The French army in the face of growing protests in the Sahel

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Bamako (AFP) – France’s military engagement in the Sahel faces growing opposition in the region, with protests once isolated from urban centers spreading to rural areas, fueled by social media and anger over insecurity.

Protesters in Burkina Faso and Niger hampered a large French military supply convoy traveling from Côte d’Ivoire to Mali in November.

The trucks, escorted by local forces, took more than a week to cross Burkina Faso, and several people were injured during protests in the northern town of Kaya.

In western Niger, two people were killed in unclear circumstances on Saturday when the convoy tried to escape protesters.

The French army has opened an investigation.

Experts say the case appears to show anti-French sentiment has spread to the Sahel, although the reasons are complex.

french mission

France, the former colonial power in the Sahel, has around 5,100 troops deployed in the region, helping to support countries with weak governments and ill-equipped armed forces.

The French army first intervened in 2013 to repel a jihadist insurgency in northern Mali.

But the rebels regrouped and two years later they spread to Burkina Faso and Niger, two of the poorest countries in the world.

Areas of influence of armed groups in the Sahel AFP / File

Massacres of villages, roadside bombs and ambushes have left thousands dead and more than a million people have fled their homes.

The insurgency shows no sign of abating. On Sunday, four Burkinabè soldiers were killed in the north of the country, bringing to at least 80 the toll of two weeks of raids by suspected jihadists.

A French diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said many local people did not understand how the jihadists could achieve such gains when French troops are present.

The situation contributed to conspiracy theories alleging French support for the jihadists, according to Bamako-based researcher Boubacar Haidara.

Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga accuses French forces of training
Malian Prime Minister Choguel Maiga accuses French forces of training “terrorists” KENA BETANCUR AFP / File

Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga recently accused France of forming a “terrorist group” in the north of the country, in an interview with Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

The fact that such rhetoric “comes from such a high authority as the prime minister gives it credibility,” Haidara said.

Rumors that proliferated on social media – which were also reported by several protesters in Kaya – claimed that the supply convoy was in fact carrying weapons for the jihadists.

“Pool of hostility”

Yvan Guichaoua, Sahel specialist at the University of Kent in England, told AFP that France is swimming in a “pool of hostility”.

The extent of the sentiment is difficult to measure, he noted, adding that it “nevertheless imposes itself in the Sahelian political space”, as governments are forced to react.

Not all criticize France: Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum thanked the country on Friday for its military involvement.

A French government official, who requested anonymity, nevertheless told AFP that the situation is “worrying”.

French President Emmanuel Macron has decided to downsize in the Sahel
French President Emmanuel Macron has decided to downsize in the Sahel Ludovic MARIN AFP / File

“People are turning against those on the front lines,” the official said.

To complicate the picture, the decision of French President Emmanuel Macron to reduce France’s deployment in the Sahel.

He made the decision in June, after a military takeover in Mali in August 2020 that overthrew President-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

But the announcement prompted the ruling military in Mali to consider hiring paramilitaries from Russian private security firm Wagner to bridge the gap, further heightening tensions with France.

Macron promised that French troops would not operate in a country where Wagner’s paramilitaries are also active.

russian influence

However, there are fears that a full French withdrawal would precipitate a collapse in Mali, with implications for the wider Sahel conflict – an unfortunate prospect just over four months away from a French presidential election.

Anti-French sentiment has long reigned on social media in Mali. There are also periodic protests against the French army in the country, where protesters fly Russian flags.

France recently attempted to respond to what it calls a Russian disinformation campaign by erecting billboards in the capital Bamako bearing the slogan “we are together” and issuing statements in the country’s dominant language, the bambara.

Protesters in Bamako, the Malian capital, often wave Russian flags during protests against French influence
Protesters in Bamako, the Malian capital, often wave Russian flags during protests against French influence Michele Cattani AFP / File

A loyalty contest is underway. “The Russians are redistributing the game,” said a senior French army officer, who wished to remain anonymous.

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