Festive musicians and chanting women in traditional dress lined the 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) route from the airport into Niamey to greet French President Francois Hollande on his July 18 visit to Niger.
The French military gave their president a more discreet welcome: a Reaper drone flying high above his motorcade.
After lunch at a French military base on the capital’s outskirts, intelligence officers showed Hollande footage where he was able to pick out members of his entourage. The drones and Mirage jets at Niger airbase are a key element in a reshuffling of French forces across the troubled southern rim of the Sahara, where Islamist militants threaten local governments and French economic interests.
“When the Sahel is threatened, Europe and France are threatened,” Hollande told French soldiers in Chad the next day. “There are plenty of threats in all directions,” he said, citing al-Qaeda linked groups in Mali, Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, and various groups taking advantage of the lawless deserts of southern Libya.
While also pushing French trade, the president used last week’s three-day swing through Ivory Coast, Niger, and Chad to solidify ties with countries that host French military forces that starting Aug. 1 will be grouped under a new mission, “Operation Barkhane,” named after a crescent-shaped sand dune found in the Sahara.
French forces have been based in Chad since 1986 to help the government fight rebels in the north, who at the time were backed by Libya. France sent troops to Mali in January 2013 to repel Islamist militants, and to the Central African Republic in December to stop sectarian violence. All are former French colonies who became independent in the 1960s.
“There was no one else who could have intervened in Mali and the Central African Republic, because no one else has as much experience in these specific countries,” said Benjamin Auge, associate fellow at Paris-based French Institute for International Relations.
On Aug. 1, General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who has commanded French operations in Ivory Coast and Afghanistan, will take command of Barkhane, grouping together what had been country-specific missions in Mali and Chad. The operation, which will have 3,000 military personnel, will be commandeered from a French base outside N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, which is considered to possess one of the most effective military forces in the region.
A base outside Niamey will fly two General Atomic Reaper drones and an Israeli-built Harfung drone to provide surveillance. Three Rafale fighters will be based in Chad and three Mirage 2000 in Niger. Both aircraft are built by Dassault Aviation SA.
An additional 1,700 French troops are still based in Mali, down from a peak of 4,500. There is also a special-forces base in Burkina Faso about which the French military doesn’t provide details.
Barkhane will have smaller forward operating bases in the north of Mali, Niger and Chad.
“Rather than having large bases that are difficult to manage in moments of crisis, we prefer installations that can be used quickly and efficiently,” said Hollande.
The 2,000 French soldiers in the Central African Republic, which is considered a humanitarian and not an anti-terrorism operation, won’t be wrapped into Barkhane, nor will 450 troops in the Ivory Coast who will man a support base in Abidjan.
Since 1990, French armed forces have been involved in more than 20 African operations, also including Rwanda, Somalia, Zaire, Comoros, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Gulf of Aden, according to a Feb. 4 report by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
The U.S. helped airlift French forces to Mali, and has also been beefing up its African presence. U.S. drones fly out of Niger and Burkina Faso, and the U.S. trains military personnel in Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Washington in January to present France’s planned Africa deployment, and the U.S. military has liaison officers at French bases in Africa.
France has economic interests in the region. Areva SA, the world’s biggest builder of nuclear reactors, in May signed a new accord with Niger to continue to run uranium mines. France gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear, and Niger is the world’s fourth-largest uranium producer.
Meanwhile, Bollore Africa Logistics, a unit of Bollore SA, is rehabilitating or building 2,500 kilometers of rail track to connect Niger and Burkina Faso to the port it manages in Abidjan.
Hollande said Barkhane will work closely with local African forces, as it did in the intervention in Mali, where the French fought alongside troops from Niger and Mali. The main towns and roads in Mali are now under control, even if militants continue to operate in the north, the French military says.
“Without the support of the Chad military in Mali, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve the results we did,” Hollande said at a July 19 press conference with Chad president Idriss Deby.
Chad lost 36 soldiers in Mali. France has lost nine, the most recent being a foreign legionnaire killed in a suicide attack July 14.
While the Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria have received the most coverage because of their kidnapping of more than 200 girls in April, Hollande said leaders in Niger and Chad expressed the most concern about the power vacuum in southern Libya, where Islamist militants and drug traffickers have found refuge.
“There’s no hierarchy of threats, but there’s a particular concern about what’s happening in southern Libya given everything we know about the instability and weakness of the state there,” Hollande said in Chad.