Eight years. Eight long years of French military operations in the sands of the Sahel, and yet security has not been restored in a region still battered by crises. Operation Barkhane, which has become one of the most important French external operations in recent history, is the subject of little public debate[i]. i] Nor is France's entire foreign policy in the Sahel [ii], largely dominated by a security approach. It is now time to open this debate publicly. A rethinking of France's Sahel policy is necessary, rooted in a new way of seeing the Sahel and thinking about our relations and modes of cooperation with these countries, as well as with the African continent in general.
On the security front, the French intervention has reached an impasse: not only has the situation not improved, but it has actually deteriorated severely in recent months, now affecting regions and countries that were once spared. The Sahel is experiencing a faster rise in violence than any other region in Africa: violent incidents linked to non-state armed groups have doubled every year since 2015 [iii]. In the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger), 3.7 million people have been forcibly displaced by the violence[iv], and massacres against civilians are increasing. 19.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and more than 6.7 million Sahelians will suffer from hunger by the summer of 2021. And despite this tragedy, humanitarian organizations face increasing difficulties in accessing populations in need.
In addition to this unfortunate picture, there are also abuses and violence against civilians by various parties to the conflict, including accusations against state security forces, which go largely unpunished. In recent months, the UN and human rights organizations have documented cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions allegedly committed by elements of the Malian, Burkinabe and Nigerien armies[v]. MINUSMA also found the French military responsible for the deaths of 19 civilians during an operation in Mali on January 3, 2021 near the village of Bounti.
The crisis in the Sahel is multi-dimensional, with social, economic and political factors, and is likely to be exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Poverty affects 40% of Sahelians. More than 2.5 million children do not attend school. Half of the population does not have access to drinking water. This situation particularly affects women, who remain largely excluded from decision-making. And despite these immense challenges, the budgets dedicated to health[vi], education, agriculture, water, sanitation and social protection are under pressure, particularly to meet the increase in security spending and the repayment of exploding sovereign debts. Restrictions on public freedoms are multiplying, often legitimized by the fight against terrorism. And those who have the courage to denounce potential misappropriations of public money - including military aid that is supposed to contribute to the security and stabilization of populations - often find themselves criminalized and threatened.
Faced with this situation, voices are being raised - in the Sahel as well as in Europe - to point out the inadequacy of current strategies and to call for a change of heart. The multiplication of initiatives and the succession of international summits and conferences in recent years appear to be the stuttering of a single strategy that has mainly relied on a military response to a crisis that is disrupting social contracts and models of governance, and which therefore calls for much more complex responses. The launch of the Alliance for the Sahel in 2017 was intended to provide guarantees of a rebalancing towards development issues, without however freeing itself from an instrumental vision of a "diplomacy-defense-development" nexus that is proving inoperative. Development cannot be a factor of peace if it does not integrate the issue of human rights, inclusion, equity and accountability. While the recent N'Djamena summit in February led to some positive developments - notably by taking into consideration some of the root causes of conflict - they must now be translated into a real change in strategy.
France's strategy is not immune to this criticism. The predominant role of our country in recent years in defining these strategies has given the impression that the future of the Sahel is decided in Paris rather than in Bamako or Ouagadougou. And with it, an ever stronger rejection of French action and presence by a part of the Sahelian populations, while it also increasingly questions French public opinion. We do not expect France to solve the challenges of the Sahel, but rather to accompany another reconstruction process. Another approach is possible.
French official development assistance to the Sahel has been stagnating for 10 years and last year our country contributed less than 1% of humanitarian funding needs. The future law on development and the fight against global inequalities must be an opportunity to rethink the development and growth models promoted by our aid. It is now time to bring coherence to our international action, and to place at its heart the strengthening of local civil societies, the promotion of human rights, the protection of civilians, inclusive governance, justice, the fight against corruption, gender equality, the reduction of inequalities and climate justice. Local organizations working on these sensitive and often dangerous issues for their members need more political, technical and financial support.
While an Africa-France summit will be held in Montpellier next October, we call for a rethinking of France's policy in the Sahel. This refoundation must be built on an inclusive dialogue and a democratic debate that have been cruelly lacking since 2013. This debate must take into account the diversity of analyses and expertise by bringing together parliamentarians, diasporas, academics, civil society from here and there, development and security actors.
In order to succeed in this refoundation, it is necessary to truly listen to the affected communities; Sahelian women and youth in particular are the bearers of solutions that are only waiting to be heard. Our organizations are witnesses to this, and citizen initiatives are multiplying in the Sahel to propose other schemes for the future of their countries, such as the recent « Coalition citoyenne pour le Sahel[vii]». France must listen to these aspirations. It is urgent.
Signatories of the call
- CCFD-Terre Solidaire
- Tournons la page
- Secours Catholique France
- Médecins du Monde
- CARE France
- Agir ensemble pour les droits humains
- Conseil des Nigériens de France
- Haut-Conseil des Maliens de France
- Justice et Paix France
- Mouvement pour une Alternative Non-violente
- Le Mouvement de la Paix
- Solidarité Internationale LGBTQI
- ECPAT France
- ActionAid France
- Ipam - Initiative pour un Autre Monde
- Coordination Sud
- Plateforme Dettes & développement
- Synergie Togo
- Jean-Claude Felix Tchicaya, researcher for the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE)
- Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, Director of Research, Institut de recherche pour le développement
- Richard Banégas, Professor of political science at Sciences Po
- André Bourgeot Anthropologist, Director of Research Emeritus at the CNRS
- Rémi Carayol, journalist
- Marielle Debos, researcher in political science, University of Paris Nanterre
- Roland Marchal, researcher at the CNRS
- Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, Emeritus Director of Research at the CNRS, researcher at LASDEL (Niger)
- Géraud Magrin, Professor of Geography, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Sahelian organizations that support the appeal
- SOS-civisme Niger
- Afrikajom Center
- Observatoire Kisal
- Action de Partenaires pour l’Appui au Développement (Tchad)
- Alternative Espaces Cioyens (AEC) Niger
- AZHAR (Mali)
- Public Interest Law Center (Tchad)
- Droits de l'Homme sans Frontières (Tchad)
- Tchad Non Violence (TNV)
- Syndicat national des agents contractuels et fonctionnaires de l'éducation de base (SYNACEB -Niger)
- Union des Syndicats du Tchad (UST)
- Mouvement Citoyen Le Temps (Tchad)
- Agir pour être Niger
- Réseau panafricain pour la paix, la démocratie et le développement - REPPAD Niger
- APAISE (Niger)
- Women in Law and Development in Africa – WILDAF Mali
[i] Since a 2008 reform of the Constitution, Article 35 requires the French government to seek parliamentary authorization if it wants to extend a military operation beyond four months. On April 22, 2013, just over three months after the launch of Operation Serval in Mali, the French parliament approved the extension of this military mission, which became Barkhane in July 2014. Since then, the Parliament has not been consulted on the Barkhane operation (the evolution of its personnel, its continuation, etc.). Over the past 10 years, 12 answers have been given to the 15 parliamentary questions formulated on Operation Barkhane (www.senat.fr). The Senate last debated Operation Barkhane on 9 February 2021.
[ii] France's policies in the Sahel were the subject of a public debate in Parliament on March 4, 2021.
[iii] Based on figures from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled).
[v] - MINUSMA, Note on Trends in Human Rights Violations and Abuses (January 1-March 31, 2020), Human Rights and Protection Division, April 2020
[vi] For the G5 Sahel countries + Senegal, the annual repayment of their debts is equivalent to 140% of the amounts allocated to their health budgets : https://www.oxfamfrance.org/financement-du-developpement/annuler-la-dette-des-pays-pauvres-une-mesure-durgence-face-au-coronavirus/