In recent months, fervent anti-French sentiment has been on the rise in Burkina Faso and Mali. In February 2023, the Burkinabe army announced the end of the French Sabre Force in the West African country. This came three weeks after the transitional government withdrew from the 2018 defense agreements with France that had previously allowed 400 French troops to be stationed in a cantonment outside of the capital, Ouagadougou.
Prior to these developments, Burkina Faso experienced its second military coup in eight months in September 2022. Since then, there have been periodic anti-French protests in the streets, during which France’s embassy was attacked with stones and even set on fire by demonstrators.
Signs of tangible anger against everything French in the country included, but were not limited to, the suspension of the broadcasting of Radio France International, calls for the expulsion of the French ambassador, and acts of vandalism against two French institutes in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, both of which were ransacked by protesters.
Images of young villagers blockading a French military convoy in Burkina Faso went viral on social media in late 2021, vividly illustrating the intense and growing animosity toward France in the Sahel. France bears the brunt of criticism by the Sahelian public, fed by the postcolonial insurgent mindset that considers the French military engagement in the Sahel and more generally in French-speaking Africa as a ploy to plunder the region. Abdoulaye Maïga, then Mali’s interim prime minister, provided a revealing example of this widespread disenchantment in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly in September 2022, when he accused France of “neo-colonial, condescending, and revanchist practices.”
Turning their backs on their former allies, the Burkinabe military elite are seemingly opting for a change of partners, paving the way for a new relationship with Russia. The same protests over the last few months that saw the burning of French flags also saw the waving of Russian ones. Hailing the rapprochement with Moscow after a meeting with the Russian ambassador to Ouagadougou in January 2023, the prime minister of Burkina Faso, Apollinaire Kyélem de Tembela, stressed that, “Russia is a choice of reason for us … we believe that our partnership must be strengthened.”
These drastic and unprecedented geopolitical shifts further intensify the competition between foreign powers and are not conducive to ensuring long-sought-after security in the volatile Sahel region. If we consider Russian President Vladimir Putin’s record in Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic (CAR), there appears to be little hope that Russia will present a viable alternative to the failure of the West to help address the Sahel’s security crisis. In the face of Russian pressure, the Élysée is seemingly unable to find a way out of the current dire straits.
France’s deep-seated failure in the Sahel
The withdrawal of French forces from Burkina Faso seemed to follow the same sequence of events as in Mali, where anti-French sentiment was fueled by protests against what Malians considered French meddling in their domestic affairs. After the French minister of European and foreign affairs called into question “both the legality and the legitimacy” of its rule, the junta in Bamako condemned the remarks as “hostile and despicable.”
The widespread outrage over the protracted violence in the central Sahel, and the failure of Western powers to help address it, has opened the door for the military to oust elected civil governments. Both in Mali and Burkina Faso, the putschists are all young colonels who have styled themselves as heralds of a new era in the Sahel and harbor the idea that military governments can handle insecurity more effectively. As they see it, the fight against jihadist groups and organized crime is their legitimate raison d’être.
Since the ousting of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta by junta-leader Assimi Goita in 2020, events have only further underscored the failure of French policy in the Sahel, especially after the withdrawal of its Operation Barkhane force from Mali, announced in February 2022.
Despite the fact that in 2021 Operation Barkhane accounted for 5,100 out of the 7,000 French soldiers deployed globally and that the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has the largest annual budget of any U.N. mission ($1.26 billion in 2022), the Sahel is still one of the deadliest theaters in the fight against terrorism. Between 2017 and 2020, attacks on civilians increased fivefold. Nearly 2.9 million people were forced to flee their homes due to violence in the central Sahel in 2022, with an emerging trend of Burkinabe seeking asylum southward and northward, including in North Africa and Europe. In addition, 29 million people in this region are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, 5 million of whom are children.
The repercussions of the security crisis in the Sahel, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, have given rise to widespread criticism of France’s projected image as "the savior country" in the fight against terrorism and its forces as a ready-made solution to the Sahel’s predicament.
The overlapping mandates and sometimes incompatible operational goals of the French forces, the G5 Sahel regional security grouping, and MINUSMA, coupled with the inability of central governments to address the flare-ups of violence in ungoverned areas of their countries, have all contributed to the failure to improve the security situation, dashing the hopes of Sahelians. This provided an opportunity for the young military officers currently at the helm in Bamako and Ouagadougou to make a break with France and other parties involved in the failed efforts.
France's military and diplomatic engagement in the Sahel over the past nearly 10 years has been significant, and these countries will play an important role in shaping the future of France's strategic relationship with Africa. The growing Francophobia in the Sahel does not bode well for the Élysée, and sentiments have changed dramatically since the widespread jubilation that followed the perceived victory over the jihadists at the end of Operation Serval in January 2013. Finding itself in the crosshairs, France is no longer received with open arms and the relationship is now marked by distrust and defiance.
What pushes the Sahelians to overtly reject a French presence near their homes in Mopti or Djenné, for instance, is the absence of any positive impact on their daily lives from the almost-decade-long deployment of Barkhane forces. The high-level agreements with central governments that brought French forces into the Sahel ignored the aspirations of local populations for real solutions to their unresolved grievances.
Propaganda or reality?
The ruling juntas are using the anti-French sentiment as a stalking horse to momentarily deflect public attention away from the region’s acute governance and development crises and the failure of rival factions within their armies to tackle security issues. The Sahel has suffered from a lack of long-term state-building efforts and profound political reforms, while French lip-service diplomacy and support for corrupt regimes have only exacerbated the region’s development crisis.
Trying to hide their strategic failures in the Sahel, the French prefer to blame the growing antipathy among Sahelians on what they claim is manipulation by Moscow through disinformation campaigns. In reality, the animosity toward everything French in the Sahel is the result of a long-term French paternalistic policy stemming from persistent neo-colonialism. One example of this was when French President Emmanuel Macron “summoned” his Sahelian counterparts to a summit in Pau in 2019 to demand an explanation for the death of French soldiers in an accident in Mali, amid protests over the French military presence. The Pau Summit was seen as an arrogant reaction by Paris, which was perceived as demanding that Sahelian presidents pledge allegiance to France, even if it meant putting them in a tight corner in front of their own citizens. The French ruling elite fail to understand the historical sensitivities that exist in the former colonies, where the new generations are still haunted by colonial memories.
Russia gaining ground
On Feb. 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Bamako, where he reiterated promises to support the Sahel nations and the Gulf of Guinea against the threat of jihadists, and hinted at increased involvement on the continent. During a joint press conference with Mali's foreign minister, Abdoulaye Diop, Lavrov said, “Last year and at the start of this year ... a large consignment of Russian aviation technology was sent, thanks to which Mali's army was recently able to conduct successful operations against terrorists.” In an attempt to anchor Moscow’s presence on the Sahel’s Atlantic coast, Lavrov extended his visit to the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, noting pragmatically that Russia respects Mauritania’s stance on the war in Ukraine.
As this competition between outside powers gains momentum, especially in West Africa, Russia is on a relentless quest for influence. The rivalry between Russia and the Western powers, increasingly reminiscent of the Cold War, permeates every part of the African continent, and the Sahel is only the latest geopolitical arena for their competing interests and influence.
Reminiscent of the French, Russia’s determination to extract natural resources leaves little room for optimism about this newcomer. Moscow’s reliance on the Wagner Group private military company (PMC) — in Mali and elsewhere on the continent — also raises serious concerns about its potential role in conflict zones. Wagner has been repeatedly involved in cases of political violence in Mali and CAR, an estimated half to two-thirds of which involve indiscriminate violence against civilians. U.N. experts have called for an independent investigation into the gross human rights abuses committed in Mali by both government forces and Wagner PMC since 2021.
The Sahel continues to be a land of competition, and the insecurity the region faces is only a pretext for competing powers to extend their influence. From arms sales to aid diplomacy, all avenues are being pursued. While the Élysée lacks a clear vision on how to refashion its presence in the Sahel, Moscow is powering ahead with an approach to Africa marked by geopolitical rivalry, not partnership.
Mohammed Ahmed Gain is a professor of Postcolonial Studies at the University of Ibn Tofail (Kenitra-Morocco), president of the African Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation (AIPECT), and a non-resident scholar with MEI’s North Africa and the Sahel Program.
Photo by OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images
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