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Why the Sahel is turning its back on France and could Russia solve Africa’s security dilemma?

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Picture: Vincent Bado/Reuters – Supporters of Burkina Faso’s self-declared new leader Ibrahim Traore demonstrate holding a Burkina Faso and Russian flags in Ouagadougou. Dissatisfaction with the French forces’ failure to stop the rising violence among Islamist militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Daesh started growing in the Sahel, says the writer.

By Ekaterina Blinova

On Wednesday, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the gruesome September 26 attack in Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou is striving to bolster security while the nation and other Sahel states are calling upon the French military to leave the region.

“[The Sahel] is still under the oppression by different terrorist groups like Daesh in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger,” said Dr Mady Ibrahim Kante, lecturer at the Faculty of Administrative and Political Sciences of the University of Legal and Political Sciences of Bamako, Mali.

“We can also see these groups active in Benin, Togo or even in the Ivory Coast. The situation is still difficult in all of these countries. The Sahel still needs military and development programs (…) Attacks against civilians in these areas still continue because there are different terrorist groups present in this zone.”

The unfolding violence has been amplified by the difficult situation in the regional economy and food crisis, caused by severe drought and other climatic issues as well as the global disruption of grain supplies, according to Evgenii Korendiasov, leading research fellow at the Center for the Study of Russian-African Relations and African States’ Foreign Policy, Institute for African Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), USSR/Russian Ambassador to Burkina Faso in 1987-1992, Russian Ambassador to the Republic of Mali in 1997-2001.

“So in Africa, in this regard, in West Africa in particular, tensions are rising because we’re seeing a reduction in imports there of both wheat and other food products that West African countries generally import from abroad, including from Russia, Egypt, and France, of course, and so on,” said Korendiasov. “So now, the food situation in West African countries is quite complicated. The more so because the local crops could not give the expected yield due to the aggravation of climatic phenomena, swarms of locusts, and so on.”

Local terrorist groups and branches of the Islamic State are exploiting economic difficulties and food issues in African countries and stepping up their activities in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Niger, according to the former Russian diplomat.

Failure of Operation Barkhane and Growing Anti-French Sentiment in the Sahel

Nine years ago, France beefed up its military presence in the Sahel to fight against jihadi terrorism and halt the advance of Tuareg rebels in Mali. The surge in regional violence followed the NATO invasion of Libya and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

In August 2014, the French expanded their presence in the region by kicking off Operation Barkhane and deploying roughly 5 000 troops in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. However, the counter-terror initiative failed to reach its objectives as jihadists have managed to take large areas under their control in the region, according to Kante.

“France has been in the Sahel for more than 8-9 nine years now,” the academic said. “But still terrorists continue with their activities in the Sahel (…) The French failed to achieve their goals of fighting against the terrorist group in the Sahel and in West Africa.”

Eventually, dissatisfaction with the French forces’ failure to stop the rising violence among Islamist militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Daesh started growing in the Sahel.

“The French have not been very active in supporting anti-terrorist movements,” said Korendiasov. “Their activity has decreased somewhat, and they have been strongly criticised by the authorities of both Mali and Burkina Faso and Niger. The latter demands a greater involvement of the French army and more decisive action from the French army against the terrorist groups. The French have so far refrained from this. At least they are not hurrying to increase their activity, believing that the national African armies should increase their participation.”

In addition to that, the French have their own policy regarding the Tuareg population, a large Berber ethnic group that principally inhabits the Sahara in a vast area stretching from far southwestern Libya to southern Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso, according to the ex-diplomat.

“The French do not want to exacerbate relations with the Tuaregs, nor are they in a great hurry. It is not in their best interests,” he noted, adding that it prompts further criticism from the Sahel governments.

“On top of that, French policy in Africa continues to bear a deep neo-colonial imprint, which, of course, has angered Africans and complicated their relations with the French,” Korendiasov noted.

The emergence of anti-French sentiment can be explained by a number of reasons, according to Sergey Eledinov, a specialist on African affairs based in Senegal. First of all, it is the global economic crisis; second, Paris’ post-colonial “Françafrique system” has largely discredited itself and is currently in a deep crisis, according to the Senegal-based expert.

“Since its inception in the 1970s, this structure has not been reformed, has not adapted to changing conditions,” Eledinov said. “And if we consider the Francafrique system as a complex mechanism for the interaction of the governments of the former colonies with the metropolis, then France is considered responsible for those whom it [once ruled].”

The military operations that France kicked off couldn’t solve the regional dilemma, because it requires a comprehensive security program and long overdue government and social reforms in African states, according to Eledinov. At the same time, international terrorism always exploits weaknesses and conflicts between the state and society, he added.

To complicate matters further, the French have been accused by the Mali government of playing into the hands of extremists and even providing them with weapons. Even though Eledinov ruled out the French authorities’ involvement in arming jihadists, he noted that certain cases of weapons smuggling could take place, either by some French military personnel or via operations conducted by the French special services.

“In fact, the most serious problem was the involvement of the French contingent in the creation of local pro-government militias, which very quickly became an independent and separate side of the conflict,” the Senegal-based expert noted.

Anti-French Protests in Sahel

Meanwhile, the anti-French sentiment and dissatisfaction with Paris’ Operation Barkhane have translated into popular protests and the overthrow of governments which are incapable of coping with the terrorist threat.

After the 2020 coup d’etat in Mali, carried out by the National Committee for the Salvation of the People, led by Colonel Assimi Goïta, the nation’s relations with French President Emmanuel Macron started deteriorating, with the latter unilaterally announcing the withdrawal of the French forces in June 2021.

In late November 2021, Nigerien protesters clashed with a French military convoy after it crossed the border from Burkina Faso. On September 18, 2022, Nigeriens took to the streets again. They carried placards saying “criminal French Army – get out” and “The colonial army of Barkhane must go” while marching in the country’s capital Niamey.

Meanwhile, in July 2022, a series of anti-French protests began in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, under the slogans “No to cooperation agreements with France” and “France is imperialist, tyrant, parasitic, out.” The unrest went on through August, while in late September Army Captain Ibrahim Traore ousted Burkina Faso’s military leader Lt Col. Paul-Henri Damiba in the second military coup in a row.

Earlier, Damiba led the overthrow of then-President Kaboré in January 2022. Both Kaboré and Damiba were removed over their inability to thwart an armed uprising by Islamist militants in the country. At the beginning of October, the Burkinabe conducted protests near the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and set barriers outside the building on fire.

Russia’s Role in Africa

During the recent protests, the Nigeriens and Burkinabe carried Russian flags. This phenomenon was seen by some observers as a result of successful counter-terrorist actions by Russian military instructors in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), where they were invited by the countries’ authorities in 2021 and 2017, respectively.

“Mali asked Russia to help with equipment for Malian troops and training,” said Kante. “Russia agreed to support Mali with these things. I think when Mali gets these things, we see the difference from 2019-2020. Because Malian forces have become ready to fight against the terrorists in Mali. When we look at Burkina Faso, Burkina Faso is in the same situation as Mali in 2019 (…) It’s important for authorities in Mali to continue collaboration with Russia.”

Burkina Faso and other Sahel states also need training and equipment; but the Western countries do not meet their needs, deploying their own troops instead to maintain control over the region, according to Kante. The Malian academic argues that Sahel states need to diversify their relations with security providers and cooperate with different countries in terms of military assistance.

“[They] say we were colonised by France, so we have to listen to all the things France says. No, that is not true,” Kante emphasised.

A survey conducted by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in April 2022 indicated that 93.5% of Malians were aware of Russian military instructors’ presence in the country, with nine out of ten respondents (92%) believing that Russians will help Mali regain its territorial integrity.

“Russia’s role in Africa is now growing,” said Korendiasov. “First of all, they are attracted by Russia’s independent foreign policy position. Many African people see Russia as a kind of counterweight to the continuing neo-colonial pressure from France, Britain and other Europeans and the European Union as a whole. And that is why Russia’s independent foreign policy course, its defence of the principles of sovereignty, and its sharp opposition to terrorist threats on the African continent — this all attract the attention and sympathy of Africans to the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Russian-African relations are currently going through a revitalisation phase. As for the countries of West Africa, Russia is concentrating on the problem of combating terrorist organisations.”

The former diplomat elaborated that Russia is offering broad, national security cooperation to strengthen Africa’s counterterrorism and military capabilities against terrorist and other threats. Russia has also expanded military and military tech cooperation with Africans and is providing training to African military officers in military schools.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the African countries invite Russian military instructors to provide assistance to their respective states, Korendiasov noted.

“We think that we have to organise our national armed forces in a more solid way in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “However, private military companies, in particular our PMC Wagner Group, provide quite notable assistance, particularly in Mali, in the fight against terrorist groups in northern Mali.

That is why Russia’s authority in Africa is now increasing. [Russia’s] independent foreign policy and its willingness to provide comprehensive support to strengthen security and fight against terrorist insurgencies – all this has attracted the sympathy of the African people for the Russian Federation’s foreign policy and contributed to the expansion of economic, trade and, last but not least, military-technical cooperation.”

Meanwhile, the solution to the Sahel security dilemma demands a comprehensive program of national reconciliation, the resolution of interethnic and interreligious contradictions, and the creation of an inclusive government, highlighted Eledinov. If Russia offers such a program and rolls it out, it will gain serious political weight in the region, the Senegal-based expert concluded.

Blinova is an independent political analyst and a freelance journalist.

* This article first appeared on Sputnik News.