Macron's Greatest Test Awaits in the Sahel’s “Forever War”

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In pursuing its “forever war” in Africa, France has tolerated autocrats and warlords in exchange for commitment to its counterterrorism goals. But President Emmanuel Macron is beginning to discover that the former often undermines the latter.

At the start of the year, Macron entertained the fantasy of scaling back Operation Barkhane. The campaign, which began in 2013 in the band of African nations just south of the Sahara known collectively as the Sahel, had recently scored some important successes against terrorists affiliated to the Islamic State. Encouraged, other European nations offered to join the fight. This prompted Macron to openly muse about bringing home some of his 5,100 soldiers.

He was quickly disabused of the idea. In February, after a summit meeting with leaders of the Sahel states, Macron conceded that a withdrawal of French troops “would be a mistake.” To head off criticism at home — where polls showed a majority of people oppose the war, and where the president faces a tough reelection campaign — he added an important caveat: The soldiers would only remain if his Sahel counterparts pledged to “work on political reconciliation,” and addressed the grievances that fuel extremism among their people.

The president hoped such efforts, combined with greater Sahelian commitment to the war effort, would enable, if not a French drawdown, then at least a “significant evolution” in the situation by the summer. Macron was careful not to define the term.

Nearly three months on and even his lowered ambitions seem far from reach. Not only do terrorist groups remain at large in the unstable Sahel, but France’s local allies in the counterterrorism effort are also distracted by internal politics.

Macron’s plans are further complicated by growing anti-French sentiment in Sahelian states that were once ruled from Paris. The president has blamed Turkey and Russia, which are competing with France for influence in the region, for stoking anti-colonial anger, but the roots of the resentment lie in the behavior of his allies, who have ignored his blandishments from the February summit.     

All of these narratives converge in Chad, which hosted that summit. Its capital, N’Djamena, is home to the headquarters of Operation Barkhane, and Chadian soldiers provide the backbone of the Sahelian forces in the counterterrorism campaign. The killing of Chad’s President Idriss Deby in April by rebel forces threatens to unravel the best-laid French plans for the region.

Deby was an autocrat who enjoyed unquestioned backing from Paris for three decades. In exchange for his enthusiastic cooperation in the fight against terrorists elsewhere in the Sahel, French forces helped protect him from domestic rebels who are not affiliated to jihadist groups. He was killed in an encounter with a splinter group of rebels, the Front for Change and Concord in Chad, better known by its French acronym FACT. It is comprised mainly of army dissidents and based in Libya, where it has fought alongside Khalifa Haftar, a rebel who France supported as he tried (and failed) to topple the government in Tripoli.  

Macron personally attended Deby’s funeral, where he declared that France would “not let anybody put into question or threaten, today or tomorrow, Chad’s stability and integrity.” He also extolled democratic ideals like inclusion and dialogue, while giving his backing to a military junta led by the slain autocrat’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Deby. The president and the generals blithely ignored the country’s constitution, which requires power to pass to the speaker of parliament.

To Macron’s embarrassment, protests quickly broke out across the country, with Chadians demanding immediate civilian rule; security forces opened fire on some demonstrations, and at least five people were killed. The French president was obliged to condemn the crackdown on protesters, and to enjoin the junta to ensure a “a peaceful and politically inclusive transition” to civilian rule.

Inexplicably, Macron has gone along with the junta’s contention that this process will take 18 months. This gives Mahamat Deby and the other generals plenty of time to ensure power remains in their hands. And they already have a template in Mali, the Sahelian country that endured a military takeover last year.

There, too, the coup leaders agreed to an 18-month transition. They even went through the motions of dissolving their junta — after ensuring that military men occupied key positions in the caretaker administration. While they have been preoccupied with politics in Bamako, the terrorists have kept up attacks against civilians elsewhere in Mali.

For France, the risk is that the junta in Chad will likewise be distracted from the counterterrorism campaign, and devote their energies and resources to suppressing dissent at home and fighting off FACT and other rebels.

Macron now faces two challenges in N’Djamena: to ensure that Mahamat Deby and his fellow generals don’t perpetuate their rule over Chad, and to keep them focused on the French goals of Operation Barkhane. Perhaps his greatest test will be avoiding the familiar temptation of allowing the expedience of the one for the exigency of the other.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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