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France in the Sahel region of Africa

Background Guide - France in the Sahel


“In a way, underdevelopment is a paradox. Many parts of the world that are naturally rich are actually poor and parts that are not so well off in wealth of soil and subsoil are enjoying the highest standards of living” - Walter Rodney

The Sahel Region of Africa is a neglected region of the world, possibly for two reasons, one being the more general problem of ignoring Africa and another problem being the language barrier. With the region being colonised by France, the language barrier in English-speaking countries tends to lead to the area being forgotten.

As mentioned the Sahel region was colonised by France, so before we get into the specifics of the region, a little background on French colonialism would be useful. At the height of the French empire, it encompassed around 10% of the world’s land spreading across the world from the Caribbean to Asia, it was especially prominent in West Africa, with the empire consisting of around 17 modern-day nations. During the period of decolonisation, around the 1960s, a lot of these nations gained independence, but this was not unconditional.

France made these newly independent nations sign “cooperative agreements”, with these agreements, they still had control over natural resources, they were able to maintain troops in these countries and these countries had their arm twisted into linking their currency to France’s (Franc of the Financial Community of Africa, it was linked to the Franc back then, but now it’s linked to the Euro after France joined the Eurozone.) in exchange for this these countries were given “foreign aid”. One would think that these agreements were voluntary, but if we take a look at Guinea, under the government of Sékou Touré, refused to sign, and thus the French decided to cut off all foreign aid and attempted to destabilise the government, one of the better-known methods they used came under Operation Persil, under which they printed fake Guinean banknotes to try to inflate the economy, similar to the Nazi’s Operation Bernhard. They also tried to send weapons to rebel fighters to overthrow the government, although this was far less successful at that moment.

The Sahel region has been an area for numerous of France’s upwards of 50 invasions since the Algerian Civil War in the sixties. While the military involvement has done serious damage, the lack of monetary sovereignty has led to even more problems. For example, when the euro appreciated to the dollar, the exports from these countries become less price-competitive, thus take Senegal for example, in 2009, when the euro appreciated, this made the value of the CFA Franc go up, thus making local rice more expensive in comparison to imported rice, thus wreaking havoc on the domestic industry. The linkage between these currencies makes it difficult for these countries to export, which is essential for an underdeveloped country to develop. This is a common problem across these countries, as the poorest countries have a currency that is practically controlled by some of the richest countries in the world.

The elites of some of these countries along with the governments have benefited from rampant corruption, while the French extract the natural resources from the land. One French billionaire, Vincent Bolloré, owns most of the ports in West Africa, he has come to be called the “King of Africa”. As the political scientist Michael Parenti said “These countries are not underdeveloped, they’re overexploited”.

The Conflict

(Given that the conference lasts two days, a very limited period of time, it would make sense to focus mostly on one region, which I think should be the troops in Mali, or rather now Niger.)

The Sahel, what is it?

The Sahel region consists of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Guinea, Chad, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. Presently, the hotspot of action tends to be in Mali and Niger. Let’s take a deeper look at the history of Mali.

There is also an organisation known as the G5 Sahel, which consists of Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. As of the 15th of May, the military junta of Mali announced it would be leaving the G5 Sahel.

The Continent of Coups

Mali, was initially colonised in 1892 and was known as French Sudan. In the 1960s, during a period in which a number of nations gained independence, emerged the Republic of Mali. As discussed earlier, although formally decolonised, it still very much existed as a French colony in a ‘neo-colonial’ sense.

After Mali gained independence, the first leader was Mobido Keita (1960-1968). The Malian people had inherited a deeply impoverished nation with a complete lack of economic diversity. More than half the GDP of the country was dependent upon cotton, there was a lack of energy infrastructure and if it wasn’t bad enough, the economy heavily dependent on agriculture also had poor soil quality and limited water access. Keita appointed Jean-Marie Kone to the planning ministry. While there was initially some success, with self-sufficiency in cereal production, the government was overthrown in a coup d’etat and the policies were reversed. General Moussa Traore (1968-1991) was the new leader, and he was friendly towards the west. He looked towards the World Bank and in 1981, Mali became a guinea pig for their ‘structural adjustment programmes’. This led to further economic turmoil and in 1991, Traore was ousted and replaced with another military man, Amadou Toumani Toure (1991-1992).

By now, the people had lost trust in the military and leadership was handed over to the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, with Alpha Oumar Konare (1992-2002) becoming the President. A major problem for this and the following governments of Mali would be the debts racked up by the military leadership.

The Perils of Northern Mali

Before we go on any further, we should now take a look at one of the main sources of conflict in Mali.

In Mali, the most disturbed region would be the North, and this has been the case since independence. This comes from many places, but one of the most obvious ones is the underdevelopment of the north compared to the rest of the country. The north is also home to the Tuareg people.

The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists. Their livelihood has been challenged in the past by colonial rule and presently by the Malian state. The conflict between the Tuareg rebels and the state started early after independence was won. In 1962, there was a long struggle against the state and this came to an end when the state began a military campaign.

However, this peace was short lived as following this there were numerous droughts (1968, 1974, 1980 and 1985) which made the people’s nomadic way of life even more difficult, thus they moved into Malian cities and the now oil rich Libya (where they joined the military or took part in the informal economy).

Another rebellion popped up in 1990 and this time force was not used to bring ‘peace’. The two sides signed the Accords of Tamanrasset which ended up leading to a National Pact in 1992. Under these newly signed papers, there were some loose promises on a push towards decentralisation and more investment into the north of the country.

Democracy, Invasion and a new age Decolonisation

After the leadership of Alpha Oumar Konare, the former military general Amadou Toumani Toure (2002-2012) was elected as the new leader. Under his governance, the unrest in the north continued, and in 2006 two military bases were captured by the rebels. This forced the government into a swift peace with the Algiers Accord which again made promises towards northern development.

This was not the end of the problems for the state, after the Algerian Civil War (1991-2002) in which the secular National Liberation Front clashed with several Islamist factions. These factions ended up losing the conflict but from this emerged Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This was not the only new group to emerge, after the destruction of Libya by NATO forces in 2011, Wahabist movements spread across the Sahel, this amplified the problems already faced by Mali which was going through a drought which led to starvation of hundreds of thousands of people. There also emerged a more criminal aspect of the Tuareg rebels, they began kidnapping and drug trafficking to make money. With all these new players on the field, a quick summary probably would be useful, the Tuareg rebels are engaged in a struggle with the Malian state, but the Tuareg rebels are also fighting Wahabist movements that emerged after the fall of Libya.

In 2012, Toure was deposed in a coup d’etat and there was a brief interim government and in 2013 Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (2013-2020) was elected as the new leader. He too was ousted by the military and replaced by Assimi Goita who was briefly replaced by Bah Ndaw (Goita was Vice-President) and again power fell back into the hands of Goita after another coup.

No government has been able to effectively handle the turmoil in the north, mainly because the peace agreements that happened, the development promised was never acted upon.

Now where does France play a role in all this? As we saw earlier, France has been involved in 50 invasions of Africa since the 1960s. Two of the more recent and important ones are: Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane. Operation Serval (January 2013 - July 2014) was supposed to last merely weeks but it went on for a year and a half, and the outcomes according to the people of Mali, made the region more insecure, led to more corruption and worse poverty. Although the French were initially welcomed, they soon became a burden more than a blessing. Operation Barkhane (August 2014 - Current Day) was launched shortly after the end of Operation Serval and the people of Mali want the French out. On the 31st of January 2022, the French Ambassador was ordered to leave and on February 17th 2022, Mali demanded an immediate withdrawal of all French troops, although Macron promised to withdraw the troops in June 2021, it isn’t over yet and France is still withdrawing its troops.

It is extremely important to note that, although French troops are being withdrawn from Mali, they aren’t going back home, most of the troops are being moved to Niger to continue the operation. Although France claims, this is a counter-terrorist mission, it seems more likely it has stationed troops to prevent migrants from getting to the EU border

It has also been alleged by the Prime Minister of Mali Choguel Kokalla Maiga, that there is proof of France training terrorist groups such as Ansar Dine. France’s former ambassador to Mali Nicolas Normand, mentioned that France migh be using some terror groups to fight other terror groups, which is detrimental to the people of Mali.

Intoduction to Chairperson

Arjun Reddy is currently a second year student at the University of St. Andrews, studying history and geography. I have attended 10 MUNs and, have conducted extensive research on 20th century history. I have a variety of interests from photography and reading. I hope to see you at the conference!