In July 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron, announced a withdrawal of his country’s military from the West African region by early 2022. The withdrawal will come after a decade of French forces fighting insurgents in the Sahel. With over 5,000 boots on ground, French troops first stepped foot on the Sahel, particularly Mali in January 2013 to combat jihadists. This would later expand to Operation Barkhane involving Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger (Nigeria’s closest neighbours). In the face of rising cost of the military campaign mostly borne by France, President Macron had for years, been trying to get western allies to play a role.
Only the present and last two American presidents were moving in the opposite direction, looking to extricate their country from all military engagements abroad. But it is not only the financial burden that is forcing France to make her exit. There is also the political cost of remaining in the perceived politically unstable West African region.
For governments in the region, in the opinion of this newspaper, the French departure could be bad news, while for many nationalists, it could have happened earlier. The reality is that security challenges Nigeria faces are not completely isolated from the insurgency plaguing the wider region. And the challenge for all the five countries that make up the Sahel and the remaining 11 countries of ECOWAS is how to manage the departure of the French.
It is foolhardy, in our view, for anyone to think that France has a grand masterplan to secure the region presently under its sphere of influence after the withdrawal of their troops, or that they will be limiting their intervention to training government forces in the Francophone countries to repel jihadists and bandits. The Americans said the same thing, that Afghan Forces were well trained and would hold the country for a reasonable length of time after the withdrawal of U.S Forces. But when the moment of reckoning came, Afghan Forces simply disintegrated.
The departure of the United States’ military and its western allies from Afghanistan were supposedly planned, at least one year in advance. But from the way events unfolded since April when President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all U.S forces from the beleaguered Asian country, it appears they just upped and left when it was no longer in their interest to remain. And someone had to fill the power vacuum, which the Taliban quickly did. It wasn’t just the Taliban though, foreign entities; Pakistan, India, China and Russia are also looking to exert influence in the wake of American withdrawal. This should serve as a lesson for much of the world, especially African nations who hold on to the belief that they can rely on foreign forces as a source of long-term stability and security.
Already, we are concerned about the ominous signs of what is to come after the French withdrawal. The military leaders in Mali are considering hiring (for $10.8 million a month) foreign mercenaries, who are notorious for their operations in Syria, Central African Republic and Libya, to protect their regime. If that happens, the same scenario playing out in Libya could replicate itself in Mali leading to political impasse driven mainly by foreign interests. Ironically, the misadventure of powers in Libya was the source of insecurity in Mali and much of the Sahel.
We urge ECOWAS leaders to resist this turn of events. Leaders of the regional body have placed sanctions on the Malian regime for overthrowing a civilian government. They should not stand by idly and watch while the regime tries to entrench itself in power using hired hands from the West.
In our opinion, those that need protection are the people of Mali and other countries in the subregion suffering under the yoke of insurgency that appear to have no end. ECOWAS must take the lead in finding a permanent solution in the insecurity that has gone on for over a decade now. In the 90’s, the regional body successfully deployed military contingents that helped end the civil wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. And in both cases, Nigeria took the lead. They were both however, anglophone countries. That distinction significantly limits ECOWAS’ ability to make key decisions relating to security.
Time was when francophone countries were the most politically stable in West Africa, not anymore. And now that France is leaving, without securing the region, someone will have to fill the vacuum. It shouldn’t be mercenaries, and it shouldn’t be other Western powers.
A perfect model is the Multinational Joint Task Force that sees Nigeria working closely, militarily, with its immediate neighbours of Niger, Chad, Benin and Cameroun. Realistically, Nigeria or any other country, cannot afford to start policing the entire West African neighborhood in the name of restoring stability when its own house is on fire. But then, again, the insecurity in Nigeria could persist until stability returns to the wider region. At the very least, Nigeria can coordinate more joint border patrols, monitor communications and share intelligence with countries across the Sahel. Having a collective sense of purpose could eventually lead to permanent solutions.