French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Picture: REUTERS/MAX ROSSI
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Picture: REUTERS/MAX ROSSI

Bamako — France’s top diplomat Jean-Marc Ayrault struck a defiant tone at a summit on Friday with African foreign ministers as he urged them to show confidence and hope despite the jihadist threat.

With the battle against extremists, the struggle to improve governance and the migrant crisis high on the agenda, ministers from at least 30 nations met in Mali’s capital Bamako before heads of state due on Saturday.

Mali called on France four years ago to help force jihadists out of key northern cities. To this day, 4,000 French troops remain there and in the Sahel region.

"(Choosing) Bamako as the venue is an act of confidence after the intervention," Ayrault told journalists as the summit opened. "Today, we are taking a new step."

Ayrault urged African nations to deal with the security threats they face, look at how development was progressing and "talk about hope".

Many of the participating nations were once ruled by France, which in recent years has boosted its military involvement in the continent.

In a bid to help crush the jihadist threat, France has trained more than 20,000 African soldiers every year since 2013, says a French diplomat.

From now to 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 intervention in African conflicts, such as those launched in Mali and Central African Republic in 2013; the situation in key nations such as Mali is still unstable.

Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Alpha Barry said the jihadist threat affected security, governance and the economy. "If we want to attract investment... we have to work on peace and security for our nations."

Heads of state and diplomats attending the talks will also discuss 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.

Also on the agenda is unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down has sparked a political crisis.

Analysts, however, are critical of France for not following up pledges to scale down alliances with strongman leaders. Though President Francois Hollande had vowed to put an end to Africa-linked practices branded by critics 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 of west African nations leading the fight against Boko Haram, which are mired in corruption.

Leaders meeting in Bamako would discuss the flow of migrants from Africa to Europe, a diplomat said.

While European nations have pledged to increase aid to Africa, hoping to stem economic migration, France is expected to increase its pledges sharply at the summit.

A French diplomat said Paris was expected to increase its aid and loans commitment to African nations by €1bn to €5bn over the next three years.

While an EU-Turkey deal in place since March last year has reduced the migrant influx into Greece, arrivals on Italy’s shores of mainly African asylum seekers have spiked. At a summit in the Maltese capital Valletta in November 2015 EU leaders agreed with their African counterparts to set up a €1.8bn fund to help address the root causes of migration.

In return, African countries would step up border controls and accept repatriation of people who make it to Europe but are judged to have no right to remain.


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