Europe’s Africa Battle Lines: France’s Strongman Strategy in the Sahel

Written by | Friday, April 12th, 2019

The French response to internal threats in North African countries has been to reinforce authoritarian rule to keep the peace. But it could inflame militancy in the long run, especially in Chad and Libya. In February, French planes struck rebel convoys that were making for the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, in an intervention lasting several days. The convoys had entered Chad from bases in Libya and belonged to the Union des Forces de la Résistance (UFR), a group that has sought to overthrow Chad’s president, Idriss Déby Itno, ever since its formation in 2009. Their leader in the mission? None other than Déby’s nephew, Timame Erdimi.


This is not the first time France has come to the aid of Déby, let alone an autocratic Chadian leader; the intervention showed the lengths to which France is willing to go to protect its regional partners. Set in the wider context of instability in the Sahel and North Africa, however, the intervention shows how European countries continue to favour short-term solutions to security and migration in the region. France has had a military cooperation agreement with Chad since 1976, though this type of approach continues to put long-term stability at risk.


These latest airstrikes mark the first direct French military intervention in Chad since 2008. Eleven years earlier, a fragmentary but large coalition of rebel groups, which including Erdimi’s, had advanced on the capital, even bombarding the presidential palace. At the time, France had 1,500 troops in the country as part of its Operation Épervier, and it provided intelligence, logistics, and possibly even more direct action, as part of the Chadian effort to repel the rebels.


The internal and regional context is now very different. Chad’s importance to these regional operations has allowed it to make demands of France and the European Union, much as other regional countries – particularly Niger – have extracted enormous concessions from Europe due to their cooperation on reducing migration, as well as on counter-terrorism. This has led to speculation that Chad may have requested the airstrike not out of pure need, but instead to show the world the strength of its relationship with France – to prove that France would respond with force when Déby faces a threat.


While this may look like Françafrique redux in which France controls or exerts undue influence on its African partners, the situation is in many ways more complicated than this. France is now highly dependent on auxiliaries and partners – be they national leaders or armed groups that patrol the borders of Mali and Niger. Such partnerships can have dangerous consequences, as can be seen when these auxiliaries commit human rights abuses or pursue policies that may threaten broader French stabilisation goals.


All in all, each country in the region is facing a different kind of internal threat: worsening jihadist violence in Mali and Burkina Faso; a potential increase in militancy and trafficking in northern Niger; various rebellions in northern Chad; and now a return to violence in southern Libya. If the European – particularly French – response in each case is to merely reinforce authoritarian rule, it could inflame such militancy in the long run.


‚France’s Strongman Strategy in the Sahel‘ – Commentary by Tarek Megerisi and Andrew Lebovich – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

(The Commentary can be downloaded here)

Article Categories:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.