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Withdrawal Of French Troops In Mali: What Role For ECOWAS? – OpEd

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The decisions by the French government to reduce it military presence in Mali and subsequently close some military bases has received mixed reactions particularly among local residents. French president Macron announcing the decision said “France will begin to close three military bases in northern Mali before the end of 2021.” French army is estimated to have about 5,000 active troops in northern Mali and this will be reduced to between 2,500 to 3,000.

The decision was announced during a summit held with the Sahel Group of Five comprising Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. These five countries share the stretch of the Sahel region which has subsequently become a safe haven for terror cells in West Africa. At a press briefing at the end of the summit, the French president said “These closures will be implemented after 2021. It starts half a year and will be completed in early 2022.” 

France has been deploying troops in Mali since 2013 as part of its efforts to combat jihadist’s cells in northern Mali. The French “Operation Serval” (Operation Serval) was later renamed “Operation Barkhane” and gradually expanded to other countries in the turbulent Sahel region.

The Sahel region is one of the most ungoverned stretches of land in West Africa. It has gradually become a safe haven for terror groups operating freely in West Africa and the North Africa. To this the French President added “Our enemies have abandoned their territorial ambitions and instead spread their threats not only throughout the Sahel, but throughout West Africa.” 

However, this news has cause a great level of disappointment among local Malian residents. These resident see the presence of the French army to security in the area and their absence will subsequently led to increase insurgence making life totally difficult for them and their families. For example, the ancient city of Gao was taken over by the militant group in 2012, but the French army launched an offensive in the second year and regained Gao. These local residents are of the view that, the French troops should stay and help the incapable Malian troops. The question still remains: For how long will Africa continue to depend on former colonial masters for the provision of internal security? Africa has come of age and must be able to deal with its own security challenges both individually as regional organization and on the continental level. 

Some expertise in West African security matters are of the view that, it is high time the West African Standby Force under the Command of ECOWAS take an active role in the stabilization of Northern Mali with a total collaboration with the Malian army. Insecurity is Mali is a recipe for disaster to the entire West African sub-region. ECOWAS together with the African Union with technical support from the international partners must come up with a constructive strategy in the spirit of pan-Africanism,“African solution to African problem.”    

Continuous  Cooperation

In another press conference to allay fears of the local residents and the French speaking West African countries, French President Macron insisted that his decision to reduce French troops in Mali does not mean that France will abandon Africa in the fight against militants groups associated with the “Al Qaeda” and “Islamic State” terrorist organizations. 

Other West African security analysts are of the opinion that Operation Crescent Dune had played a critical role in Mali’s counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism field operations, and had contributed to providing intelligence and logistical support throughout the Sahel.

Expertise such as Daniel Eizenga, a researcher at the African Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said: “I expect that with the end of Operation Crescent Dunes, quite a few counter-terrorism efforts will continue to focus on Mali and Burkina Faso, that area on the border with Niger.He added that “the military cooperation between France and the armed forces of various countries in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and other regions has greatly enhanced the rapid response capabilities of the armed forces of various countries, reduced the threats and risks encountered by military personnel of various countries, and improved their operations. “Without joint operations, intelligence and logistics support, these armed forces will face more challenges when fighting against Islamist organizations operating in the region.”

It’s should be anticipate that insecurity in Northern Mali is a West African problem, and that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) should spearhead matters of security in West Africa, with technical support from security partners such as France, UN, USA and other global players. The time is right for West African Standby Force with support from the African Union and United Nations and other partners to rethink security development in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in an effort to offer holistic and strategy approach. West African leaders should not see events in Northern Mali as local challenge but as a regional challenge which is currently boiling waiting to overflow to other parts. A constructive approach couple with total collaboration is all that needed to secure Northern Mali and by extension West Africa. West Africa is currently boiling with radical ramification to the entire African continent and Europe in particular. However, total security in Northern Mali and West Africa as a whole should be seen as an African problem that needs African solution. The reduction of the former colonial master’s from Mali offers pragmatic opportunity for the newly instituted African Union Standby force to collaborate with ECOWAS standby force to lead the way to ensure the safety of life and property for the people of Mali. We need secure, safe and prosperous Africa.

*Francis Kwesi Kyirewiah is a citizen of Ghana and a Ph.D. student in International Relations at the Jilin University’s school of International Relations and Public Affair in China. His research interest includes China-Africa relations, African security and global governance. Contact: [email protected] 

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