Sahel: After a spate of coups, many soldiers ‘are developing a putschist appetite’, what can be done?

Alex Vines
By Alex Vines

Director, Africa Programme, Chatham House

Posted on Tuesday, 1 March 2022 17:23, updated on Wednesday, 2 March 2022 09:14
"Down the French" chanted the protesters. Malians, in favor of the Russian and Malian coalition, are demonstrating Avenue of Independence in Bamako, October 12, 2019. Credit:Bastien LOUVET/SIPA/

The Russian invasion of Ukraine draws international focus away from Africa’s conflict hotspots, a worry for African policymakers and UN officials in their AU-UN Joint Strategic Assessment on Security in the Sahel high-level hybrid meeting from 28 February to 3 March. 

This meeting comes at a watershed moment, following President Macron’s announcement that the French are pulling their troops out of Mali.

It also comes at a moment of increasing self-doubt among some of the key Minusma (the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission) contributors, who are reviewing their options on how to respond to a widening Sahel crisis, at a time that they are also having to forensically focus on Ukraine.

This decade saw a spate of coups, successful in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan, unsuccessful in Guinea Bissau and Niger. However well trained by the West some of these soldiers are, some are developing a putschist appetite. How worried should we be and what can be done?

Sahel-EU/UK relations

In Brussels, the Sahel and its adjoining coastal states are seen as an extended neighbourhood, important for collective security, but also for trade and the origin of a significant diaspora living in Europe.

Africa’s gold mining industry — traditionally dominated by South Africa — has shifted focus in recent years to Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, collectively producing over 275 tonnes; Guinea has the largest bauxite reserves in the world and Niger provides five per cent of global uranium production.

Add to this the growth of jihadist groups affiliated to Islamic State or Al Qaeda in states such as Mali and Burkina Faso that are increasingly unable to provide security guarantees beyond enclaves, the strategic importance of this region is evident. It is a region that you ignore at your peril.

London a few years ago tried to pivot its Africa policy towards the Sahel, opening embassies in Niger and Chad and expanding its diplomatic missions in Senegal and Mali. The EU unveiled last year its own new Integrated Strategy in the Sahel. Recent developments have quickened reviews, especially as these strategies were built upon working with some state actors who were then illegitimised as beneficiaries of coups.

The result is a partial retreat of Western engagement in the region although just prior to the EU-AU Summit, the EU’s foreign affairs and security policy chief Josep Borrell, tried to reassure saying: “We are not abandoning the Sahel. We are just restructuring our presence.”

The UK has slashed its overseas development aid to Niger by 50% for example and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss quietly in January reviewed the UK’s troop, some 250-troop contribution to Minusma, reluctantly accepting it should stay, for now.

The UK is not alone, Sweden is planning to pull out its 200 peacekeepers by 2023 and Germany is reviewing its 1000-troop contribution. Regional leaders such as the AU chair and Senegalese president Macky Sall and President Nana Akkufo Addo of Ghana have argued that given the French military pull-out from Mali, the UN operation needs to be strengthened, not weakened.

Minusma’s future mandate is up for review before the UN Security Council this June, and African regional powers and France are also busy lobbying for its continuation and is encouraging Berlin, London and others to remain engaged.

The ongoing fractious diplomatic relations between Bamako and Paris currently represents danger and opportunity. The danger is geopolitics, illustrated best by Russia scaling up its engagement with Mali’s junta – such as deploying its Wagner mercenaries and claiming they will be more effective than the Takuba – the task force of EU special forces supporting France’s Operation Barkhane mission.

The opportunity is that the junta, squeezed by Western and regional sanctions and with Russia now much distracted by its invasion in Ukraine, will need to compromise, including seeking dialogue with the jihadists.

This could not have worked while the French were present in force, so exploring what is the possibility for an internal Malian settlement is worth encouraging. A new French security configuration in West Africa will see troop levels halved to 2,500 by the summer with an increased footprint in Niger and Côte d’Ivoire and with a greater focus on ensuring the security of coastal states that have seen a small number of jihadi attacks or attempted attacks as seen over the last couple of years in Togo, Benin and Ghana.

Have security operations succeeded?

There is no quick fix for stabilising Mali or broader insecurity in the Sahel. France’s deep military engagement since 2013 has proved that a security strategy focused on countering violent extremism and stopping external migration to Europe does not work.

France’s Operation Serval was widely welcomed in Mali and the region at the time as successfully stopping the capture of the Malian state by jihadists.

Its successor, Operation Barkhane from 2014 was also welcomed, but its effectiveness was increasingly questioned in Mali and France and few tears will be shed at its ending in 2022. France has also tried to prepare for its direct troop decline by encouraging a Mauritanian security initiative – the G5 Sahel. Made up of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger this has had limited operational effectiveness – including that it excluded Senegal and key anglophone countries.

Its difficulties in the “three-border region”, where Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali converge, and militant activity is at its most intense, is a reminder of its limitations.

The G5 Sahel was partly created because although the West African regional body ECOWAS still provides relevant legal instruments, it has failed to be a deterrent for further coups and its military and intelligence capabilities are struggling. Additionally, key Sahelian state, Mauritania, is not a member.

The continental body, the AU has also struggled. This is worrying, as an effective regional economic community (REC) response was a key pillar for the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) that was unveiled in 2002 as a long-term structural response to the peace and security challenges on the African continent.

After a military coup in Niger in 2010, ECOWAS was instrumental in paving the way for the elections in 2011 that made Mahamadou Issoufou president. The first peaceful transition of power by elected presidents occurred in early 2021 when Issoufou stepped down having completed his second term. Possibly, the transition process in Chad, following the death in armed action of President Idriss Deby in April 2021, might with AU encouragement follow a similar path.

What is needed?

Insecurity in the Sahel will require regular policy attention for the foreseeable future. This is a region of a handful of core flashpoints (failed decolonisation of Western Sahara; conflict in Libya; Lake Chad Basin/Mali overspill) feeding into communal and intercommunal violence, exasperated by increased ethnic identity politics and increasing contestation over land and water access.

Some of the community coping mechanisms that had served communities well in the past have not been able to cope with the increased demographic and climate stresses of erratic rainfall and desertification that are quickening. External securitisation, be they by jihadists or foreign security actors including the US, European, French, and now Russia adds additional complexity.

The three core crisis countries of the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger – all have roadmaps for effective decentralisation, which if managed and resourced correctly could help gradually establish or re-establish some sense of positive state presence. This would mean institution building, better governance, and encouraging more accountable and developmental focused governments, while also providing improved security.

Improved security is critical, but past efforts have mostly failed, and security sector reform and military training will need to have a much stronger focus on human security.

There is also the need to build up conflict-sensitive investment into sectors that create jobs, such as farming through the development finance institutions, the Bretton Woods institutions, and others. This involves peace and nation-building partnerships at local and national levels, encouraging success, and working with the private sector and other non-state actors to innovate and generate opportunity and alternative livelihoods for the increasingly large pool of disenfranchised and frustrated youth.

Bottom line

This is not the time for the UN, EU members and the UK to slash their Sahel engagement – but it is the moment to move away from over-focus on combatting violent extremism to design better conflict-sensitive and human-security development focused policy and engagement for this strategically important region.

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