Neocolonialism and terror in the Sahel

Neocolonialism and terror in the Sahel
  • PublishedJune 25, 2014

This is where intelligence information gets increasingly sketchy.  It is clear that some have burrowed deep into hideouts in the mountainous, desert terrain, and are still being hunted down, while others have shaved off their beards and melted back into the local communities.

Le Drian is currently talking of the possibility of militants regrouping in northern Mali, suggesting Operation Serval has not been quite the military success that was originally anticipated.

France originally thought that Operation Serval would only last a few months and that French troop levels in Mali would soon reduce to a core of 1,000 men. That was over 16 months ago. It is also clear that many of the “jihadists” who were not killed by the Franco-Chadian assault in northern Mali scattered across much of the Sahara-Sahel. The majority headed eastwards, through Niger to the safe-haven of Libya from where they threaten most surrounding countries.

The result of Operation Serval, although heralded a success in some quarters, is that northern Mali is still not secure, while France is having to reorganise its forces to “pursue counter-terrorism” across several countries.

Few are likely to disagree with Le Drian when he said, “it is absolutely necessary to solve the problems and the dangers of trafficking and terrorism across the region,” but it is imperative for Paris to clarify the status, anticipated duration and method of this new mission. It is not enough for Le Drian to say:  “Our role is to continue [fighting] against terrorism in northern Mali, northern Niger and Chad.” He has to define that “role”.

Although mandated to intervene in Mali, France has no mandate or formal authority, other than questionable military and security agreements with the Sahelian countries concerned. Thus, at the moment, the status of the operation, described by Le Drian as “regionalisation”, seem to be based solely on a number of opaque agreements with the individual countries concerned.

Although clearly getting the “green light” from Washington, France has no UN mandate for its new mission, nor have any regional organisations, such as the AU or ECOWAS, requested that France intervene. 

More disconcerting was Le Drian’s statement: “We will stay as long as necessary. There is no fixed date.” Nor has France said anything about the methods of intervention and “counter-terrorism” that it will adopt.

There are inevitably suspicions about France’s intentions in the region. In Mali, President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita has not even visited the troubled north of the country. A pertinent question being asked by people in northern Mali is why the French military gave Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of the Islamists’ assault on southern Mali, effective free passage out of the region? 

The question refers specifically to why French fighter-bombers did not strafe or otherwise block his retreating column as it fled eastwards along the main road to Gao and over the Niger River bridge, crossing to comparative safety.

This seemingly extraordinary benevolence by the French air force provided Iyad with the means to escape the French assault and to regroup his followers under the protection that a “foreign power” is now affording him.

Indeed, until the French military provides a satisfactory explanation as to why it let this hard core of Islamist fighters escape its grasp, questions about France’s longer-term intentions in the Sahara-Sahel will inevitably remain.

French motives in the Sahel

There are at least four reasons for France’s military expansion across the Sahel. Firstly, jihadists have not been entirely flushed out of northern Mali. In spite of Operation Serval, the presence of a UN peacekeeping force and the EU’s training of the Malian army, these “terrorist elements” not only still have a presence in the region, but may even be regrouping.

The result is that northern Mali, especially the Kidal region, is far from secure, requiring the continued presence of a substantial French force.

Le Drian has said that 1,000 French troops will remain in the region. In addition to the ongoing “Islamist”, “jihadist” or “terrorist” presence in northern Mali, serious fighting broke out again on 17 May in Kidal between Tuareg MNLA rebels and the Malian army during the visit of Prime Minister Moussa Mara to the beleaguered city.

Fighting between Tuareg rebels and Mali’s army recommenced when soldiers fired on civilians protesting the arrival of Mali’s Prime Minister Moussa Mara at Kidal airport. Some 36 people were killed as Tuareg rebels drove the army from town and took over all government buildings. Mara said: “The terrorists have declared war on Mali, so Mali is at war against these terrorists.” 

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