Bamako, Mali, Jan 13 – French President Francois Hollande said Friday that those battling jihad in Africa and the Middle East were like France part of “the same fight” against extremism.
Hollande spoke ahead of a summit with African leaders in Mali with the fight against extremists, the struggle to improve governance and the migrant crisis high on the agenda.
Mali had called on France four years ago to help force jihadist fighters out of key northern cities. To this day, 4,000 French troops remain in the country and across the Sahel region.
“It’s the same fight, the same stakes,” Hollande said while meeting troops in Gao, the fractious city in northern Mali that is home to a French military base.
“The terrorists who attack our land, who commit acts on our soil, are allied with those who are in the Levant, in Iraq and Syria, but here as well, in the Sahel,” Hollande said.
Earlier his foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged African nations to deal with the security threats they face but also to look at how development was progressing.
Ministers from at least 30 nations met in Mali’s capital Bamako Friday in advance of the arrival of heads of state to the Africa-France summit on Saturday.
Many of the nations attending the gathering were once colonies of France, which in recent years has boosted its military involvement on the continent.
In a bid to help crush the jihadist threat, France has trained more than 20,000 African soldiers every year since 2013, according to a French diplomatic source.
By 2020 the number of French-trained troops is expected to reach 25,000 a year.
The training drive aims to minimise the need for direct military interventions in African conflicts, such as those launched in Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013.
However the situation in key nations such as Mali remains far from stable.
Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said the jihadist threat did not only impact security, but governance and the economy as well.
“Terrorist groups operate in several countries,” Barry said. “If we want to attract investment… we have to work on peace and security for our nations.”
– Democracy vs. security? –
Heads of state and diplomats at the talks will also discuss a string of recent political crises in African nations.
Among them is The Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh is seeking to stay in power after his December 1 election defeat, despite pressure from his African peers.
Late Friday it was announced that Gambian president-elect Adama Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in the polls, was flying in to the summit to meet with regional heavyweights and to find a way out of the impasse.
Another concern is unrest in Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down has sparked a political crisis.
Analysts however have been critical of the French government’s failure to follow through on pledges to scale down alliances with strongman leaders.
Though Hollande had vowed to put an end to Africa-linked practices branded as neocolonial, the country’s involvement in the battle against jihadists has left his government deeply entrenched in the continent.
“The focus on security has made it necessary to maintain alliances with governments that don’t necessarily have good human rights records,” said researcher Philippe Hugon.
Hugon noted the examples of Chad, ruled by strongman Idriss Deby for nearly three decades, and other west African nations leading the fight against Boko Haram insurgents, but which are mired in corruption.
– Migrant flow –
Leaders meeting in Bamako will also discuss the huge flow of migrants from Africa to Europe, a diplomatic source said.
While European nations have pledged to increase aid to Africa in hopes of stemming economic migration trends, France is expected to sharply up its own pledges at the summit.
A French diplomatic source said Paris is expected to increase its annual aid and loan commitments to African nations by one billion euros to five billion ($5.3 billion) over the next three years.
While an EU-Turkey deal in place since March last year has largely capped the migrant influx into Greece, arrivals on Italy’s shores of mainly African asylum seekers have spiked.