Tue. Oct 26th, 2021

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso Boubacar Dialo * says it will only be able to visit French troops once in December 2020, visiting its city of Tin-Akof.

“They toured the market there all day,” said the Burkinabe local official. “They got into an armored vehicle and went to the shops. They went to the cattle market. ”

With a population of about 9,000 peacetime, Tin-Akof sits on the banks of the Beli River where Burkina Faso’s border with that of Mali and Niger flows. The three borders, as the region is known, are at the center of a years-long conflict between state forces in the western part of Africa’s Sahel region and armed groups linked to ISIL (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.

On June 10, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that Operation Barkhane, his country’s seven-year military operation in the Sahel, would come to an end, indicating that there would be a withdrawal of troops and a restructuring of its presence in the region.

The vast majority of the 5,100 Barkhane soldiers were operated on in the three-border region. But France has no military bases in Burkina Faso, and therefore the military patrols in the country are usually run out of Mali.

Dialo says security in Tin-Akof improved a few weeks after the visit of the French forces, but then it deteriorated again and was worse than ever before.

“Things have gotten a lot worse in Tin-Akof recently,” Dialo told Al Jazeera by phone from Gorom Gorom, the nearest capital to Tin-Akof, from where he fled three months ago.

Tin-Akof became lawless when government officials fled. Dialo says he himself suffered from “fear and psychosis”.

‘Terrorists have a stranglehold in the area. There are no more markets, so the vehicles no longer come and there are no jobs. Formerly, [fighters] only our animals come looting, kidnapping the people they were looking for and leaving. Now it’s about to burn down whole villages. ‘

Asked what he thinks about the prospect of the French leaving, he said: ‘I think it’s not good for the people here. We are only three kilometers away from the border with Mali and if the French are no longer in Mali, it could mean that even more terrorists come here. ”

Earlier this month, Macron suspended joint operations between French and Malian troops in response to a military coup in Bamako, the second in nine months.

Statistically, Barkhane did little to suppress violence in the Sahel.

Data from The Armed Conflict and Event Data Project show that since Operation Barkhane began in 2014, after French forces helped repel emerging fighters in Mali, the number of deaths in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has risen from 456 in 2014 to 6,276 in 2020 – an increase of 1,376 percent.

Burkina Faso’s biggest attack since its conflict took place in the town of Solhan earlier this month, dozens of people have been killed and the perception in the country confirms that security is deteriorating. Last weekend, a series of protests against uncertainty followed.

‘More questions than answers’

However, analysts say it is still unclear what the end of Operation Barkhane means. While this may simply be a renaming exercise of the French, it could lead to changes that are far more far-reaching.

“There are more questions than answers at this stage,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank. “France’s footprint will shrink, but it will continue to engage with and through its Sahel partners as part of the G5 Sahel Joint Force of European Partners, under the banner of Operation Takuba.”

The leaders of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger created the G5 Sahel force in 2014 to tackle a number of challenges, including the growing threat of armed groups. France, meanwhile, hopes that Takuba, which is supposed to bring together troops from the European Union to provide security in the Sahel, will fill the gaps when it pulls out of the region.

However, so far there has been little enthusiasm for Takuba from European partners.

Devermont suggests that the US is unlikely to increase its involvement in the Sahel, despite the recent change of government in the White House.

“The French will be an integral part of the fight against terrorism, even if it is from behind the curtain and will only be the center of attention in extremism,” he predicts.

Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and expert on the Sahel conflict, expects that ‘significant changes’ will take place, but adds that ‘they will be gradual’.

“It’s going to affect everything … but France is less involved in Burkina Faso than in Mali or even Niger.”

Some Burkinabes Al Jazeera have told them that if the French leave, they could see Russia filling the vacuum. But Lebovich says he believes it’s a little red herring.

“Russia certainly has a presence in the Sahel, but it is not as cohesive, for example not as interested as in the Central African Republic … I certainly do not see that Russia wants to occupy the space that France does. ”

Other displaced citizens of Tin-Akof, where there is no mobile phone network, told Al Jazeera that the French presence in or around the city made little difference and that the news about the end of Barkhane was unlikely to change much.

But one of the top officials in Tin-Akof’s government before fleeing the city said: ‘Since the founding of Bakhane, things have been fair. There is security when the French are there. This is when they multiply the attacks. They kill many terrorists. ”

French officials are expected to provide more information on how Barkhane will be restructured or downsized this week.

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