Bamako: French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Mali on Sunday to consolidate Western backing for a regional anti-jihadist force, with France urging greater support for the Sahel region amid mounting insecurity.
The so-called “G5 Sahel” countries just south of the Sahara Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have pledged to fight jihadists on their own soil with instability and Islamist attacks on the rise.
Macron is joining the heads of state of these nations in Bamako for a special summit where France’s full support for the force will be announced, with a focus expected on providing equipment.
With its base in Sevare, central Mali, the 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force aims to bolster the 12,000 UN peacekeepers and France’s own 4,000-strong military operation known as Barkhane operating in the region.
He is also expected to make the case for extra backing from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States which already has a drone base in Niger beyond a pledge of 50 million euros (USD 57.2 million) by the European Union.
Serge Michailof, a researcher at the Paris-based IRIS institute, described the EU contribution as “a joke” in the context of the EU’s “very deep pockets”.
“This force is going to cost USD 300-400 million at the very least,” he told, and would be especially difficult for certain nations involved which are already “choking” on military spending.
The question of funding is sensitive as Chad’s leader Idriss Deby has said that for budgetary reasons his troops cannot serve simultaneously at such high numbers in the UN peacekeeping mission and also in the new force.
Deby and Macron are due to meet on the margins of the Bamako summit to discuss the issue, according the French presidency, as Chad’s military is widely viewed as the strongest of the five Sahel nations.
Macron visited Gao in northern Mali in May, his first foreign visit as president outside Europe, and said French troops would remain “until the day there is no more Islamic terrorism in the region”.
France launched an intervention to chase out jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda who had overtaken key northern cities in Mali in 2013. That mission evolved into the current Barkhane deployment launched in 2014 with an expanded mandate for counter-terror operations across the Sahel.
The new Sahel force will support national armies trying to catch jihadists across porous frontiers, and will work closely with Barkhane. Operations across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, all hit with frequent jihadist attacks, will be co-ordinated with French troops, a source in the French presidency told earlier this week, while help would be given to set up command centres.
Macron’s visit came as Al-Qaeda’s Mali branch released a proof-of-life video of six foreign hostages, including Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin who was abducted in late 2016 in the northern Malian town of Gao.