By James Tasamba
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - The French are increasing their presence in West Africa against what has become Africa’s most serious extremist threat.
France has maintained a 4,500-strong military force throughout West and Central Africa, but the results are yet to be seen, with militants launching repeated attacks against local troops in Mali and Niger that have extended into Burkina Faso.
So when French President Emmanuel Macron announced this month at a meeting with five West African leaders in the French city of Pau that an additional 220 soldiers would be sent to reinforce its military presence there, reactions were mixed.
But this time around, the West African leaders and France agreed on a new approach: to unite their forces in a “Coalition for the Sahel” to fight extremist insurgents in the Sahel region.
The leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and Mauritania had met with Macron to discuss security issues at the Pau summit.
In a joint declaration, they reaffirmed their “determination to fight together against the terrorist groups.”
Now the plan seems to be even more concrete as French Defense Minister Florence Parly announced in Mali’s capital Bamako on Monday that new military operations are set to be launched in the border zone between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, where France and its allies intend to refocus their efforts against extremists.
Freddie David Egesa, a security analyst based in Uganda’s capital Kampala, thinks a coalition force with a ‘superior commander’ is a right approach.
He argues that the terrorists are getting an upper hand on individual states, have developed linkages and can easily give both military and intelligence support to each other, so if each country is left to handle its war on its own, the terrorists will easily strategize on pulling together forces and topple state after state.
“So additional foreign forces and support means that the coalition is building an international force that can easily master the mobility of the enemy forces through sharing intelligence and putting a fighting force together in case of need,” Egesa told Anadolu Agency.
According to a joint statement released after the meeting, the West African leaders, under a five-nation taskforce known as the G5, and France said they would focus their efforts against Daesh/ISIS in the Greater Sahara and urged the U.S. to continue its logistical support for their forces.
“The added contribution of France and the U.S. will give the West African forces the greatly lacked confidence, deal with internal bickering, which is common with united forces in Africa, and give the combined force a polished command, leave alone the equipment and means,” said Egesa.
The African leaders also reiterated that they want a French military presence in their territories and called for more international support.
Macron had challenged the West African leaders to indicate their clear position on France's military presence following some anti-French protests such as those recently in Mali.
Egesa believes different nations and peoples may look at France’s presence differently because of many factors.
“There exists hypocrisy within the African power and political houses. Some powerful people within have a foot in terrorism ranks and use the unsuspecting population to undo this noble program,” he said.
But he advised the French to stay focused on their international mandate.
The UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) said recently the Sahel region was in the midst of a devastating surge in terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets.
Terrorist attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, with over 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 compared to roughly 770 in 2016, according to the UN.
In Burkina Faso, deaths surged from around 80 in 2016 to over 1,800 in 2019.
“The best approach to root out extremism is interstate -- a genuine united effort under a polished command which African states may not achieve on their own because of the lack of a well-focused approach,” added Egesa.
Meanwhile, on U.S. plans to cut its military presence in Africa, Egesa thinks Americans have come to understand that it is expensive to keep and maintain an American soldier in Africa let alone his life insurance and compensation to the family of those who die on foreign missions, besides the concern harbored by American families of their loved ones being deployed overseas. Yet a well-trained African soldier can do a better job at almost 10% of the cost.
“So what the U.S. has done is to search for soldiers in fairly stable countries for hire. If the U.S. maintains a presence, intelligence and command and reduces forces and puts resources in strategic areas but builds, encourages and supports Africans to handle their wars, this will reduce pressure at home for the Americans and affect terrorism,” he said.
“Since nobody knows the actual aims and objectives of terrorists, as they even attack mosques, terrorism should be looked at as an international killer epidemic.”