QC Model UN Presents: 

Operation Barkhane: A Neocolonial Project in Africa

Author: Rene Yaroshevsky

While the United States has stood at the helm of the Global War on Terror, and has waged a destructive, “shadow” war across Africa to protect its vested economic interests, they do not stand alone in their imperial arrogance and aggression. The French Republic, seeking to maintain the same relations that existed when they colonized and exploited large swaths of Africa, has pursued its own counterterrorism interventions. Known as Operation Barkhane, France has militarily intervened to end violent extremist insurgencies, led primarily by the regional Al-Qaeda branch, that threaten the formerly-colonized African countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. With 5,100 French troops fighting to prop up the Francophone African states, Operation Barkhane has been described as “the most ambitious and expensive military operation that France has conducted since the end of Algerian War.” While Operation Barkhane may be perceived as genuine support for African states in their fight against Al-Qaeda, the French military intervention cannot be removed from the country’s colonial interests.

Despite France’s alleged commitment to counterterrorism in Africa, Operation Barkhane and the coinciding U.S. shadow war have only further instigated terrorism. Like wildfire, the number of terrorist attacks from Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their affiliates has only exploded since Operation Barkhane began. The presence of French troops in African countries that were once directly colonized by France, without any meaningful advances in the fight against violent extremism, has sparked fierce opposition to Operation Barkhane. In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, protests have called for the end to Operation Barkhane and expressed deep anti-French sentiments. In a demonstration of colonial arrogance, French President Emmanuel Macron ‘summoned’ the leaders of the African states involved in Operation Barkhane to the French city of Pau in response to the protests against Operation Barkhane. Forcing the African leaders to reassure him of their support for continued French military involvement, Macron had incidentally and recklessly removed those leaders from their countries as in the midst of the crisis of terrorism. Macron’s demands to the African leaders clearly represent that the French believe Operation Barkhane to be an exercise of authority, rather than of equal cooperation. 

Regardless of the African leaders’ forced and reluctant support for Operation Barkhane, there is no denying that the African people do not want the French involved in their affairs. Take the West African country of Mali, for instance, where a whopping 79% of the population expressed disapproval with Operation Barkhane. With that, it was unsurprising when Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was arrested and forced to resign in a military coup in August of 2020. Though French support for the Keïta administration was only one factor contributing to his downfall, it cannot be denied that the opposition to President Keïta emerged from the same discontent expressed in the protests against French involvement. For the French to continue Operation Barkhane in Mali or anywhere else represents a denial of the popular sovereignty of the African peoples, as well as a sense of complete carelessness to the escalation of further tensions and terrorist attacks across Africa.

While the independence of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger was officially recognized by France, the French continue to maintain extensive neocolonial control over the African states. As per a “colonial pact” with France, the nominally independent Francophone states are required to use a French colonial-era currency and hold as much as 85% of their foreign currency reserves in the French central bank. As such, France holds nearly $500 billion in reserves from its former African colonies every year. French influence extends beyond this, as France has the first right to purchase natural resources, maintains monopolies in key economic sectors in these states, and controls commerce between states. French neocolonial control in West Africa is clearly profitable to the French state and economy. Indeed, former French President Jacques Chirac, as well as his predecessor François Mitterrand, contended that France would be nothing without its colonial exploitation of Africa. It becomes clear that France is pursuing Operation Barkhane not with the hope of restoring peace and stability, but to protect its vested neocolonial interests in Africa.

As terrorist insurgencies seek to topple the same governments that have been forced into a colonial pact with France, they directly threaten France’s direct control over the countries’ reserves, currency, and natural resources. As such, Operation Barkhane is representative of a desire by the French to preserve the country’s economic stake in the continent. Ultimately, Operation Barkhane, like the U.S. shadow war, represents how systems of power — imperialism, militarism, colonialism, capitalism — intersect and feed off the exploitation of Africans. With terrorist incidents only skyrocketing in the face of Western counterterrorism operations, true stability and justice for Africa can only come with an end to the military projects of France and the United States. Calls for equality and justice cannot be removed from opposition to militarism, imperialism, and colonialism, nor a material analysis of their socioeconomic effects.