As Takuba Replaces Barkhane, Europe Seeks a New Approach to the Sahel
Eight years on from France’s initial decision to intervene in Mali, Emmanuel Macron’s government is finally closing the book on Operation Barkhane. As the French president announced on Wednesday, his country’s forces will wrap up Operation Barkhane and shift their operations in Africa’s Sahel region to the more multilateral European framework of Operation Takuba in the first quarter of next year, even as Paris still finds itself trying to convince European, African, and global partners to dedicate more resources to the region.
While French officials have insisted for years that Operation Barkhane would not be an indefinite affair, events impacting France’s regional partners (Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, collectively known as the G5) over the past few months have added new urgency to Paris’ desire to rethink its approach in the Sahel.
First came the shocking news that France’s most stalwart ally among the G5 countries, Chadian president Idriss Déby, had been killed on the front lines of Chad’s conflict with rebel forces. Just a few weeks later, French officials reacted with outrage after the second military coup in Mali in less than a year. France suspended (albeit only briefly) its joint military operations with Malian forces in response to the abandonment of an already-tenuous transition to civilian rule, and Macron declared the end of Barkhane a few days later.
This turn of events has prompted political leaders, diplomats, and civil society figures both in the Sahel and in Europe to urge a less militarised approach to European stabilisation and counterterrorism efforts in the region. A decade of French direct military involvement has not brought stability or progress in countries like Mali. Instead, Islamist militant groups continue to hold sway over wide swathes of the Sahel, fighting government forces and threatening civilian populations not only in Mali, but also in Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mali’s fraught road to democracy
These calls to focus on governance, reform, and civil society initiatives point to important questions about the legacy of European involvement in the Sahel as a whole over the past decade, but as both European and African officials admit, no two members of the G5 are entirely alike.
For example, international partners like France and the African Union have already urged a rapid transition to civilian rule In both Mali and Chad, the latter currently under the leadership of a transitional military council led by the late president’s son Mahamat “Kaka” Déby. Facts on the ground in Bamako and N’Djamena, however, make it difficult to compare the current political situations in the two countries, a factor which helps explain why Macron and chief EU diplomat Josep Borrell spoke out against Colonel Assimi Goîta’s takeover in Mali after travelling to Chad to participate in Idriss Déby’s funeral and meet with Mahamat Déby’s transitional government. Déby himself traveled to Paris to meet with Macron on July 5th, discussing the political transition in his country as well as the future of French troop deployments to the region.
In Mali, on the one hand, Goïta’s decision to overthrow successive civilian governments has clearly upended Western hopes for stable leadership in Bamako, and with it prospects for a smooth exit strategy from the conflict-riven country. As the French president told other leaders in West Africa, the view from Paris is that support for a government “where there is no longer democratic legitimacy or transition” is untenable. In making himself the interim president of Mali, Goïta appears to have dispensed with any pretense of a lasting return to civilian rule. Perhaps equally unpalatable is his decision to appoint former minister Choguel Maiga, who has endorsed peace talks with jihadist groups, as his transitional government’s prime minister, leading Emmanuel Macron to warn against “radical Islamism” taking power in Mali.
Chad’s “exceptional circumstances”
For French and European leaders, as well as their African counterparts, the situation in Chad is radically different and the circumstances of the political transition after Idriss Déby’s death have been, to quote French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, “exceptional.” Unlike Mali, which has been the focal point of instability in the Sahel for the past decade, Chad has been the most reliable and engaged security partner for international deployments in the region, offering not just bases to French and other Western troops but also directly contributing thousands of experienced soldiers of its own to G5 operations in the region.
Chadian military units have not only fought against jihadist groups such as Boko Haram in regions such as Lake Chad, but they have also served directly alongside French troops in Mali; Mahamat Déby personally commanded Chadian forces there in 2013, helping the French-led Operation Serval stop jihadist forces from overtaking Bamako. Considering the country’s geographic position next to war-torn Libya (from which both central governments and non-state armed groups have threatened Chad since Muammar Gaddafi’s tenure), the competence of Chad’s armed forces sets it apart from the rest of the G5, who depend on French, American, and other international military assistance in order to maintain a baseline level of security within their own borders.
Even with their reputation for effectiveness in military operations, Chad is itself a frontline for the fight against regional militancy, as the battlefield death of its former president attests. With those circumstances in mind, neither France, the European Union, the G5, nor the African Union can afford to see Chad succumb to the same type of instability that has afflicted the rest of the region.
The need for a new strategy
While the differing circumstances in Mali and Chad preclude painting civil-military relations across the whole region with the same broad brush, the lived experience of the past decade of direct military intervention has unquestionably bolstered local advocates of reform and European proponents of a more diplomacy-oriented approach.
While battlefield success can secure momentary improvements in the security situation, only the establishment of effective, responsible governance across the G5 countries will be able to deliver lasting solutions to the impoverishment, alienation, and mismanagement that give jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State room to operate across the Sahel.