Permanent military presence of France in Africa: now turning the page?

Permanent military presence of France in Africa: now turning the page?
Permanent military presence of France in Africa: now turning the page?

We can say that this military presence is being debated at the moment. During a conference at the University of Dakar on May 16, on the occasion of the visit of French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon to Senegal, Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko, who spoke as leader party and not government, questioned the justification for the presence of permanent foreign military bases in Senegal more than sixty years after independence. Ousmane Sonko reiterated in his speech “Senegal’s desire to have its own control, which desire is incompatible with the lasting presence of foreign military bases in Senegal”. The message is rather clear.

Senegal, but also Gabon, Ivory Coast and Djibouti are the host countries for permanent military bases in Africa.

Although we should actually add Chad to this list. This country does not formally host a permanent base but French soldiers have never stopped taking turns there since Operation Manta launched in 1983 in response to the appeal of Chadian President Hissène Habré, threatened by rebels supported by Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. Operation Épervier took over from 1986 to 2013 until the launch of Operation Barkhane. We must distinguish between a permanent military base and external operations, but operations of indefinite duration and with adjustable objectives over time end up resembling a permanent military presence.

The French elements in Senegal (EFS) and the French elements in Gabon (EFG) are made up of rather modest numbers, 350 soldiers in each country. The Dakar and Libreville bases constitute “operational cooperation centers with a regional vocation” in the jargon of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces. Their main missions are “to ensure the defense of French interests and the protection of nationals; to support operational deployments in the region and to contribute to regional operational cooperation.” The numbers were historically much larger. In Senegal for example, it was under the presidency of Abdoulaye Wade in 2010 that the number of troops increased from 1,200 soldiers to 350.

The military base in Ivory Coast officially hosts 600 soldiers. The French Ministry of the Armed Forces describes this base as a “major strategic, operational and logistical platform on the West African coast”. During the long and serious Ivorian crisis, we saw the decisive role played by the Licorne force, whose deployment had been largely facilitated by the prior existence of this French base located very close to the airport and port of Abidjan.

And there are of course the French Forces of Djibouti which constitute the largest contingent of French presence forces in Africa, 1,500 soldiers. Djibouti, which only became independent in 1977, made its strategic geographical position a major asset and rented part of its territory to large, medium and small powers which would like to have a military presence there. Since the 2000s, the United States, Germany, Japan, Italy and China have opened bases in Djibouti, an over-militarized enclave in Africa. Nothing should change over the next few years in that regard.

On France’s side, it is perhaps time to accept that a historical page is turning in Africa and that partnerships in the field of defense and security do not require a permanent presence.

“France is a unique nation in that it remains the only power that retains permanent military bases in its former African colonies. » This is what we can read in the information report of the National Assembly on relations between France and Africa, written by deputies Bruno Fuchs and Michèle Tabarot. Outside of the African continent and of course the French overseas territories, also resulting from colonization, such as New Caledonia currently in the news, France’s only permanent base abroad is in the Arab Emirates. united, inaugurated in 2009.

On the side of African countries, the urgency is to take stock of the absurdity which consists of confusing the juxtaposition of narrow nationalisms with Pan-Africanism. A pragmatic and enlightened Pan-Africanism should highlight the imperative of determining within the framework of regional organizations and the African Union the principles that should guide the presence, whether permanent or occasional, of foreign military forces on the continent.

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