On 2 January another two French soldiers were killed in Mali, after three were killed in late December at Hombori in the central Mopti Region when their vehicle detonated an improvised explosive device (IED).
This latest loss of French military lives will intensify the pressure on President Emmanuel Macron to find a solution to the Sahel crisis before the April 2022 presidential election.
For eight years, his mantra has been that there would be no negotiations with ‘terrorists’ and ‘jihadists’ and that the solution to the Sahel crisis lay with France’s counter-terrorism policy. If, however, Macron cannot deliver something resembling a French victory in the Sahel — i.e. the defeat in one way or another of the jihadists and a major reduction of the more than 5,000 French troops in the region — he could face a very difficult and embarrassing re-election campaign.
Because it is unlikely to be found in a continuation of the current counter-terrorism strategy and therefore a negotiated deal with at least some of the jihadists is now on the cards. But, whatever sort of dialogue takes place it is likely to be rocky and fraught with setbacks and uncertain outcomes. The most likely outcome is that the Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin’s (JNIM) powerful leader, Iyad ag Ghali, will negotiate some sort of political power base for himself in northern Mali. This will probably be brokered by the Algerians but holds the risk of further attempts by Bamako to re-establish the Malian state in the Kidal region.
Meanwhile, much will depend on how the country’s transitional process continues to unfold. As Mali enters 2021, there are fears that the continued militarisation of the process could lead to further social unrest. However, many see the failure of the country’s political class as necessitating the intervention of a firm military hand.
Current events in Algeria suggest that it is unlikely to deploy its troops to Mali and the Sahel to assist France and the UN in the region, as had been widely assumed over the last few months. Nonetheless, we foresee Algeria playing an increasing diplomatic and developmental role, especially in Mali, over the course of 2021.
The outcomes of the second round of Niger’s presidential and legislative elections are not yet known but the lack of social unrest so far suggests that the new president and government may enjoy more domestic and international goodwill than might have been anticipated a month or two ago.
It is difficult to foresee how much longer Chad’s long-suffering citizens can endure what is currently probably Africa’s most ruthless dictatorship, but this has been said on many previous occasions. If there is an answer it probably lies in Paris which has so far been reluctant to withdraw its support for President Idriss Déby.
Meanwhile we anticipate a further strengthening of regional relations in the Maghreb, especially including Mauritania, over the coming year. However, Algeria’s increasing political and economic instability and emerging pariah status may see it marginalised from possible developments.