A contingent of some-2400 European troops are set to leave Mali and continue counter-insurgency operations from Niger, as the former colony’s President Mohamed Bazoum said on February 18th. The Sahel area has been constantly plagued for years by Islamist groups, with hundreds of victims and millions of displaced. In the past decade, France, at the helm of a European coalition, has shown a keen interest in collaborating with former colonies to contrast the threat, but the missions have encountered both logistical problems and local dissatisfaction with foreign presence, with Malian armed forces spokesperson Souleymane Dembele lamenting the inefficacy of European troops and Nigerine anti-foreign leader Maïkol Zodi considering them «as an occupying force».
Despite African feelings, it is clear that sub-Saharan governments need foreign presence to efficiently contrast the Islamists. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have been battling with these groups since 2012 to no avail, and even coastal countries like Benin pleaded for support. The decision to relocate came due to diplomatic dissatisfactions between the EU and Mali, which have been boiling since the military coup of May 2021. When later, in December, the West African country allowed Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group to operate inside its borders, Europe felt compelled to announce the relocation during a diplomatic conference in Paris on February 16th.
French diplomats are concerned about ensuring an orderly retreat from the country, in order to maintain a stable presence in the region and keep the image of a successful expedition. Political instability in the area has been undermining European efforts, with coups in Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali threatening the safety of the contingents. Niger could offer a safer base of operations from the trilateral border with Mali and Burkina Faso, but with anti-terrorism operations set to decline during the 4-6 months period of preparation, the situation could become untenable. It remains to be seen whether this decision will be the start of a gradual reduction of European military presence in the area or if it is merely dictated by circumstance.
Written by Matteo Acquarelli
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