Emmanuel Dupuy, French analyst and president of the Institute for Prosperity and Security in Europe (IPSE), was one of the participants in the 2nd Sahel-Europe Dialogue Forum. In an interview with Atalayar, he discusses the new actors in Africa - Russia and Turkey - and international involvement in the Sahel region.
How does France perceive Russia's current role in the Sahel?
France perceives Russia as a disruptive actor, an actor that has come to change its political, military and diplomatic positioning in the region. And this is not only the case in Mali, where Wagner's troops are present; Russia is currently present in some fifteen countries on the African continent. Moscow bases its expansion on some twenty defence agreements signed with these nations. France sometimes perceives this strategy as a competition.
Take the case of Mali, where there is a defence agreement with Russia dating back to June 2019. However, Russia had not offered its assistance, as France did, to help fight armed terrorist groups. I also think it is worth noting that France's perception of Russia has obviously worsened since 24 February, when the invasion of Ukraine began. On the other hand, France realised, too late, that the Russian presence on the African continent has only one objective: to take advantage of the weakening of France's perception on the continent.
It is also useful to recall that France is very much focused on Wagner, the Russian private military company whose objectives and interests are those of Moscow, which, for the past nine years, has been carrying out disinformation actions to cast doubt on the achievements of France's role in the fight against terrorism.
So, to answer very succinctly, France is concerned that Russia, through Wagner, is encouraging and promoting criticism of the French presence in Africa. It is not about Russia's presence on the African continent so much as the fact that this is accompanied by a decline in the positive perception of France on the African continent.
In one of your speeches, you spoke of Bayraktar diplomacy. Is Turkey trying to gain influence in the region through military cooperation?
Yes, through military cooperation and also through its commercial diplomacy. UAVs are an example of this. But so are investments by construction companies, Turkish products that sometimes compete with French products, in particular in the field of cosmetics or in the field of medicines. So yes, Turkey is playing the same game as Russia, but perhaps with more legitimacy within the continent.
Firstly, because Turkey's presence is older than that of Russia. In particular, through the Ottoman Empire, which was present for about four centuries on the African continent. On the other hand, the religious element is very present, which favours Turkish anchoring.
Analysts and the media have even described the Operation Barkhane as a failure. Can you report on this mission and its consequences?
I wouldn't say it was a failure. I would say that Operation Barkhane is the consequence of a first operation, Operation Serval, which was a success overall.
The French intervened in January 2013 and made it possible to liberate the territories that had been conquered by the armed terrorist groups and, therefore, the main cities that had been conquered by the terrorists were liberated. This is a major achievement of Operation Serval. The difficulty is that we wanted to transform Operation Serval into Operation Barkhane. But because we did not mobilise enough men, because we did not give enough scope to our action and because we considered Operation Barkhane to be a Serval Operation, the armed terrorist groups multiplied and dispersed.
They mobilised over much larger territories. However, Operation Barkhane is not a failure because many of the leaders of terrorist organisations such as Daesh or Al Qaeda have been suppressed.
The fight against terrorism has two pillars: the civilian development approach and the military approach. And in this respect, I think there must be a criticism of the Barkhane operation. The first criticism is that there was not enough civilian action. And that it was a purely military operation, too military.
Secondly, Operation Barkhane could not succeed without the help of our partners. "The security of the European continent is at stake in the Sahel". This was said by Angela Merkel, the various French presidents, from François Hollande to Emmanuel Macron, and our Italian and Spanish partners recently at the Madrid summit a few days ago. We should have Europeanised Operation Barkhane.
On the other hand, the objective of Barkhane was to gradually return to military normality, which meant that the Malian, Burkinabe, Chadian, Mauritanian and Nigerian armed forces had to do the work that the French were doing, and that was longer, more complicated for several reasons: corruption, the absence of political leadership, the unwillingness of states to reassert themselves as capable of producing security.
What do you see as the main challenge in the Sahel and do you think Europe and NATO should be more involved in the region?
Europe has been heavily involved in the Sahel for a long time, long before the jihadist phenomenon. The Sahel strategy was established in 2011 and the military interventions we talked about, Barkhane in 2013. This means that the European Union had foreseen the need for a strategy. Humanitarian resources were made available, development resources, support for governance, support for decentralisation, the fight for literacy, mobilisation, education of young people, children and especially girls. So Europe as an institution, the European Union, the Commission of the Council with the European Parliament have been involved. There are 7 billion euros for the next 6 years, from 2021 to 2027. You have to differentiate between the most active European states: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Great Britain when it was a member of the European Union.
Secondly, I am not going to link the European Union and NATO, it is not the same agenda at all. However, there are 21 European countries that are members of NATO and that might give the impression that NATO is present on the African continent, but this is not the case.
First of all, the North Atlantic Treaty Charter does not specify that Africa is part of NATO's security objectives for mobilisation. It is not written in these texts; it was said in Madrid by Jens Stoltenberg and the Spanish President that NATO should expand in its eastern pillar. Obviously, the Ukraine crisis and strengthen its southern, in this case sub-Saharan, pillar. And for the moment there is no reality in this regard. NATO is not present on the African continent.
For years there has been a project called the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue, which promotes cooperation between the countries of the Mediterranean rim, Morocco, Algeria, excluding Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but not the rest. So I am not at all sure that NATO has a place on the African continent and that it would add exponential difficulties if NATO were to take an interest in the question of stability and the Sahara. Again, Spain, France and Italy are members of the European Union and members of NATO, but that does not mean that NATO is present and has an identified action.