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France to transform its military operation in the Sahel

By Paul Ejime

French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Thursday that his country’s military operation in the restive Sahel region of West Africa will be replaced by another mission which will rely on other partners.

France has a contingent of 5,100-Barkhane forces with headquarters in N’djamena, Chad, deployed to support the G5 Sahel nations in the fight against terrorism and Islamist Jihadist insurgencies.

About 4,500 of the troops are deployed to Mali, which also hosts the 15,000-strong UN Missission in Mali, MINUSMA.

In a follow-up to the recent suspension of French and U.S. military cooperation and support to Mali, because of the “coup within a coup” in the last nine months in the country, Macron said “the continuation of our commitment in the Sahel will not be in the same way,” hinting on a “profound transformation” of French military presence in the region.

This is a modification of his earlier stand to pull French troops out of the region, after he accused the Mali military of moving toward “Radical Islamism.”

There is muted concern in Paris over the direction of the new leadership in Mali. The country signed a military cooperation accord with Russia in 2019 and at a pro-military rally in Bamako last weekend, some protesters called for direct Russian intervention in Mali.

France has an estimated 10,000 troops in 23 Francophone African countries with which it has defence/military pacts. But the military presence is causing anti-French sentiments in some of these countries including, Chad, Mali and Central African Republic, from which France has also suspended military aid due to the tussle with Russia over influence on the gold and diamond-rich African country.

Macron said details of the new French military involvement in the Sahel, which could have implications for security in the volatile region, would be unveiled at the end of this month (June).

Meanwhile, Mali’s Interim President Assisi Goita and his newly appointed Prime Minister Choguel Maiga have reiterated their commitment to hand over power to elected civilians in 2022.

Both men made the pledge during consultations in Bamako with a joint delegation of the United Nations, African Union and regional bloc ECOWAS, led by former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the ECOWAS Chief mediator on the Mali crisis.

Having abandoned its demand that the transitional government must be civilian-led ECOWAS has recognized coup leader Goita as president and the new Prime Minister he appointed.

Goita assumed the presidency after sacking former President Bah Ndaw and his Prime Minister Moctar Ouane in the second coup under nine months in the country. The pair was arrested and released after several days in detention.

Goita was the vice-president of the transition government set up after he led the August 2020 military coup that toppled the government of elected former president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

ECOWAS and the AU have suspended Mali’s membership while France and the U.S. have also suspended military cooperation and support to Mali after the second coup.

An ECOWAS statement said the “Mission took note of the swearing-in of the President of the Transition and encouraged him to conduct the transition in accordance with the promises and commitments made in his inaugural speech.”

The Mali military appears to be running the Goita-led government at its own pace.

It remains to be seen if they will respect their 18-month transition including a referendum next October and general elections planned for 27th February 2022 before handover to elected civilians.

On Jonathan’s delegation included the ECOWAS Commission President Jean-Claude Kassi Brou, El Ghassim Wane, Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN in Mali and Head of MINUSMA, and Fulgence Zeneth, Acting Head of the AU Mission to the Sahel MISAHEL.

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