with migrant influxes, but it appears Italian defence industry Leonardo will also benefit from the agreement, as revealed by a Freedom of Information Act in February 2019. This type of agreement does not need to be ratified and is not subject to Parliamentary scrutiny, easing government action on security operations in the Sahel. The Italian mission will be based in Niamey and had initially been blocked by France, in a biff with Rome over influence in the region.
Another aligned mission is the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali), made up of about 10.000 troops and 2.000 police officers. Finally, Germany is also present with its Heron surveillance drones. As for US presence, Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, a future hub for armed drones and other aircraft, won’t be completed until mid-2019. Air Base 201, a compound of three large hangars in the middle of the desert, twice the size of Agadez itself, will eventually house the U.S. armed drone mission in Niger that currently operates out of Niamey. A report by the Guardian in 2018 states that foreign military presence has had negative impacts on freedom of speech and many opposition leaders have lamented the lack of Parliamentary oversight whenever foreign presence is authorised.
The evolution of the conflicts in the region is pointing towards more responsibilities to remote warfare tactics, and less to ground troops. The paradox is evident: power players in the region are interventionist still, but unwilling to bear the human cost. Very recent research conducted by the Oxford Research Group in Mali (and Kenya) in September 2018 adds to this complexity by explaining how the political vacuum in capitals leads to a disarrayed coordination of troops on the ground: in Mali “there were a few men scattered across the multiple international military initiatives in the country run by the EU, the UN and the French without a clear sense of how these activities – in aggregate – might lead to a sustainable improvement in the capacity of their Malian partners”. In addition HQ too often considers personnel on the ground as less relevant in the decision making process, as t