June 2021 marks another shift in the conflict engulfing the West African Sahel. French President Emmanuel Macron announced, to the surprise of both his European and African allies, that France would be halving its troops in the Sahel and thereby ending Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism operation that had been running since 2014. The French troops will be replaced by a significantly fewer number of troops from various EU nations and military bases will be closed in northern Mali. Instead, the focus will shift to the Liptako-Gourma region, on the border of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.
The West African Sahel is a vast region, approximately the size of Europe. It is composed of five countries: Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger (Figure 1). At the beginning of the 20th century, it was under French rule. The region decolonised in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In recent decades, various nationalist insurgencies, extremist religious terror organisations, climate change, and authoritarian leaders, have all played a role in increasing instability and conflict in the region. Almost 7,000 civilians were killed in 2020 alone, and presently there are almost 2.4 million displaced people across the region. So what does Macron’s announcement mean for the Sahel, and the civilians who are caught up in the crossfires?
The West African Sahel is the site of a long-term French foray into the region. Initially, France was invited in 2012 at the behest of the Malian government to hold off an imminent invasion of its capital by an array of Islamist militant groups. Operation Barkhane was the successor operation, launched in 2014.