At first welcomed, these troops find themselves today in the crosshairs as a growing number of locals in this fragile region accuse them of failure or covert exploitation.
“We don’t see the justification for these bases, we don’t see the results on the ground,” said Maikoul Zodi, a prominent figure in Niger civil society.
“How can 20,000 foreign soldiers be unable to defeat 3,000 terrorists?” asked Ibrahima Kebe, host of a weekly show broadcast by a small Malian anti-establishment station, Patriot Radio.
France has some 4,500 soldiers in the Sahel, the UN has 13,000 peacekeepers in Mali, and the G5 Sahel alliance — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — is mustering a joint deployment of 5,000 troops.
“The French people must understand that their leaders’ policies are sowing misery in our countries and prompting our people to emigrate there,” Kebe said in a broadcast in mid-October.
He branded the region’s leaders as “national lackeys under the orders of Paris,” and charged: “In the name of the French people, the multinationals are pillaging our resources.”
Gabin Korbeogo from the Organisation of Democratic Youth of Burkina Faso (ODJ) alleged “the only goal (of the French forces) is to protect their strategic interests and consolidate their dominant position in the Sahel region.”
Niger has one of the world’s largest uranium deposits, Burkina Faso is among Africa’s top gold and cotton producers while Mali has vast reserves of gold, diamonds and phosphates.
There have been protests against the foreign forces, although these have been small in scale and seem uncoordinated.
On October 12, about 50 containers belonging to the UN peacekeeping force were looted in central Mali, and about a thousand people protested in the Burkina capital Ouagadougou at the “forces of occupation.”
The allegations of ineffectiveness have swollen as the security situation has worsened — notably in a large swathe of Burkina Faso where jihadist attacks now occur almost daily.
“There is a sort of fatigue and impatience,” said Ibrahim Maiga, a researcher at the Institute for Security Studies.
“The insecurity problem is not making headway, despite the many announcements about the resources that have been allocated.”
French Defence Minister Florence Parly, speaking after a trip to the Sahel, cautioned against the idea that there was widespread public opposition.
“There are some people who are trying to instrumentalise an anti-French sentiment in a bid to gain a position on the political spectrum,” she told AFP.
A French diplomat in Bamako pointed to the vastness of the region — an area the size of Europe.
There was an “incomprehension… about the scale of the deployment and its development on the ground,” the diplomat said.
Governments in a bind
When French troops first deployed in northern Mali in 2012 to fight the nascent insurgency, the threat was only confined to that region and the results were immediate and sweeping, the diplomat said.
As a result, the French intervention won popular support.
But the number of attacks and jihadist groups have since burgeoned, striking a swathe of countries on an almost daily basis, spurring criticism.
The governments of the countries meanwhile find themselves between a rock and hard place.
They need to be seen to respond to the public’s concern but also need international aid to back up their struggling armies, yet without looking too dependent on France, the former colonial ruler.
On Wednesday, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno and President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger condemned what they called lack of support from the world community.
The countries in the Sahel had “requested 12 billion (dollars) for development and 400 million dollars to equip our armed forces,” Deby told RFI radio on the sidelines of a “Peace Forum” in Paris.
“So far, nothing has happened with regard to the 400 million, and nothing with regard to the 12 billion.”