Macron in Mali for diplomatic push on Sahel anti-jihad force

Emmanuel Macron (File: AFP)
Emmanuel Macron (File: AFP)

Bamako - French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Mali on Sunday to boost Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force, with France urging greater support for the Sahel region amid mounting insecurity.

The so-called "G5 Sahel" countries south of the Sahara - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger - have pledged to fight jihadists on their own soil with instability and Islamist attacks on the rise.

Macron is joining these nations' heads of state in Bamako for a special summit where France's backing for the force will be announced, with a likely focus on providing equipment.

Based in Sevare, central Mali, the 5 000-strong G5 Sahel force aims to bolster 12 000 UN peacekeepers and France's own 4 000-member Operation Barkhane, which is operating in the region.

Macron is also looking to extra backing from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States - which already has a drone base in Niger  beyond a pledge of $57.2 million made by the European Union.

Large numbers of troops 

Serge Michailof, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS institute, described the EU contribution as "a joke" given the EU's "very deep pockets" and the poverty of the Sahel countries.

"This force is going to cost $300-400 million at the very least," he told AFP.

Chadian President Idriss Deby has said his country cannot afford to mobilise large numbers of troops simultaneously for the UN peacekeeping mission and also in the new force.

Deby and Macron are due to meet on the margins of the Bamako summit to discuss the financial issue, according to the French presidency. Chad's military is widely viewed as the strongest of the five Sahel nations.

Al-Qaeda's Mali branch, meanwhile, offered a reminder of the jihadists' threat, with the release of a proof-of-life video of six foreign hostages.

The clip posted Saturday by Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, also known as the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, includes elderly Australian surgeon Arthur Kenneth Elliott and Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin.

Elliott was abducted in January 2015 in Djibo, Burkina Faso, where he and his wife had run the district's sole medical clinic since 1972. Petronin was abducted in late 2016 in the northern Malian town of Gao.

In the video, the hostages are separately introduced by a narrator, who says that so far there have been no negotiations for their release.

Phased rollout 

Macron visited Gao in northern Mali in May, his first foreign visit as president outside Europe, and promised French troops would remain "until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region".

France intervened to chase out jihadists linked to al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013.

That mission evolved into the current Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel.

The new Sahel force will support national armies trying to catch jihadists across porous frontiers, and will work closely with Barkhane.

Operations across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, all hit with frequent jihadist attacks, will be co-ordinated with French troops, a source in the French presidency told AFP earlier this week, while help would be given to set up command centres.

Multiple fronts

While weighing up the challenges of the G5 Sahel operation, analysts frequently compare it with the Multinational Joint Task Force battling Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, composed of troops from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Despite heavy initial criticism, that force "has succeeded in a part of its mission, which is to reduce the territory controlled by Boko Haram and limit its actions," said Rinaldo Depagne from the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation that works on conflict resolution.

However, the G5 Sahel force has supplementary challenges in the weak armed forces of Burkina Faso and Mali, while Chad and Niger are already engaged on multiple fronts, he added.

The three-nation border of Liptako-Gourma will become a "laboratory" for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger where French forces will aim to work in tandem with these nations, before bringing Chad and Mauritania into the mix, Depagne predicted.

The G5 Sahel force's top commander, Malian general Didier Dacko, has said that at first each country's contingent would operate on its own soil, gradually becoming more focused on their mutual borders.

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