France urged African nations on Monday to step up cross-border cooperation to tackle security challenges from Islamist groups in southern Libya to Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, as it seeks to scale back its military commitments on the continent.
Amid budgetary pressures at home, France is looking to reduce security commitments in Africa. It is scaling back the 2,000 troops it deployed a year ago to curb Christian-Muslim violence in Central African Republic, a former colony.
It is also pressing African nations to improve counterterrorism cooperation in the Sahel, where it has deployed a 3,200 strong mission to battle Islamist militants.
French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told African leaders, security analysts and businessmen in Senegal's capital Dakar that they should create a regular forum to exchange ideas and “help Africa take charge of Africa's security.”
“A strictly national management of security is now an illusion. The terrorist threat knows no frontiers,” he said, pointing to spread of attacks by Boko Haram militants in from Nigeria into northern Cameroon.
The most striking example of militants exploiting a lack of border security was in southern Libya, Le Drian said, where fighters expelled from Mali by a French operation in 2013 have regrouped and threatened to destabilize the whole Sahel.
U.N. special envoy to the Sahel region Hiroute Gebre Selassie said there were persistent indications the Islamic State group had set up training camps in Libya.
“Weak states are facing a phenomenon that goes beyond their frontiers,” Selassie said, noting that cocaine trafficking through the Sahel was worth an estimated $1.5 billion, more than the security budgets of these states.
In Central African Republic and Mali, France has handed control of peacekeeping operations to United Nations missions. Le Drian noted that it was mostly African troops that made up the majority of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Africa.
French President Francois Hollande is keen for France to shed its image as "Africa's policeman," telling African leaders a year ago that it would help African nations to train a joint military task force.
Delays in implementing an African Standby Force (ASF), under discussion for over a decade, was a key factor in forcing French intervention in Mali and Central African Republic. Officials at the 54-nation African Union said the 5,000-strong force should be ready by the end of next year.
However, some African officials voiced skepticism about whether the world's poorest continent should be expected to deal with problems that were often not of its making.
“We've seen that with the rise of terrorism, it's a global problem that needs to be resolved globally,” said a former African diplomat turned consultant.