Having intervened twice in West and Central Africa in the past two years, with more than 6 000 troops deployed on the continent, France is getting involved in another battle: the fight against Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
The former colonial power is setting up a regional hub in N’Djamena in Chad, where it will support and co-ordinate the fight by Nigeria and its neighbours, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, against Boko Haram.
This week, Minister of Defence Jean-Yves le Drian said France already had a large military presence in Chad, where its 3 000-strong force for the Sahel region, code named Operation Berkhane, was based. He said France was “fulfilling its rightful role” in supporting African initiatives on the continent.
“The four Lake Chad countries expressed their wish to mobilise military units to fight Boko Haram, but they need organisational support, they need logistical support, support in a military command structure … That is what France proposes to do within the framework of a liaison office that we plan to establish,” Le Drian announced on Tuesday at a high-level gathering on African security in Dakar, Senegal.
France’s expanding military role on the continent, especially in West Africa and the Sahel, comes at a time when African countries are increasingly mobilising to take matters into their own hands, albeit at a slow pace.
Last year, President Jacob Zuma announced the creation of the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises, a continental initiative to spare Africa the embarrassment of having to call on outsiders in times of crisis.
It was announced shortly after France’s intervention in Mali to stop Islamic armed militants, who had occupied the north of the country, from advancing towards the capital.
So far 11 African countries have signed up for the crisis response initiative, seen as an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” that will be co-ordinated from the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa and mandated by the AU’s peace and security council to intervene in urgent crises on the continent.
Africa’s five regional economic communities are also setting up regional brigades that will form part of the African Standby Force, a more conventional peacekeeping force compared to the rapid and robust intervention that will characterise the crisis response force.
Opinions differ over whether these initiatives will get off the ground soon and whether they will be sufficient to combat threats from the increasingly well-equipped and radicalised groups that are wreaking havoc across the Sahel.
At this week’s International Forum on Peace and Security in Africa in Dakar, Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta again thanked France for intervening in his country last year. “I salute the decision of President François Hollande on the 11th of January , which saved Mali,” he said.
Keïta said recent global events linked to jihadism confirmed that it was a wise decision to stop the Islamic extremists in Mali. “It is about world peace,” he said.
Chad’s President Idriss Déby also thanked France for its military intervention in African crises, which had been necessary despite the “remarkable efforts” the continent was making to fight threats to peace and security.
Déby emphasised the importance of regional endeavours in combating terror attacks, such as the Lake Chad initiative.
“This kind of co-operation can help with gathering intelligence, the control of borders and the strengthening of African armies with the help of our international partners,” he said.
Although Déby saluted France’s military role, he is a strong supporter of the crisis response force; he was one of just four heads of state who attended the launch of the initiative in Pretoria in November 2013.
Deploying in 2015
Some observers are sceptical about whether the force will be able to intervene successfully in a crisis anywhere on the continent, especially because it is being seen as a largely South African-driven initiative. Nigeria, the powerhouse in West Africa, has not signed up.
However, General Katumba Wamala, chief of the Ugandan defence forces, told the Mail & Guardian at the Dakar forum that the crisis response force would be ready to be deployed in 2015.
He said that at least three countries were on standby to deploy troops within 14 days for an initial period of 30 days, without help from the United Nations or other countries. From January to June 2015, Uganda would be the “framework nation” that would co-ordinate efforts if such an intervention were to take place. For the last half of 2015 South Africa would take over this role.
Not all 11 countries were contributing troops, Wamala said. Some, like Senegal, were providing medical assistance; others would contribute funds. Algeria had offered much-needed airlifting capability to the force.
Wamala said that even though all the necessary funding and equipment was not yet available, this would come with time.
“If we can create the momentum and intervene, then others will come along and help, as has been the case elsewhere,” he said.
Other high-ranking military officials at the summit also said they believed Africa could be ready to fight its own battles, provided there was the political will to do so.
“Cameroon’s army has been very successful against Boko Haram. Why can’t Nigeria do the same, with a much bigger army?” asked one West African general when asked about military capacity in Africa.
He blamed political issues for the dismal record of the Nigerian army against Boko Haram.
The multiplicity of strategies and initiatives for peacekeeping and conflict intervention in Africa is seen by many as one of the obstacles to effective regional efforts.
France, for example, prefers to work with what it calls the G5-Sahel group – Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – for the purposes of Operation Berkhane. Others opt to work within the framework of the AU’s established regional economic communities.
The AU has a parallel antiterror strategy for the Sahel called the Nouakchott process, named after the Mauritanian capital.
In Dakar, Le Drian lamented the fact that international aid to the various initiatives was increasingly fragmented.
He said France preferred to contribute to regional initiatives by reinforcing the capacity of individual armies.
French forces stationed in Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Gabon are training local soldiers in those countries.
At the Dakar forum, Hervé Ladsous, the United Nations under-secretary general charged with peacekeeping, said 44 000 African soldiers and 6 000 police were deployed in UN missions, mostly in Africa.
“The capacity of these soldiers, of course, has to be reinforced constantly because the challenges on the ground are very real,” he said.
Many agree that a major weakness of African peacekeeping is not necessarily the lack of money, but the fact that many armies on the continent are used by autocratic regimes to stay in power instead of operating as well-trained military forces.
Le Drian said the terror threat in the Sahel was such that France might be involved in this battle for some time. Although it was scaling down its Operation Sangaris, launched at the end of last year in the Central African Republic, Operation Berkhane, a follow-up on the French intervention in Mali, was a long-term effort.
Le Drian said France had “neutralised” more than 200 jihadists in the Sahel-Sahara area in the past year.
The latest intervention was an attack against a group of Islamic militants near Gao in northern Mali. Ten members of the group – including a well-known kingpin and one of the founding members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in Mali, Ahmed el Tilemsi – were killed in the attack.