Sahel: against foreign troupes ?

In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, civil society organizations (CSOs), opposition parties, as well as workers and students’ unions are increasingly protesting against foreign forces presence in their countries. These attitudes stem from several motivations: respect of the Independence spirit that had led the new States, such as Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) and Mali, to demand the departure of the French army from their territory and also the relative weak results of said foreign armies in their support to the fight against terrorism.

On top of that comes the diffuse feeling that these armies would have hidden agendas like the unconnected plunder of the resources of the countries that solicited or accepted their presence. But the list of grievances could get longer. Officially, this challenge is embarrassing the governments of the countries concerned, which however encourage it, at each military debacle against the terrorists.

Rejection of foreign bases.

In the aftermath of the proclamation of their respective independence, Burkina Faso and Mali had, in the name of their new sovereignty, obtained the departure of the French army from their soil. Demonstrating its bad mood, the departing army had destroyed equipment here, sabotaged installations there. The same policy of scorched land as in Guinea-Conakry, when the people had dared to vote No to the « Franco-African Community » proposed by General de Gaulle.

Seeing the return of French soldiers and the settling of US, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and other soldiers at home, remains bitter pills, stuck across the political throats of fringes of public opinions in these countries. The pretext for this takeover and the offensive – the fight against the pervasive terrorism – contains the seeds of its denial, namely the heavy losses in human – military and civilian – lives in that merciless fight for the eradication of the plague.

In the face of repeated military debacles and also eager to reject on « foreign powers » their own responsibilities, these countries governments, from time to time give hint to public opinions.

In Burkina Faso,  » the Citizen Broom / le Ballet Citoyen  », one of the CSO’s spearheads of the October 2014 uprising that led to the downfall of Blaise Compaore’s regime, embodies this ‘’sovereigntist’’ or nationalist current, when addressing this issue on rejection: « Our fathers with the legal independence fought so that there are no foreign military bases in our country. There is no justification today for the blatant complicity of the current rulers with the French military invasion on the grounds of the fight against terrorism, the results of which are by no means and in any way visible. To this end, we call on the authorities to review the form and content of military cooperation in the fight against terrorism. No country can entrust its defense to another without being its vassal.  »

In Mali, demonstrators also believe that the interests of foreign forces (Barkhane, G5 Sahel and MINUSMA) are foreign to those of the Malian people; that they will leave, once their own agendas completed. Worse, they accuse France of having infiltrated all the forces stationed in Mali, by holding strategic positions within each of them.

These protest movements even go so far as to accuse the former colonial power of being the source of the problem and not part of the solution. Therefore, they demand the departure of France forces, brandishing, in particular, the threat to attack French interests in Mali.

For some authorities, the Sahel security situation is so deteriorated that these foreign forces are, rather friends, coming to the rescue of populations in distress. Their presence is therefore legitimized. They claim their conviction about the approval of this approach by the majority of the population, more anxious to get out of the deadly cycle of attacks than supporting « anti-imperialist rhetoric ». In other words, French, Americans, Germans, Italians, Russians and Chinese are there because, asked by governments aware of their weaknesses in security and defense matters.

The additional idea that they are in the Sahel to reorganize the local armies is equally brandished. These foreign forces would thus serve to reinforce the all-out capabilities of the armies of countries under terrorists’attacks.

Hidden Agendas?

The ‘’hidden Agendas’’ are a consequence of the quasi-clandestine way in which these military bases have been established. The clauses of settlement are discussed « at the Summit level », between the head of the concerned Sahel State and the authorities of the country of origin of the foreign force. In some countries, national representatives admit to having heard about it « by the media ». This means that even the Parliaments National Defense and Security Commissions do not know much than the public. Everything is opaque because of ‘’Secret Defense ».

That opacity goes, sometimes, to denial. Governments admit, at most, to have « granted facilities » to such or such foreign power. This way of proceeding can also mean that the host countries armies’ General Staffs often have not had a say on these « Agreements ». A certain frustration could follow. Obviously for good reason. Indeed, there is no guarantee that, in the event of an internal political crisis, the said foreign forces would not support the « regime in place », which has granted them the privilege of having a base on its territory. The agreements may be viewed as evidence of leadership mistrust of their own Defense and Security Forces (FDS).

In Niger, a CSO official expresses that concern: « The presence of foreign bases in general and American in particular, is a serious surrender of our sovereignty and a serious attack on the morale of the Nigerien army. » Relationships between foreigner troupes and their Sahelian counterparts end up being more complicated.

These military bases significant deficit in their communication with the surrounding population nourishes the accusations of the clandestine exploitation of the natural resources. Their geographical location would be based more on the riches of the subsoil than on the proximity of the terrorist front lines. In Niger, this accusation is launched by Tillabéry based NGO « Cadre de concertation et actions citoyennes », which calls » for (…) the immediate departure of foreign bases, which are only the looters of our resources. « 

Overall, the outcome of foreign forces deployments has also undermined the effectiveness of the military cooperation. The expected results were such that that presence meant, for the authorities as well as for the populations, the rapid eradication of the terrorists‘plague. This impatience and nervousness are so perceptible that the French Minister of Armies, then visiting Burkina Faso, had thought fit to answer, dryly: ‘’Barkhane is not the solution to all the problems of Burkina Faso. » In other words, her country could not take care of all the security concerns of its guests of the moment! She also stated that « (…) France would never intervene if the Burkinabe authorities did not request it to do so.’’

Sahelians who are expecting immediate military results against terrorism will still undergo an urticarial crisis against France. This week, on the road to the Sahel, France Armed Forces Minister spoke at the headquarters of the Barkhane force in N’Djamena, Chad, in a tone that calls for patience rather than an imminent victory on jihadists: « This trip is held in an extremely difficult security context, » she said, bearing in mind the impressive number of recent Burkinabe and Malian military victims, in addition to the French soldier who fell on Saturday, November 2 in Mali. On Monday, November 04, 2019, the minister preached « patience » in the war against jihadists in the Sahel countries. « It will take time to defeat these groups that thrive on the social and economic difficulties of the Sahelian countries’’. It’s a fight in which you have to be patient. »

These are painful and strong messages that she will reiterate, in the coming days, to the presidents of Faso and Mali. Will her appeal be heard in the countries where demonstrators call for the evacuation of foreign forces from the Sahel? A big challenge!

Communicate more.

Part of the solution seems communication or a form of transparency.

For example, in Niger, officials at the US base in Agadez periodically open large the doors of their infrastructure to local elected officials, journalists and parliamentarians. This disposition of mind helped to reducing, a notch, and the mistrust that the installation of that base had produced at the beginning. Also in that country, the German ambassador thought it wise to explain, in person and officially, the roles that the German base plays on Nigerien soil.

Despite these precautions, students, CSO members and opposition party activists continue to demand the evacuation of foreign bases. That is to say that, where it is total silence, mistrust and hostility will mark more the vision that people have of these bases. Concerned countries’ FDS and the foreign bases could open their governance to the citizen and parliamentary curiosity, instead of constantly taking refuge behind the « Secret Defense » ..

The other part of the solution would be that the presence of these bases is, at least, discussed by the parliaments of the countries, « hosts » whatever volunteers or not …



Consultant for Centre4S



[1] I Question France’s Motives, Says Burkina Faso’s Defence Minister, dans journal sud-africain, The Mail and Guardian du 04 juin 2019. Sortie “anti-française » du nouveau ministre burkinabè de la Défense nationale.

[1] Site du mercredi 16 octobre 2019.

[1] Niger Diaspora 26 février 2018.

[1] L’Actualité, (journal nigérien), numéro 472 du 11 septembre 2018.

[1] Site de RFI, 09 octobre 2018.

[1] France – Florence Parly : « Nous sommes prêts à intervenir si le Burkina Faso nous le demande », site de Jeune Afrique, 01 novembre 2018.

[1] Site du journal français, Ouest-France, du 04 novembre 2019, « Devant les militaires de la force Barkhane au Tchad, Florence Parly rend hommage au soldat tué au Mali »