Senegal and France’s Military Role in Africa

On April 4th, Senegal will mark fifty years of independence from France. And at some time before that, the approximately 1200 French soldiers stationed in Dakar will withdraw and close the French bases there. Apparently some degree of military cooperation will continue.

Senegalese soldiers at President Abdoulaye Wade's inauguration, Dakar, 2007

Before taking a look at what this might mean, a little context:

Senegal and France signed a defense agreement in 1974, but when France began rethinking its military strategy in 2008, it also began to reappraise its presence in Africa.

In August 2009 French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised that the renegotiation of defence agreements in eight African countries would be wrapped up by the end of last year.

However only two have been signed, with Togo and Cameroon, and a third is to be signed soon in the Central Africa Republic.

A French white paper on defence, published in 2008, announced an eventual “presence on the Atlantic side of the African continent (and) on its eastern side,” implying that either the base in Libreville or Dakar would be sacrificed.

Hoyawolf directs us to an English-language .pdf of this white paper. The document, at over 300 pages, is too long for me to read in full, let alone analyze systematically, but some parts stood out to me: the introduction emphasizes the French military’s role in a context of rapid change and unpredictability, and uses language about national security in addition to language about defense. Also, the white paper identifies the Sahel as one of “four critical regions” in “the arc of crisis, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean” (41), and recommends “a European strategy built around a balanced partnership” with Africa (43). I don’t know what the implications of those generalities are, but I wonder if what France has in mind is a military presence that is agile and leaves a light footprint. In that case maybe they feel a base in Dakar is not necessary.

Further context regarding French military strategy in Africa comes from a report by the Council on Foreign Relations. The report includes a helpful map showing French bases in Dakar, Libreville and Djibouti, as well as French missions in Cote d’Ivoire, Chad, and the Central African Republic. In terms of history, CFR states that “France intervened militarily in Africa nineteen times between 1962 and 1995,” but that since the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and other events in the mid-1990s, “a new [French] Africa policy emerged that eschews a bilateral structure in favor of military cooperation with international forces and African regional bodies.” The CFR report appeared in early 2008, but the following paragraphs may still help explain the current situation:

Some experts say it was a series of political missteps in the 1990s that resulted in France’s current policy on the continent. But budgetary concerns and a changing strategic climate have also pushed France toward its new multilateral approach. Structural changes in the armed forces—abandoning the draft, sharp reductions in the size of the French military, and base closures between 1997 and 2002—mean that France can no longer maintain the dominance it exercised in the 1960s and 1970s.

During his election campaign, Sarkozy said he was opposed to the French practice of propping up dubious African regimes. “Françafrique,” as the policy was called, had become burdensome and Sarkozy wanted France to become more engaged in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. But French analysts say Sarkozy may have decided in February 2008 that the EU’s mission in eastern Chad depended on France’s ability to keep Chadian President Deby in office.

I am assuming that the decision for France to leave came at least partly from the Senegalese side, but regardless of who pushed for the withdrawal – or whether it represents a shared desire on the part of the two governments – the CFR report, and the passage I quoted above from AFP mentioning the white paper’s allusion to base reductions in Africa, suggests France is at least resigned to, and possibly happy with, this outcome.

But speaking of Chad, it is tempting to link the French withdrawal from Senegal with Chad’s decision to ask UN peacekeepers to leave. Are we entering an age – symbolized also by the refusal of almost all African countries to host AFRICOM – when African governments are increasingly unwilling to host Western military bases? The British have a military presence in Africa too, of course, and I do not know whether that presence is a source of political tension at all. But perhaps this French withdrawal from Dakar really does mark a shift in the entire continent’s relationships with foreign powers.

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