French President Emmanuel Macron is due to host counterparts from five Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to discuss the fight against armed groups and the future of French military presence in the region.
Recent tensions between France and the regional governments could make for a tricky exchange at the six-way talks on Monday in the southwestern French city of Pau.
Macron’s meeting with Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Burkina Faso’s Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Niger’s Mahamadou Issoufou, Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Chad’s Idriss Deby was initially scheduled for mid-December but ut was postponed after 71 Niger troops were killed in an attack. Last week, another attack left 89 Nigerien soldiers dead.
France has 4,500 soldiers stationed in the region as part of Operation Barkhane, supporting poorly equipped local armies that in 2017 launched a joint G5 Sahel force fighting armed groups.
Macron insists the five countries must use the Pau meeting to express public support for France’s military presence – by far the largest foreign contribution to the fight against regional fighters aligned to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group.
Visiting the region last month, he complained of a lack of “clear political condemnation of anti-French feelings” on the ground.
“I see opposition movements, groups, who denounce the French presence as a neo-colonial, imperialist,” Macron said in Niger’s capital, Niamey, adding he was loath to send soldiers to countries where their presence was not “clearly wanted”.
Fighters have recently stepped up their campaign against military and civilian targets, and earlier this month, United Nations chief Antonio Guterres warned that “terrorist groups are gaining ground”.
Louis Magloire Keumayou, of the African Information Club, said “a military answer” was necessary in order to “eradicate” the armed groups in the region.
“But this would not be enough because we also need to bring social answers,” he told Al Jazeera from Paris.
On Friday, hundreds of people gathered in Mali’s capital, Bamako, to protest against the presence of foreign troops, carrying posters reading: “Down with France, Barkhane must leave” and “France is a brake on our development.”
Despite the French presence and a 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping force – dubbed MINUSMA – in Mali, the conflict that erupted in the north of the country in 2012 has since spread to its neighbours, especially Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of civilians have been killed and more than a million displaced, with hundreds of troops dead, including dozens from France.
On Monday, the leaders will lay a wreath and observe a minute of silence for seven soldiers from Pau who died in action in Mali – among 13 French troops killed in a helicopter crash while hunting armed fighters last November.
The presidents will then gather for the summit Macron has said must clarify the “political and strategic framework” of the Sahel military campaign.
After the talks, for which three hours have been set aside, the leaders will regroup for a working dinner where they will be joined by Guterres, European Council President Charles Michel and African Union Commission President Moussa Faki.
Mali’s Keita has said the summit will be “decisive” and “will allow us to put on the table all the questions, all the grievances, all the solutions”.
But he insisted the G5 leaders would demand a “respectable and respectful relationship” with France.
Kabore, of Burkina Faso, has described Macron’s recent insistence as “lacking in tact”.
Niger’s Issoufou said the summit would “launch an appeal for international solidarity so that the Sahel and France are not alone in this fight”.
On Friday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the summit would serve “to remobilise and adapt ourselves to the new reality” of the onslaught, which analysts say appears to have become bolder, more complex, and better armed.
Paris will also use the occasion to repeat its call to other Western nations for help to step up the fight.
NGOs on Friday urged that civilians caught in the crossfire not be forgotten at Monday’s talks.
“The military response in the Sahel is part of the problem,” said Maureen Magee of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“Last year, military operations in Mali have pushed more than 80,000 people to flee. Engagement in the Sahel must put the protection of the populations at the heart of the response.”