BY | February 13, 2013

By Saroj Mohanty

New Delhi, (IANS) When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sits with President Fracois Hollande here Thursday for a review of the strategic partnership, he would perhaps do well to seek a little more clarity on the situation in the Sahel which holds significant interest for India.

A 1,000km-wide region between the Sahara desert in the North and the Sudanian Savannas in the south, the Sahel passes through central Mali and holds rich hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

France has desired to pull out its forces from Mali and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who is accompanying Hollande in his two-day India trip, has suggested that the West African force should take over as soon as possible which then could be turned into an international peacekeeping one under the UN umbrella as early as April.

The state of the French economy could be a reason for this. Europe’s second largest economy grew at just 0.1 percent in 2012, and unemployment is reported to be at a 14-year high of nearly 11 percent. High labour and production costs have denuded the country’s competitiveness in the international market.

Not everyone, however, believes so. Reports emanating from the region and elsewhere say Mali is part of the geoeconomics/geopolitics game, and security and diplomatic observers wonder if Paris would really be able to extricate itself from the conflict.

Energy resources, particularly uranium and oil, are said to be a critical factor in France’s interest in the Sahel. Nearly 80 per cent of France’s energy generated by some 60 nuclear power plants is said to be dependent on African uranium.

Besides gold, Mali possesses untapped oil and mineral reserves. But most attractive to foreign interests is the country’s potential uranium deposit.

In March 2012, the then Malian government under Amadou Toumani Toure had begun granting exploration rights in the country. The Authority for the Promotion of Oil Research in Mali (AUREP) was set up to divide the land into 29 regions, of which 20 were made available to foreign companies.

In nearby Niger, the world’s fourth-largest producer of uranium, French company Areva, which is negotiating a deal with the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL), does the major part of the mining.

There have also been reports that French Special Forces are guarding the uranium mine at Arlit.

On a visit to India last month, Niger’s energy Minister Foumakore Gado had sought Indian expertise to develop hydrocarbon resources in the country.

Another West African nation, Guinea, which holds nearly two-thirds of the world’s bauxite reserves and has huge deposits of gold and diamonds, has offered Indian companies farmland and mineral resources on lease for development.

“Big mining companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are present today in Guinea. We want Indian companies to come and participate in our development,” Industry Minister Ramatoulaye Bah told IANS earlier this month.

Analysts say France, facing challenges from local groups and international players like China, is trying to regain influence in former African colonies and the intervention in Mali is part of such a policy.

For example, the US has its Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was created in 2007 by the military to secure the “free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market.”

Mehdi Taje of the Nouakchott (Mauritanie)-based Strategic Security Centre for the Sahel and Sahara says the interests of France and the US are similar.

They want to “secure the energy resources of the Sahel and deter rival powers such as China, Russia, India and, to a lesser extent, Brazil,” the Foreignreport.com quuoted him as saying.

In Libya, a number of Western companies exploit some of Africa’s biggest oil reserves.

Informatively, France was one of the first to send its warplanes against the Gaddafi regime in Libyan civil war.

Some even link the intervention in Cote d’Ivoiry to the huge cocoa industry in the West African country.

“Apart from economic, there’s also a strategic importance: this part of Africa opens routes to the Red Sea and the Middle East. Britain and France have for centuries fought over it. It’s like a remake, but with many others involved,” the Russian news Service RT quoted Bruno Drweski of the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations as saying.

Remarkably substantive, the Indo-French strategic partnership, launched 15 years ago, encompasses a large number of areas of cooperation such as defence, fight against terrorism, civilian nuclear energy, science and technology, space and economic and cultural contacts.

Bilateral trade and investment are likely to top the French agenda this time.

Chiefs of more than 60 top French companies are coming to India, the first visit by the president Hollande to Asia since taking office.

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