By Simon Jackson, University of Birmingham
The wreckage of AH 5017 lies scattered in the Sahel near the border between Mali and Burkina Faso. As the black boxes of the Air Algérie flight head for France and Paris mediates the aftermath, the crash – which killed 51 French citizens – provides a grim reminder that if the region may be overflown, its harshest realities are decided on the ground. It is not a lesson that President François Hollande will want to hear.
Just a week earlier, he had listened to the Marseillaise, sung a capella by French troops on an airbase near N'Djamena, Chad. Amid the martial harmonies it's easy to imagine the shades of French colonial grandees such as Jacques Foccart and Louis Faidherbe looking on approvingly at a French president who twice last year sent troops into West and Central Africa.
After all, for a century up to the 1960s, France ruled much of these territories directly. This is no distant past. Most of today's West African political leaders were born in the 1940s under colonial rule. In the 1950s a Malian Frenchwoman – not yet deemed an "immigrant" – could rightfully travel from Bamako to Paris on her imperial passport. And in contemporary France, major fortunes, migrants' origins and attitudes to Africa have their roots in the imperial power dynamic. In 2007, Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy infamously described the continent in terms redolent of the colonial era, provoking widespread anger.
Despite these antecedents, the 57 hours Hollande spent in the former French colonies of Côte d'Ivoire, Niger and Mali in late July attracted little international coverage, given the horrors in Gaza and Ukraine.
Still, the trip merits attention. It marks an effort on the part of the French president to consolidate an accumulating set of military interventions across the region, and to support French capital there at a time of increased international competition.
But the two goals are in some ways contradictory: where French capital is most dominant, it has weakened Saharan states to the point that military intervention is repeatedly needed. And Hollande also failed to address key questions about the role of Libya and Algeria. Those countries substantially drive events in the Sahara by tolerating smuggling, and the various Islamist militias that live on it.
The visit began in Abidjan, with a focus on French capitalists' struggles to remain competitive in areas where they long held all the most lucrative contracts. Urban services such as waste disposal, draped in the rhetoric of sustainable development, are just one battleground, as the coastal cities of West Africa sprawl larger.
Put out to tender under the guidance of the Ivorian president – former IMF official Alassane Ouattara – these contracts have increasingly gone to East Asian and American consortia of late. French champions such as Suez Environment are out of the running. And although French companies such as Total oil or Bolloré logistics still enjoy strong positions dating back to the colonial era, this status is increasingly under threat.
In particular, since the civil wars of 2002-2011, smaller French businesses in Côte d'Ivoire have increasingly been taken over by Lebanese descendants of colonial era migrants from the French Middle East (it's one reason so many Lebanese citizens died on AH 5017). Recognising this decline, Hollande tried to put the state's shoulder behind French companies and defend what's left of their historic influence within West African states.
Further north, the French energy giant Areva is a model of how to retain that influence. But its success in doing so has contributed to political catastrophe in the Sahara. For decades, it has pulled enough uranium out of the Nigerien desert to power one in three of the light bulbs flicked on daily from Lille to Marseille. Areva has enjoyed very easy terms, and its workers have become targets for kidnapping in recent years, as various paramilitary groups seek ransoms, or try to put pressure on the notoriously opaque finances of the mining industry.
Barkhane operation launched
Reflecting only the second part of that story, coverage of French military intervention in Africa, for instance during the recent Operation Serval in Mali, is generally focused on the threat of kidnapping, terrorism and insurgency by trans-Saharan rebel groups.
Accordingly, much has been made of Hollande's launching of "Operation Barkhane" during his trip. A consolidated, flexible counter-terrorism strategy, it builds on Sarkozy's move away from isolated garrisons in each West African state.
Barkhane is based on the false promises of air power and involves little infantry. Its aerial police-beat supposedly runs the length of the Sahara in partnership with Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
From Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria to inter-communal violence in the Central African Republic, to the Islamic militias and Al-Qaeda affiliates who dominate the smuggling of the Al-Khalil region along the Algerian-Malian border, Barkhane is supposed to track terrorism and insurgency wherever it occurs.
To do so, it ignores the national frontiers once traced in the desert sands by French colonial officials, even as it partners with the weak states that inherited those boundaries. But if helicopters bombing ill-defined "Islamists" make for easy headlines, the security question is nevertheless inextricably linked with the everyday political economy on the ground – and the continuation of the status quo.
Lessons from the Middle East
Fundamentally, Operation Barkhane, with its drones and helicopters drifting overhead, is a high-altitude technical fix that cannot deal with the key issue at ground level – the weakness and corruption of the national-states that the French and their corporate champions have propped up for decades in the Sahara.
Unlike in the Middle East – in former French Syria for example – where meaningful resource nationalisation after independence allowed for the construction of stronger national states, the Saharan states continue to be run by gate-keeper elites in partnership with the likes of Areva.
Meanwhile, the Saharan states that most closely resemble the Middle Eastern model – Algeria and Libya – are both key drivers of events across the Sahara. They are also strikingly absent from Hollande's strategy. Libyan arms and Algerian intelligence services and militiamen, for example, are all highly influential in the region.
Until French policy – and French corporate interests – accept the need for stronger national states throughout Francophone Africa, and especially across the Sahara, ad hoc military intervention will continue to be the order of the day. French planes will continue to cross the sky, and all too little will change on the ground.
Simon Jackson does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.