Yesterday, 30 June, Sahelian heads of state, French President Emmanuel Macron, other top European leaders, and representatives of numerous multilateral bodies met in Nouakchott, Mauritania for a summit on Sahelian security. According to Macron’s agenda for the day, the event consisted of a working lunch for heads of state, followed by a larger meeting and then a joint press conference. The Elysée (French presidency) does not appear to keep permanent links for each separate day, so I am posting a screen shot:
Another version of the agenda, which differs just slightly from the times listed by the Elysée, was published by the Mauritanian outlet Mauri Actu and can be found here. That version gives a sense of the other participants in the event.
The Nouakchott summit is the sequel to one held at Macron’s invitation in Pau, France in January 2020. You can read the transcription of the joint press conference from that event in French here, and the New York Times‘ (appropriately critical) coverage is here. The Nouakchott summit also follows the 25 February G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott as well as the recent virtual launch, on 16 June, of the French-backed Coalition for the Sahel. Nouakchott has been the site of several key meetings this year because Mauritania currently holds the rotating presidency of the G5 Sahel, a political (and now military-political) coordinating body for Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad.
In the lead-up to yesterday’s summit, a theme in Western press coverage was the suggestion that France is “gaining” militarily in the Sahel while the Sahelian governments are dysfunctional. I disagree with that framing, but let’s unpack it a bit first.
Here is AFP:
France is increasingly optimistic about the effectiveness of its anti-jihadist campaign in the Sahel, but experts caution that short-term successes will not by themselves bring lasting victory…
The governments of these countries, among the poorest in the world, are struggling to reinvest in the newly-retaken territories and win hearts and minds.
And here is Reuters, whose article is even more explicit that the assessment of “France is winning, Sahel governments are flailing” comes ultimately from the French government:
Mali and Burkina Faso must guarantee at a summit this week that their domestic political problems do not reverse fragile military successes against Islamist militants in the Sahel region, a French presidential source said on Monday.
“Domestic political problems” seems to mean the protests against President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in Mali and the upcoming elections in Burkina Faso, or perhaps the phrase is also a veiled reference to widely reported security force abuses in those countries (and in Niger).
Clearly there is domestic turmoil in Mali and Burkina Faso – but I am uncomfortable with the framing that effectively says “African dysfunction is undercutting French accomplishments.” For one thing, I’m not sure what France’s “fragile military successes” really consist of, beyond the killing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel on June 3. Aside from the killing of Droukdel, most of what I’ve seen recently from France’s Operation Barkhane reads to me as the same kind of operations it has been conducting for years, and any gains in one area inevitably seem to be paralleled by a degradation in another area. The press coverage of this summit is replete with references to French/Sahelian gains made in the tri-border zone (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), but the references are quite vague once you scrutinize them. Meanwhile, the events and reports coming out of the Sahel’s conflict zones seem quite grim to me – blockaded towns in northern Burkina Faso, villages under jihadist sway in the east, Mali’s premier opposition leader in presumed jihadist captivity for over three months, etc. Those are bad signs, and they don’t seem to indicate that the French and Sahelian militaries are on a path toward victory.
And then, to return to critiquing the framing of “French prowess, African dysfunction,” there is the fact that France is not merely a military actor in the Sahel but is, first and foremost, a political actor in its former colonies – and a military intervention is itself a political act, I might add. France appears most comfortable working, when possible, with strongmen; failing that, France leans on a particular type of technocratic, Francophone professional politician in its former colonies. I don’t think that French authorities hand-pick the candidates to run in Sahelian elections. But is it an accident that the heads of state so often look exactly what you would imagine the Elysée would dream up – an economist or banker turned lifelong politician, perhaps still a “socialist” according to their party’s name but generally neoliberal in economic policy and deferential to France and Europe when it comes to international relations? And then you add to that the optic of Macron basically publicly treating the current Sahelian heads of state as his subordinates and clients, and ultimately what you have is an extremely top-down and narrow conception of political authority in the region. Is it a surprise that such a system has proven brittle and fragile, especially amid a widening conflict? How the Sahel can move forward politically is an enormously complicated question and I do not have the answer, but I suspect that the answer does not begin with Macron instructing his counterparts to get their shit together.
Turning to the substance of the summit, here are a few resources:
- Here is the final joint communiqué. Honestly, very little stood out to me from the document, which mostly read to me as a restatement of the principles of the Coalition for the Sahel (counterterrorism, enhancing military capacity, “the return of the state,” and development) and a restatement of what was discussed at Pau. There are references in this latest communiqué to not tolerating human rights abuses, a major topic of discussion recently, and the Sahelien heads of state called for (even) more international security contributions, but otherwise I thought the document was bland.
- Here is the video and transcript of Macron’s remarks on his arrival at the summit. His primary theme was “solidarity” in the face of COVID-19 and terrorism. A secondary theme was the “return of the state,” especially in parts of Mali and Burkina Faso. The “return of the state” is, again, one of four pillars of the Coalition for the Sahel.
- Twitter posts from Sahelian heads of state, regarding their respective participation in the summit, can be found at the following links: Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania; Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali; Roch Kaboré of Burkina Faso; Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger; Idriss Deby of Chad.
- RFI’s readout of the summit, which notes the positive and optimistic tone that the heads of state struck.
Speaking of international security engagements, the next development on the horizon there is the anticipated deployment of the French-created Takuba Task Force. At Clingendael, Anna Schmauder, Zoë Gorman, and Flore Berger have written an excellent explainer about the force.
Ould Ghazouani posted a striking photo of the six heads of state; I leave you with that: