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US and France lose foothold in Africa’s Sahel region

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A protester wears a T-shirt in support of the Niger, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso junta leaders gesture during a demonstration on independence day in Niamey. Security concerns built on August 3, 2023 ahead of planned protests in coup-hit Niger. While these and other countries in the Sahel are moving toward a decolonised, developmental future, primarily fixed on enhancing and entrenching national security, peace will never thrive until the economy is built for and in the service of all their citizens, the writer says. – Picture: / AFP / on August 3, 2023

By Kim Heller

Anti-US and anti-French sentiment are on the rise in Africa’s Sahel region. Just weeks after Niger ordered US troops to leave, Chad is questioning the presence of American soldiers in its own country. Four of the five G5 Sahel countries, Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, and now Chad, are reconfiguring their relationships with international economic and military powers as they purposefully shake off Western colonial and imperialist chains.

These three former French colonies have become increasingly disenchanted with the ongoing extraction and importation of their natural resources by France. These relationships have seen low yield beneficiation to the poverty-wracked economies of these African nations.

Of the three nations, uranium rich Niger’s has been of particular interest to Western nations. Until a few weeks ago, when Niger instructed US military personal to leave, the United States had a strong foothold in this country. Earlier this month, protestors in Niger shouted, “Down with American imperialism”.

The US drone base in Niger, Air Base 201, was built in 2018 at a cost of one hundred million dollars, to stop Islamic insurgency groups in the region, including ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate, JNIM. Despite a strong presence in the Sahel, military operations and efforts by both France and the US, against jihadist militia have been largely ineffective.

The boot out of France and US is a boost for Russia and China. It is expected that these G5 Sahel countries will supersize their relationships with Russia, China, and even Iran. Russia has agreed to forge a military co-operation partnership with Niger and is already lending protective support to Burkina Faso.

This historical reconfiguration is largely an outcome of a new resurgence among G5 Sachel countries to advance and safeguard country sovereignty and security.

In mid-September 2023, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger declared the creation of the Alliance of Sahel States and in January 2024, announced their withdrawal from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas). This was a clear marker of the three nations’ intention to pursue a new developmental path.

The three countries are each led by the victor of a military coup. Colonel Assimi Goita took power in Mali, after a successful coup in 2021. In 2022, it was the turn of Captain Ibrahim Traore in Burkina Faso and in 2023, Niger’s president, Mohamed Bazoum, was overthrown and replaced by Abdourahamane Tchiani.

One of the key drivers for the coups, according to Samir Bhattacharya, an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, was “the anger against the government vis-à-vis their inability to put an end to the rebel insurrection”.

The Alliance of Sahel States obligates the three nations to support each other militarily and to forge a united front against jihadist terrorism and insurrection, which is rife in the region. Colonel Goïta, the leader of Mali’s transitional administration, spoke of how the alliance would create “an architecture of joint defence and mutual support for the benefit of communities”.

Political violence in the region has not waned. Bhattacharya writes how Burkina Faso has surpassed Afghanistan to become “the world’s number one victim of terrorism”. According to the Global Terrorism Index, almost half of the world’s deaths due to terrorism in 2023 were in the Sahel.

As Western military troops leave, there is concern that the security vacuum will be exploited by terrorists, insurgency groups and foreign mercenaries. The Global Conflict Tracker, conducted by the Centre for Preventive Action, points to the tenacity, might and violence of extremist organisations in the Sahel.

The centre warns that “the continuing collapse of international counter-terrorism support, as well as weakening leadership in regional efforts, has created a vacuum in which violent extremism can expand”.

The Centre argues that organisations including Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), and the Wagner Group (now rebranded as the Africa Corps) are capitalising on the absence of foreign involvement to expand their influence.

The Centre warns of the “possible convergence of security threats, including increased co-operation among terrorist organisations, and between terrorist and criminal organisations, could intensify the danger those groups pose in the region and beyond”.

Western powers are threatened by the possibility of Russia gaining a strong foothold in the region. A recent report by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change expressed concern that an influx of “predatory actors” particularly Russian paramilitary groups would bring security implications “far beyond the porous borders of the region”. The report warns too of an increased outflow of migrants to Europe.

Terrorism is not abating in the Sahel. Private military and security companies have failed to root out insurgency and terrorism. According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), the first seven months of 2023 saw at least 7,800 civilian deaths, a significant increase from 2022.

Rooting out terrorism in the Sahel is no easy task. Humanitarian crises, inadequate state security and governance instability provide fertile ground for these extremist groups.

As Sahel countries move away from neo-colonial and imperialist partners, and toward a decolonised, developmental future, it is primarily fixed on enhancing and entrenching national security. But peace will never thrive until the economy is built for and in the service of its citizens.

The Alliance between the three countries is looking at combined economic programmes. This is a much-needed initiative given the deep stain of persistent poverty across all three countries. If this economic rejuvenation project is to gain necessary traction and magnitude, it would require significant infrastructure investment and it is likely that the countries will look to Russia and China as partners.

The consistent refrain from the three G5 countries is that they welcome investment partners who respect their sovereignty. Nigerien Prime Minister Ali Mahamane Lamine Zeine has said: “No one will come and impose anything on Niger. Nigeriens will no longer be able to accept this. We have reached a milestone where no one will ever again come to dictate to us what we must do.”

The US has “expressed concerns” over Niger’s deepening relations with Russia, and over an alleged uranium deal between Niger and Iran. Moscow has signed co-operation agreements with over 40 African states. Niger’s Abdourahamane Tchiani met recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss anti-terrorism co-operation in the Sahel region. Military equipment has already made its way to Niger.

The Sahel region faces serious security and developmental changes. With a fast-growing young population, and limited economic development, transforming this region from a cesspit of terrorism and impoverishment into a zone of stability and development will require a steadfast commitment by leaders to positively alter the terrain.

Regime protection has been very costly and largely ineffective. Regional co-operation on matters of security, economic advancement and political stability should be at the forefront of the Sahel agenda. Foreign partners may bring a legion of military support and developmental investment, but it will be up to the African leaders to deal with the root causes of the current security and economic crisis.

This will include addressing government shortfalls, including poor and corrupt governance, developmental shortfalls, infrastructure and service deficits, and civil rights and protections. If these issues are tackled effectively, wanton insurgency should diminish, for it flourishes in and relies on conditions of distress and dissatisfaction.

A commitment to demilitarise society will also necessitate the Juntas in the three countries to restore civilian-led governments and governance.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.