The Elysee Palace has announced an end to France’s anti-militant operation in Africa’s Sahel region, but has left in its wake incidents of rights abuses committed by the French military yet to be prosecuted.
French President Emmanuel Macron has announced what security analysts are calling a strategic shift for its military forces deployed in the Sahel region of Africa.
Macron officially ended the Barkhane operation as he travelled to a naval base at Toulon to make the announcement, which came in the backdrop of French forces pulling out from Mali earlier this year.
The French deployment, launched in 2013 on the pretext of fighting militant groups that took over much of northern Mali, has been criticised by the United Nations and other rights advocacy groups for committing grave violations.
A study carried out and published by a unit of the United Kingdom-based Stoke White Lawyers a little over a year ago, called France’s Shadow War in Mali, presented credible human rights intelligence on the country’s drone airstrikes at the Bounti wedding in Mali that killed 19 civilians on January 3, 2021.
The drone-instigated airstrike was a part of ‘Operation Barkhane’. As a part of the operation, at least 5,100 French military personnel were deployed to five countries, labelled as “G5 Sahel”: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
While France claimed its airstrike targetted a “terrorist camp”, locals who were eye-witnesses to the tragic incident, told investigators at Stoke White that it was in fact a wedding.
Mistaking venues of social gatherings for terrorist bases have been sort of a trend among the United States and its Western allies in their operations in either “G5 Sahel” or Afghanistan, where scores of civilians have been massacred, with little to no accountability for the forces or personnel responsible for carrying out those strikes.
In its report, Stoke White investigators were categorical in stating “France has a systematic problem in admitting and identifying civilian casualties”.
“France is no stranger to kinetic airstrikes – manned or unmanned – but scrutiny of its interpretation of the laws of war, conduct and intelligence sharing on target meta-data with Europe and US (vice versa) must be on the radar for human rights practitioners. A broader framework of abuse is being applied across the Sahel, widening the net for accountability,” it said.
Around 3,000 French soldiers remain in Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, and while those numbers are not expected to change soon, there will be “a significant adjustment for our bases in Africa”, an official in Macron’s office told AFP.
The goal is “to reduce the exposure and visibility of our military forces in Africa and to focus on cooperation and support... mainly in terms of equipment, training, intelligence and operational partnerships for countries that want it,” the official said.
But their mobilisation, officially justified by the fight against terrorism, has been contested in several countries including Mali and Burkina Faso, where residents have repeatedly demonstrated against the French presence.
The situation worsened in late 2020 when a Malian civilian was shot dead and two others wounded by the French soldiers.
The French army said it fired warning shots but some bullets bounced and hit the windscreen of a civilian bus the victims were occupying. However, the Malian bus driver said he did not hear any warning shot, according to France Info – a French radio network.
This has not been the first time French military personnel were found to be involved and responsible for civilian deaths.
There have been reported incidents from other African countries, especially in the Central African Republic. In 2017, a 10-year-old child was shot dead by French soldiers, according to the Revolution Permanente website, which the military said happened due to an error of judgement.
Furthermore, back in 2014, French soldiers in the Central African Republic were accused of child rape while carrying out overseas operations. But because of lack of evidence and challenges associated with the location of abuses, courts dismissed the case in 2018, leaving questions by civil parties unanswered.
Quagmire for the French
While Sahel governments have welcomed the training and firepower, in recent years French forces have faced growing hostility from some locals who see them as the ineffective occupying force of a former colonial power.
After Mali’s army seized power in a 2020 coup, its military leadership ordered France to withdraw.
On the other hand, French officials have been denouncing fake news campaigns, in particular via social media, and noted the growing push by Russia to expand its influence in West Africa, including via the private Russian paramilitary group Wagner.
France’s Irsem strategic research institute, part of its military academy, recently noted a “proliferation of online disinformation, mainly aimed at denigrating the French presence while justifying Russia’s”.
As a result, experts believe Macron is unlikely to give a new name to the restructured French deployment, in line with its more discreet presence.
“In terms of perception, Barkhane continues to have a very large presence on social media. We have to end this so we can shift to a different mindset,” the French official told AFP.