French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday declared his country would stand by Africa’s need for security as he began a three-country tour marked by France’s military revamp in the jihadist-torn Sahel.
“We will not relinquish the security of the African continent,” Macron said in a speech in Cameroon, a former French colony and close ally that has been troubled by attacks.
“France remains resolutely committed to the security of the continent, acting in support and at the request of our African partners,” Macron told a gathering of French expatriates in the capital Yaounde.
France is reconfiguring its posture in the Sahel after falling out with the military junta in Mali, the epicentre of a bloody 11-year-old jihadist campaign in the region.
After a pullout from Mali that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, the Barkhane anti-jihadist force will have around 2,500 troops in the Sahel, just under half of the deployment at its peak, say French officers.
The force will also make a tactical shift, acting more in a support role for local forces than in taking the lead, they say.
Macron landed late on Monday on a three-day tour that will also take him to Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
He then headed into a meeting with Cameroon’s 89-year-old president, Paul Biya, an iron-fisted ruler who has been in power since 1982.
In his speech, Macron said the changes in Barkhane had been prompted because “the political framework was no longer there” — a reference to the dispute with the Malian junta.
The reconfigured mission, he said, will extend “beyond the Sahel, to the Gulf of Guinea and second-layer countries which now have to face terrorist groups which are expanding and shaking up the whole region”.
The jihadist insurgency began in northern Mali in 2012 and hit neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.
Across the region, thousands of people have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes.
Sporadic cross-border attacks have also occurred on coastal countries to the south, sparking fears of an expansion by the jihadists to the Gulf of Guinea.
Macron also pledged French support for countries fighting jihadists in the Lake Chad region, where an older insurgency launched by Nigeria’s Boko Haram is also raging.
These include Cameroon, whose Far North region, which reaches into the Lake Chad basin, has suffered repeated attacks.