In recent months, fervent anti-French sentiment has been on the rise in Burkina Faso and Mali. In February 2023, the Burkina Faso army Announced the end of the French Saber Force in the West African country. This came three weeks after the transitional government withdrew from 2018 defense agreements with France that had previously allowed 400 French soldiers to be stationed in a cantonment outside the capital Ouagadougou.
Prior to these events, Burkina Faso experienced its second military coup in eight months in September 2022. Since then, there have been periodic anti-French protests in the streets, during which the French embassy was attacked with stones and even place on fire by the protesters.
Signs of tangible anger against everything French in the country included, but were not limited to, the transmission suspension of Radio France International, calls for the expulsion of the French ambassador, and acts of vandalism against two French institutes in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, both looted by protesters.
Images of young villagers. blocking a French military convoy in Burkina Faso went viral on social media in late 2021, vividly illustrating the intense and growing animosity towards France in the Sahel. France bears the brunt of criticism from the Sahelian public, fueled by the postcolonial insurgent mentality that sees the French military commitment in the Sahel and, more generally, in French-speaking Africa as a ploy to plunder the region. Abdoulaye Maïga, then acting Prime Minister of Mali, provided a telling example of this widespread disenchantment in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2022, when accused France of “neocolonial, condescending and revengeful practices”.
Turning its back on its former allies, Burkinabe’s military elite is apparently opting for a change of partners, paving the way for a new relationship with Russia. The same protests in recent months that saw the burning of French flags also saw Russian flags flown. Greeting the rapprochement with Moscow after a meeting with the Russian ambassador in Ouagadougou in January 2023, the Prime Minister of Burkina Faso, Apollinaire Kyélem de Tembela, stressed that “Russia is a reason of choice for us…we believe that our partnership should be strengthened”.
These drastic and unprecedented geopolitical changes further intensify competition between foreign powers and are not conducive to ensuring much-sought security in the volatile Sahel region. Considering Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record in Syria, Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR), there seems little hope that Russia will come up with a viable alternative to the West’s failure to help address the Sahel security crisis. Facing Russian pressure, the Elysée seems unable to find a way out of the current dire situation.
The profound failure of France in the Sahel
The withdrawal of French forces from Burkina Faso appeared to follow the same sequence of events as in Mali, where anti-French sentiment was fueled by protests against what Malians viewed as French meddling in their internal affairs. After the French minister of European and Foreign Affairs called into question “both the legality and the legitimacy” of his government, the Bamako junta condemned the comments as “hostile and despicable”.
Widespread outrage over protracted violence in the central Sahel and the failure of Western powers to help address it has opened the door for the military to overthrow elected civilian governments. In both Mali and Burkina Faso, the coup leaders are all young colonels who have portrayed themselves as heralding a new era in the Sahel and harbor the idea that military governments can handle insecurity more effectively. As they see it, the fight against jihadist groups and organized crime is their legitimate reason for being.
Since the overthrow of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta by junta leader Assimi Goita in 2020, events have only further underlined the failure of French policy in the Sahel, especially after the withdrawal of its Mali’s Operation Barkhane force, announced in February 2022.
Despite the fact that in 2021 Operation Barkhane represented 5,100 of the 7,000 French globally deployed soldiers and that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has the larger annual budget of any UN mission ($1.26 billion in 2022), the Sahel remains one of the deadliest arenas in the fight against terrorism. Between 2017 and 2020 attacks against civilians increased five times. Nearly 2.9 million people they were forced to flee their homes due to violence in the central Sahel in 2022, with an emerging trend of Burkinabe seeking asylum in the south and north, including in North Africa and Europe. In addition, 29 million people in this region are in dire need aid workers, 5 million of whom are children.
The repercussions of the security crisis in the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, have given rise to widespread criticism of the projected image of France as “the saving country” in the fight against terrorism and its forces as a prepared solution to the situation in the Sahel.
He overlapping mandates The sometimes conflicting operational objectives of the French forces, the G5 Sahel regional security group and MINUSMA, together with the inability of central governments to address outbreaks of violence in ungoverned areas of their countries, have contributed to the do not improve the security situation, ending the hopes of the Sahelians. This provided an opportunity for the young military officers currently in command in Bamako and Ouagadougou to break with France and other parties involved in the failed efforts.
France’s military and diplomatic engagement in the Sahel over the past nearly 10 years has been significant, and these countries will play an important role in shaping the future of France’s strategic relationship with Africa. Growing Francophobia in the Sahel does not bode well for the Élysée, and sentiments have changed dramatically since the widespread joy which followed the supposed victory over the jihadists at the end of Operation Serval in January 2013. Finding itself in the crosshairs, France is no longer welcomed with open arms and the relationship is now marked by mistrust and defiance.
What pushes the Sahelians to openly reject a French presence near their homes in Mopti or Djenné, for example, is the absence of a positive impact on their daily lives from the deployment of Barkhane’s forces for almost a decade. The high-level agreements with central governments that brought French forces into the Sahel ignored the aspirations of local populations for real solutions to their unresolved grievances.
Propaganda or reality?
The ruling juntas are using anti-French sentiment as a workhorse to momentarily divert public attention from the region’s acute development and governance crises and the failure of rival factions within their militaries to address security concerns. The Sahel has suffered from a lack of long-term state-building efforts and deep political reforms, while French lip service diplomacy and support for corrupt regimes they have only exacerbated the region’s development crisis.
Trying to hide their strategic failures in the Sahel, the French prefer to blame the growing antipathy among the Sahelians on what they claim is manipulation by Moscow through disinformation campaigns. In reality, the animosity towards all things French in the Sahel is the result of a long French tradition. paternalistic policy derived from persistent neocolonialism. An example of this was when French President Emmanuel Macron “summoned” his Sahelian counterparts to a summit in Pau in 2019 to demand an explanation for the death of French soldiers in an accident in Mali, amid protests over the presence French military. The Pau Summit was seen as an arrogant reaction from Paris, which demanded that Sahelian presidents swear allegiance to France, even if it meant embarrassing them in front of their own citizens. The French ruling elite do not understand the historical sensibilities that exist in the former colonies, where new generations are still haunted by colonial memories.
Russia gaining ground
On February 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Bamako, where he reiterated pledges to support the nations of the Sahel and the Gulf of Guinea against the threat of jihadists, and hinted at further involvement on the continent. . During a joint press conference with Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop, Lavrov said: “Last year and at the beginning of this year… a large shipment of Russian aviation technology was sent, thanks to which the The Mali army was able to carry out successful operations against terrorists recently.” In an attempt to anchor Moscow’s presence on the Atlantic coast of the Sahel, Lavrov extended his visit to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, pragmatically noting that Russia respects Mauritania’s position about the war in Ukraine.
As this competition between foreign powers gains momentum, especially in West Africa, Russia finds itself in a relentless search for influence. The rivalry between Russia and Western powers, increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War, pervades every part of the African continent, with the Sahel only the latest geopolitical arena for their competing interests and influence.
Reminiscent of the French, Russian determination to extract natural resources leaves little room for optimism about this newcomer. Moscow’s confidence in the private military company (PMC) of the Wagner Group, in Mali and in other parts of the continent—also raises serious concerns about its potential role in conflict zones. Wagner has been repeatedly involved in cases of political violence in Mali and the Central African Republic, about half to two-thirds of which involve indiscriminate violence against civilians. UN experts have called for an independent investigation into the serious human rights abuses committed in Mali by both government forces and Wagner PMC since 2021.
The Sahel continues to be a land of competition, and the insecurity facing the region is just a pretext for competing powers to extend their influence. From arms sales to aid diplomacy, all paths are being followed. While the Elysee lacks a clear vision on how to reshape its presence in the Sahel, Moscow is moving forward with an approach to Africa marked by geopolitical rivalry, not partnership.
Mohammed Ahmed Gain is Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Ibn Tofail (Kenitra-Morocco), President of the African Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation (AIPECT) and non-resident scholar of the North Africa and Sahel Program from MEI.
Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images
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