Why France is losing its 'Great Game' in western Africa

A long chapter in French colonial and post-colonial rule is drawing to a close as France looks to pull back troops fighting Islamist extremists in western Africa and other countries make their own power plays in the region, Don Murray writes.

Some French troops fighting Islamist extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso being pulled out

A French soldier uses an explosive detection kit in Ndaki, Mali, on July 28, 2019. French President Emmanuel Macron has said France will start pulling back some of its 5,100 troops fighting Islamist extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

The British used to call it "the Great Game" — the military and political jockeying of great powers in the late 19th century in Afghanistan, India and the areas around southern Russia. 

France, too, has played its "Great Game" in western Africa for 150 years. Now it's losing. Islamist extremists are winning.

And other big players, like Russia and above all China, are moving in.

French President Emmanuel Macron made a downbeat announcement on June 10.

"The role of France isn't to be a perpetual substitute for the states on the ground," he said.

Then he said France would in the coming months start pulling back some of the 5,100 French troops fighting Islamist extremists in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. 

Macron has said 'the role of France isn’t to be a perpetual substitute for the states on the ground.' (Pascal Rossignol/Reuters)

"This is defeat, that's clear," Thierry Vircoulon, an expert on Africa at the French Institute for International Relations, said in an interview.

"The lesson for France is not to get into wars you can't win." 

Another losing fight

Vircoulon linked Macron's decision directly to another losing fight in the modern Great Game.

"The French move must be seen in the light of the American decision in Afghanistan. If the Americans hadn't started talks with the Taliban and then announced their pullout, the French government might not have taken the decision it did."

The French began their desert guerrilla war in 2013 to dislodge Islamist extremists who had taken Timbuktu in the centre of Mali. That offensive was a success but, since then, the guerrilla war has continued, the jihadis have grown in number and the number of civilians killed, most by marauding extremists, has multiplied. 

There were more than 6,000 civilian deaths in 2020, an increase of 30 per cent on the previous year, according to ACLED (Armed Conflict Location and Event Data). The French have seen 55 soldiers killed, the armies of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have lost thousands more in eight years.

A French soldier goes on inspection in Ndaki, Mali, on July 29, 2019. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Six years ago, the extremists were 600 kilometres from the capital of Mali, Bamako. Today they attack less than 100 kilometres from Bamako. 

The extremists control large swathes in the centre of Mali and along the borders in Niger and Burkina Faso. 

That's despite a large UN military contingent based in Gao, Mali, at the urging of the French. There are 13,000 soldiers patrolling there. Canada was part of the contingent for 18 months until September 2019. 

'The state isn't in control'

Assiminar Ag Rousmane is "quite pessimistic." He's the head of Azhar, an NGO based in the capital of Bamako that helps civilian victims in the conflict.

"I deal with people on the ground and we go around the country from village to village, we can see that the state isn't in control. It's almost bankrupt," he said in an interview. 

"There are already towns close to Bamako which are insecure. There are places where it's the law of the jungle."

Assiminar confirmed an open secret that the Malian army and local leaders are engaged in unofficial negotiations with extremist groups to "liberate" some areas. 

Rubble from an ancient mausoleum destroyed by Islamist militants is seen in Timbuktu, Mali, on July 25, 2013. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

"They're looking for at least a guarantee of a minimum of security. It's pretty negative for the local population, because  rebel extremists have demands. It means closing schools, and even Sharia law."

A long chapter in French colonial and post-colonial rule is drawing to a close.  The French set up a West African Federation in 1895 comprising eight modern-day countries — Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Benin and Guinea. It was, in fact, a giant colony. 

After these countries gained independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the "federation" was replaced by something known as "Francafrique." This was a form of sometimes paternal and sometimes very muscled oversight in these countries, backed by French troops stationed in several of them. 

In this way French-backed leaders stayed in power, often for years, and bilateral government agreements with France, often secret, gave French companies priority to exploit their countries' natural resources

No restoration of prestige

France even set up a West African currency, the CFA Franc (Financial Community of Africa Franc), backed by the French central bank. But each country had to keep half of its currency reserves in the French bank. 

The French National Assembly voted to end that regulation only last year.

Operation Barkhane, the military offensive against Islamists in sub-Sahara Africa, was supposed to restore French prestige and influence. Instead it's done the opposite. 

Rather than reinforce democratic institutions, the operation has been capped by not one but two military coups d'état in Mali in the last year.

Macron sits with French military forces during a visit with troops who were participating in Operation Barkhane in Niamey, Niger, on Dec. 22, 2017. (Reuters TV)

And the French Cour des Comptes, the national audit commission, criticized the French strategy in a report in April. It said the yearly cost of the military mission had climbed to $1.8 billion while money for aid and development had dropped over eight years to $495 million annually. 

"The announced priority in the sub-Sahara zone hasn't been translated into reality," the report said in language akin to a diplomatic dagger.

Others have noticed. 

In 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited African heads of government and state to his southern palace in Sochi. The response was enthusiastic: 43 showed up.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Angolan President Joao Lourenco on the sidelines of the Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, on Oct. 24, 2019. (Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

Since then, according to Vircoulon, the Russians have been on an "African military safari," offering to sell their services and arms to embattled governments. 

Russian mercenaries, the so-called Wagner group financed by a rich businessman close to Putin, have already moved into the Central African Republic, dislodging French troops. 

And the Russians are making similar offers to governments like that of Mali.

According to Vircoulon, this follows a pattern developed by the Russians in Libya and Syria. The Wagner group moves in and then works with the Russian armed forces to train soldiers, set up bases and extend Russian influence. You could see them in Mali or Burkina Faso in a few years, he said.

The trigger was Ukraine. Russia invaded the Ukraine territory of Crimea in 2014 and then backed rebels in an ongoing war in eastern Ukraine. The West responded with economic sanctions against the Kremlin.

"Because of the Western sanctions, we're once again in a situation of rivalry with Russia. And they're using all the cards at their disposal. So creating problems for France in this part of Africa is part of that strategy, " said Vircoulon.

Just a sideshow

But the Russian incursion is a sideshow. They don't have the economic clout. 

China does.

"China began by finding common political ground with African leaders and playing to Africa's stance against Western hegemony and colonialism," Mandira Bagwandeen, a South African expert on Chinese-African relations, said in an interview

"But the trump card now is that it comes with the money. China is really willing to provide massive loans for mega-industrial and infrastructure projects that can really unlock Africa's potential. Their approach is muscular."

A train runs on the Standard Gauge Railway line constructed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation and financed by the Chinese government in Kimuka, Kenya, on Oct. 16, 2019. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters)

And unlike Western lenders, they didn't ask too many questions about good governance and how the money would be spent.

The result is that China, as of 2019, had a total $165 billion in direct investments in Africa, according to a study by the London School of Economics. In the five years before the COVID-19 crisis, China invested almost double what the U.S. and France did in Africa.

"There's a lot of China bashing by the West but that's not going to deter African countries from relying on China," Bagwandeen said. "You're going to have to write the cheques to be taken seriously."

In the new Great Game in Africa, the most powerful weapon is money.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.