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G5 Sahel: “Barkhane has become fraught with political risk”

As the G5 Sahel summit holds in the Chadian capital N'Djamena on 15 and 16 February 2021, APA News picks…

As the G5 Sahel summit holds in the Chadian capital N’Djamena on 15 and 16 February 2021, APA News picks the brain of renowned political analyst, recognized expert on Sahel, journalist and writer Seidik Abba over the stakes.What can we expect from this new G5 Sahel summit?

This statutory summit will be an opportunity to take stock of the security situation in the Sahel since the one held on January 2020 in Pau, France, with President Emmanuel Macron and his counterparts from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, which was followed last July by a G5 Sahel Conference of Heads of State in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

In Ndjamena, a concrete assessment is expected of the strategy adopted in Pau, which had decided to concentrate military efforts on the three common borders to Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. In Pau, it was also decided to specifically target the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which was then intensifying its often bloody and spectacular raids in the area.

In the Chadian capital, this strategic reorientation will be the subject of a full evaluation, in the virtual presence of French President Emmanuel Macron who is participating in the summit by videoconference. The activities  of the Executive Secretariat, as well as the implementation of projects, will also be reviewed.

Having said that, one of the peculiarities of the Ndjamena summit is that it comes at a time when France has announced its intention to “readjust” its military operation in the Sahel. Finally, in Ndjamena, we will have the passage of witnesses between the outgoing president of the G5 Sahel, Mauritania’s Mohamed Cheikh El Ghazouani and the incoming president, Idriss Deby Itno of Chad.

You have just published with L’harmattan in Paris, “Understanding Boko Haram,” a highly acclaimed book on jihadists operating in the Lake Chad Basin. Do you think this region catches the same attention as the Sahel?

Obviously not. The Lake Chad Basin does not draw the same attention as the Sahel. Some reasons can be put forward to explain this lack of interest. For Western countries, Boko Haram, unlike terrorist groups in the Sahel, particularly in northern Mali, does not pose a direct threat.

For them, there is little chance that jihadists will leave the ranks of Boko Haram to attack Europe. Secondly, in the Lake Chad Basin, there is no direct Western military presence that could have attracted the interest of international media and Western public opinion.

Finally, in the Lake Chad Basin, the victims of terrorism are mainly local citizens, not foreign nationals. However, we must be careful not to neglect the security situation in the Sahel. It would be wrong to think that the crisis in the Sahel can be sorted out without involving the Lake Chad Basin. Jihadist groups, for their part, have already understood the interest in acting together. We have documented many examples of “cooperation” between jihadist groups in northern Mali and Boko Haram.

It has been eight years since France sent its army into Mali and the Sahel. However, jihadist groups continue to be active in that country and their presence has reached other countries in the region.

 Is there any need for a readjustment of the French strategy in the region?

The decision to adjust its military presence or not is up to France. It has decided to do so not because the security situation in the Sahel would return to normalcy.

I see it more as domestic policy considerations. In the context of a health crisis with its economic consequences for the French state, some circles, including at the highest level of the state, may have thought that Barkhane, with an annual budget between 900 million and one billion euros, is expensive.

Besides, this economic consideration is an argument of French domestic policy, as Macron will seek re-election in 2022. Let’s put it this way: with the reversal of opinion against the military presence in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane has become a political risk, especially in a sensitive pre-election period.

As for me, the most important thing is not that France leaves or stays in the Sahel. Indeed, what seems important to me is how the countries of the Sahel organize themselves to ensure their security, including by appealing to African solidarity.

Some countries on the continent are major military powers that can make their contribution in various forms to the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. In any case, over the long term, security in the Sahel will only be provided by the Sahelians. This applies to the rest of the continent.

In some Sahel countries, including Mali, the possibility of dialogue with jihadists is now publicly raised. What explains this change?

I note that there is some change in the Malian position of negotiating with jihadist groups. A few years ago, this subject was taboo. Today, it is debated openly, including in the circles of power in Bamako. I believe that this development is based on pragmatic considerations that Malians know better than their partners, including France, who defend general principles.

Personally, the experience of Niger’s “Repent to receive Forgiveness” program, which has allowed the capitulation of more than 500 ex-Boko Haram fighters without a shot being fired, leads me to believe that talks with jihadist groups and some of their leaders is an option not to be ruled out. The question is no longer to know whether we should hold talks with the jihadists, but with whom, in what form and where such talks are held.

Experts and intelligence officials are now talking about the will of Sahel jihadist groups to expand into the Gulf of Guinea countries. Does that make sense?

This is not new. Jihadist groups still have an agenda of expanding the Willaya in West Africa. They have already carried out acts in Cote d’Ivoire twice: March 2016 in Grand Bassam and last July in Kafalo on the Ivorian-Burkinabe border. They struck Benin twice and launched attacks on the border between Burkina Faso and Togo. Despite its persistence, this threat can be contained by good coordination between the Sahel states and the Gulf of Guinea countries. On the other hand, the most worrying is the endogenization of terrorism in the Sahel. The new katiba leaders and fighters are locals and this cannot be fought by military means alone.

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