In Niger, the poorest country in the world, this is what war looks like.
On Tuesday, Jan. 7, hundreds of men on motorbikes drove at a Niger military camp and launched a heavy mortar and rocket attack. The attackers were Islamic extremists. The battle lasted hours. At the end, at least 89 soldiers lay dead, along with more than 70 attackers.
On Monday, Jan. 13, the country’s president declared three days of national mourning and fired the country’s army chief of staff. The same day, he was in Pau, France, meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, who is concerned about the escalating violence in the region.
Next door, in Mali and Burkina Faso, the military situation is even more dire. And this despite the presence since 2013 in Mali of 4,500 French special forces, on a mission baptized “Barkhane,” sent to clean out the extremists who took over Timbuktu and central Mali, imposing sharia law in 2012.
The French pushed them out of Timbuktu and now say they are winning. The French minister of the army told the National Assembly last year that Barkhane had “eliminated” more than 600 extremist fighters by 2018.
The French are not alone. In Gao, in Western Mali, an enormous UN base houses 13,000 soldiers from more than 20 countries. More than 1,250 Canadian soldiers, 200 at a time, equipped with eight helicopters, served in Gao until Sept. 1, 2019, carrying out medical evacuations and transporting passengers and cargo.
Yet the number of attacks on military targets and civilians has increased dramatically in the last year. The effects have been devastating. According to a UN report in November, more than 1,500 civilians had been killed since January 2019 in Mali and Burkina Faso, and more than one million people have now fled their homes in the countries of the region.
The leaders of those five countries – Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – went to Pau, a small city in southern France, on Jan. 13 to meet Macron. France lost 13 soldiers in a crash of two helicopters an anti-extremist mission in November. Seven of them came from the military base in Pau.
Macron reads the riot act
The main reason for the Pau meeting was for Macron to read the riot act. His message to the presidents was that his soldiers needed more help from their troops and France needed less criticism from local voices on the ground. There have been small demonstrations in Bamako, the capital of Mali, against the ongoing French military presence.
But in Gao, which I visited earlier this year, there is no criticism of the UN or France. Thousands of people forced to flee their homes in central Mali blame the “bandits,” as they call the extremists. They are thankful for the protective umbrella the troops, based in their enormous camp, offer.
The problem is that the 4,500 French soldiers are fighting in an area bigger than Europe. The UN soldiers are not fighting, merely patrolling.
Adding to the problem, according to Mathieu Pellerin, a Paris-based expert on sub-Saharan Africa, is that the extremists are now far from a unified group. Some are aligned with al-Queda and one of the groups active in bombing civilian targets and kidnapping has been dubbed al-Qaeda in Maghreb or AQIM. But some are not even religiously motivated, but have tribal, economic or simply criminal aims.
The African leaders grumble in private that the French, from their arrival in 2013, have simply gone it alone. The French goal, they muttered, was simply to protect themselves and Europe from an African threat.
Migration a bigger interest for France
“The French say they have to be there maybe for 30 years,” explained Marie-Roger Biloa, an African affairs analyst in Paris, “because they have to make sure the ‘jihadists’ don’t spill over into Europe, which would lead to more migration and refugees as well going to Europe.”
Migration — that is the threat the Europeans don’t like to talk about, but are willing to pay heavily to contain.
Agadez is a famous town in the desert of Niger, known for hundreds of years for its Grand Mosque, built in 1515 and the biggest mud-brick structure in the world. It was also a well-known trade and smugglers route.
At the beginning of the last decade that route exploded, becoming an enormous magnet for refugees fleeing conflicts in countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Cameroon and Nigeria. These people would pay smugglers healthy sums to take them illegally into Libya and Algeria, and from there they would try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe.
In 2015, the European Union came up with a plan. Niger would ban smuggling and the EU would pay the Niger government for choking off the Agadez smuggling route. Over a period of four years it will have paid the government more than $1.5 billion Cdn to seal this deal.
To see Agadez after that deal was sealed, as I did more than a year ago, is to see a town gasping for economic breath. Smuggling was its lifeblood. Instead, now there are thousands of migrants and refugees stranded there, supported by the UN and other agencies, many living on mattresses in rudimentary shelters, exposed to the cruel desert weather.
Anger grows. The migrants of Agadez have revolted more than once, burning shelters and demanding to be heard and better treated.
The crisis in the sub-Sahara region is growing. France’s president has pressed his African counterparts for more effort and his European partners for more money.
After the Pau meeting, Macron announced that France would send 220 more soldiers to reinforce the Barkhane contingent. France and the armies of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger will co-ordinate their efforts against the extremists. But a slightly bigger military force and pots of money have merely postponed a bigger explosion in the most downtrodden corner of the world.