Au revoir, Sahel: Did 2023 crush France’s influence in Africa?

France’s hold on its African allies significantly shrunk in 2023. Here’s a timeline of how that unfolded.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits French troops in Africa''s Sahel region in Mali
French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) and Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (left) visit the troops of France's Barkhane operation in the Sahel region in Gao, northern Mali, 19 May 2017 [Christophe Petit Tesson/Reuters]

Last week, the French embassy in Niger sent a letter to its staff announcing it would be shutting its doors and ending diplomatic services in the West African country. Simultaneously, the last set of French troops in the country boarded flights out from Niamey.

The letter marked the final straw in France’s long tumble from grace in Africa as relations with its former colonies – collectively known as “Francafrique” – deteriorated to a new low this year.

The former colonial power, which sees itself as a military power in the region and has intervened militarily in the troubled Sahel, faces growing anti-French sentiments across the region.

Although Paris still maintains a military presence in Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Gabon, Djibouti, and Chad, many see 2023 as the year that marked a significant shrinking of France’s hold on its African allies.

Here’s a timeline of France’s 2023 in Africa.

February: French troops pull out of Burkina Faso

Following the departure of its 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane force from Mali in August 2022, French troops also pulled out of neighbouring Burkina Faso this February. Their quiet exit on February 18 came after the military-led government in Ouagadougou called for French troops stationed in the country to leave in January, proposing a withdrawal timeline of just four weeks.

Relations between Paris and Ouagadougou had soured since the coup that brought Captain Ibrahim Traore into power in 2022. Throughout the year, Ouagadougou announced several partnerships with Russia – which is stepping into the spaces France has vacated – including progress on a nuclear power plant in Burkina Faso. In November, a Russian military aircraft landed at the Thomas Sankara airport, signalling the arrival of private mercenaries from the Wagner Group.

The 400-man-strong special forces under Operation Sabre in Burkina Faso was first deployed in 2009 to help fight the violence that spilled over from neighbouring Mali and that has seen thousands of Burkinabes displaced by armed groups like al-Qaeda. Protesters in Ouagadougou had repeatedly claimed French troops were ineffective in fighting the rebels and called for their departure before the official ultimatum came.

March: Mali sanctions French media

In March, the Malian government suspended French media from operating in the country as relations between the two governments – already tense since August 8, 2020, when the military government of Colonel Assimi Goita overthrew the France-backed President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – deteriorated further.

State-run French media outlets RFI and France 24 were sanctioned for allegedly airing false reports regarding the humanitarian situation in the country. Weeks later, in April, the suspension was escalated to a definitive ban by Mali’s media regulatory body.

Journalist associations as well as international human rights organisations condemned the move. “These suspensions are the latest in a string of actions curtailing press freedom and the freedom of expression in Mali, and come at a time when more, not less, scrutiny is needed,” said a spokesperson for Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights at the time.

Malian troops, working with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, have been widely accused of arbitrary arrests and killings in their fight against unrest in the country’s north. Media professionals in Mali describe an increasingly authoritative atmosphere in the country that has hindered their ability to report without bias.

In February, French journalist Benjamin Roger was arrested on arrival in Bamako and expelled within 24 hours after authorities said he did not have proper accreditation.

July: Niger coup puts Paris and Niamey on standoff

On July 26, a coup d’etat forced out Niger’s President Mohammed Bazoum, with General Abdourahamane Tchiani, chief of the presidential guard, installed in his stead.

It was bad news for Paris which had increasingly focused on Niamey as a Sahelian anchor since its influence in Bamako and Ouagadougou dipped. Not only had some of the French troops exiting Mali in 2022 been resettled in Niger, but France also had one of its biggest bases on the continent in the West African country. On July 29, Paris officially suspended relations with Niamey.

When the regional ECOWAS bloc announced that it would militarily intervene to install Bazoum, Paris stated boldly that it would support such a move, despite warnings of a regional war from critics. That intervention did not happen in the end, but French authorities have continued their standoff with the military government in Niamey, refusing to acknowledge its legitimacy, just like it had done in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Meanwhile, the United States and Germany, which also have military assets in Niger and which also initially condemned the coup, have signalled their willingness to work with the military government. ECOWAS too, has softened its stance, calling for a quick transition to civilian rule, rather than an immediate restatement of the deposed Bazoum.

September: France suspends student visas

On September 18, France announced it would no longer issue new visas to students coming from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso and cited the degrading security relations with the West African, military-led governments.

Although students already in France or with active visas were not affected, the announcement was a blow for those hoping to start their studies abroad or renew their visas. Some say they were meant to benefit from French development aid in the course of their studies but those funds have also been cut off to the three rebelling countries. Many prospective students who have already started application processes say they are now in limbo.

Thousands of students from Francophone African countries study in France each year. More than 6,000 come from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso alone. In 2022, France issued student and trainee visas to 436 Nigeriens to study in the country.

Visas for artists were suspended too, amid claims that France is boycotting African creatives as well.

December: G5 Sahel wobbles

On December 2, Niger and Burkina Faso announced their withdrawal from the joint force of G5 Sahel, a multinational military alliance founded to combat armed groups in the unstable Sahel region.

Created in 2014, the movement was originally a five-nation bloc, with a counterinsurgency force backed by France added in 2017. But amid tense relations between France and the military-led trio of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, the alliance has wobbled, and critics say it has not been effective in restoring lasting peace in the region.

“The organization is failing to achieve its objectives,” Niger and Burkina Faso said in a statement. “Worse, the legitimate ambitions of our countries, of making the G5 Sahel a zone of security and development, are hindered by institutional red tape from a previous era, which convinces us that our process of independence and dignity is not compatible with G5 participation in its current form,” they said.

In May last year, Mali became the first country to leave the group.

With Chad and Mauritania being the only countries left, it is now uncertain if the G5 can continue to exist. In a joint statement on December 6, the two countries said they “take note and respect the sovereign decision” of their withdrawing counterparts.

Meanwhile, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali signed a mutual defence pact to create the Association of Sahel States, to assist one another against external threats.

December: Niamey embassy closes, French troops pull out of Niger

France withdrew 1,500 soldiers stationed in Niger five months after the military seized power in Niamey, with one of its major demands being the withdrawal of the French force.

On December 22, the Nigerien army took control of French military bases in the country, as the last of France’s forces took their leave. The move sealed previous withdrawals from Mali in 2022 as well as from Burkina Faso early this year and dealt further blows to France’s marred military reputation.

That same week, the French embassy in Niamey shut down, claiming that it could no longer continue its services unhindered after a blockade. In August, France at first refused to pull out its ambassador despite a 48-hour ultimatum from the government. The military rulers then proceeded to block the entrance to the embassy. Ambassador Sylvain Itte eventually left in September.

On December 25, Nigerien authorities also announced they were suspending all cooperation with the Paris-based International Organisation of Francophone Nations, which seeks to promote the French language. The organisation had already restricted relations with Niamey following the July coup.

The 88-member body, the military government said, was being “used by France as an instrument to defend French interests”.

Source: Al Jazeera