France pushed to expand Africa security role
Hollande, who hosted more than 40 African leaders for a summit on security in December, also faces calls for France to do more to help Nigeria and other countries in the region address the threat posed by terror groups, writes Angus Mackinnon
FRENCH President Francois Hollande heads to Nigeria today under pressure to extend his country’s security role in Africa after launching military operations in Central African Republic and Mali.
Hollande is the only Western head of state due to attend celebrations to mark the centenary of Nigeria’s unification and will also take part in a summit on security, peace and development during his two-day visit. French officials have been keen to talk up the Socialist leader’s status as guest of honour at the centenary celebrations as a positive sign as France seeks to expand its investment and trade footprint in a country increasingly seen as the continent’s emerging economic powerhouse.
But Hollande, who hosted more than 40 African leaders for a summit on the continent’s security in December, also faces calls for France to do more to help Nigeria and other countries in the region address the threat posed by the growing strength and influence of terror groups.
The issue was placed in sharp focus on Tuesday, when 43 students sleeping at a government boarding school in northeastern Nigeria were burned, shot or hacked to death in an attack thought to have been the work of militants from the Boko Haram group that operates in the area.
Nigerian officials believe Boko Haram benefit from the porous nature of the country’s borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, which means militants can easily move out of reach of their security forces. They would like France to help and encourage its former colonies to do more to seal their frontiers.
“I think what we need is international cooperation from the French, from the French-speaking west African countries to work together to deal with this problem before it becomes a major problem for France, for western interests operating in west Africa,” Information Minister Labaran Maku said.
“It will devastate French interests if we allow this terror to go on,” the minister told AIT television. The instability of Nigeria’s north and bordering regions has had a direct impact on France in the form of the recent kidnappings in Cameroon of a French family and a priest. The victims were all released unharmed after intervention by Nigeria.
“What France has done with Operation Serval in Mali and what Nigeria is doing against Boko Haram are complementary,” a French official said.
“France fully intends to continue and deepen its intelligence dialogue with Nigeria.”
France sent troops into Mali last year to combat Al Qaeda-linked fighters who had seized control of much of the vast desert north of the country.
That operation won plaudits internationally and broad support at home. But French voters have been less enthusiastic about this year’s deployment of troops to the Central African Republic to quell sectarian strife there.
Increasingly, Hollande’s domestic opponents are questioning the scale of France’s commitment in Africa and the reluctance of other western powers to provide military or financial backing for operations the president has portrayed as being driven by compelling security or humanitarian concerns.
After Jacques Chirac in 1999, Hollande is the second French president to have made an official visit to Africa’s most populous country, which formally became a unified British colony and protectorate in 1914.
The only other western leader due to attend the summit is European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso.