Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have adopted an incredible approach towards tackling chronic conflicts and related security threats from various extremist groups like Boko Haram, al-Qaida, and Islamic State-affiliated groups by creating a formidable military alliance in the semi-arid Sahel region in West Africa.
As these West African States are entangled in fierce ethnic-Islamic conflicts that have adversely impacted on their sustainable development and economic progress, the trio-military force reflects a more proactive and dynamic coordination in resolving their own security hurdles. It would also enhance practical possibilities of combating terrorism and extremism in the interests of strengthening peace and security in the Sahel-Sahara region and other parts of West Africa.
Historically the three were closely under the French political control and has extended economic and security ties since colonial times. This geographically landlocked Burkina Faso has had several military coup d’états, the latest took place in Jan. 2022. Mali (May 24, 2021) and Niger (July 26, 2023) witnessed similar political trends, and both now under military administration and share startling critical accusations of corruption and malfunctioning of state governance against previous governments. But the finger-end points to France for gross under-development and large-scale exploitation.
These former French colonies have, for the past years, suffered from growing political deficiencies and frequent Islamic attacks. But the key reason, the underlying cause, those tribes are rebelling is due to deep-seated abject poverty across the region. Staging military takeovers was the trio’s dynamic struggle to wage a collective war against their governments and against France’s influence and hegemony. For instance, France, the United States and other European nations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up Niger’s army and the coup has been seen as a major setback. Overall security environment posses uncertain challenges and and devise strategies to tackle these emerging threats in the region.
Since last year, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been under regional and continental sanctions. The 15-member West African regional bloc has imposed stringent sanctions, finding a peaceful solution to the deepening crisis, but yielded little tangible results with no clarity on the next steps.
The African Union (AU), the continental organization which primarily coordinates the political and economic as well as the socio-cultural activities, observes the new trends as military rule spreads or re-appears in the West African region. That however, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly condemned such actions and further moved to imposed its sanctions as well on the military-ridden states. Their AU memberships, since then, have accordingly been suspended too.
Quite recently, on 28 November 2023, the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and the African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat convened their seventh African Union-United Nations Annual Conference in New York. In a joint communiqué issued at the end of the meeting, both reviewed progress in the implementation of the UN-AU Joint Framework for Enhanced Partnership in Peace and Security and the AU-UN Framework for the Implementation of Agenda 2063.
In particular, António Guterres and Moussa Mahamat again condemned the resurgence of unconstitutional changes of government in Africa and stressed the need for a timely and peaceful return to constitutional order in Burkina Faso, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, Niger and Sudan which are undergoing complex political transitions to sustain peace, development and human rights in the long term. There must be an extensive political awareness among the people in the Sahel region to focus on democracy, development, security and stability. It also called for the release of President Bazoum and other arrested government officials.
Nevertheless, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) were tasked to enhance their joint efforts to promote inclusive political transitions in those countries in support of the efforts of the respective transitional authorities and regional bodies. The meeting called for continued efforts towards a timely completion of all ongoing political transitions through peaceful, inclusive, transparent and credible elections.
Against this backdrop, they expressed concern over the challenges African countries continue to face towards the achievement of the AU Agenda 2063. Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali and Niger, nevertheless have displayed defiance to the sanctions and, crafting number of approaches and making their own efforts toward addressing security and development-oriented issues combined with some kind of good governance.
Revisiting the Past
Within the context of the changing political situation, Russia is rapidly penetrating into the Sahel. Moreover, to Russia’s expectations these Sahelian States have in place provisional governments, which includes civil society representatives. “We believe that a military approach to settling the crisis in Niger risks leading to a protracted standoff in the African country and a sharp destabilization of the situation in the Sahara-Sahelian region as a whole,” according to the statement posted to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s website.
South African Institute of International Affairs reports established the fact that Russia seeks to build on Soviet-era ties, steadily widening its influence, and noticeably deploy the rhetoric of anti-colonialism in Africa. Russia is engaged in asymmetric influence campaign in Africa. Borrowing from its Syria playbook, Moscow has followed a pattern of parachuting to prop up politically isolated leaders facing crises, often with abundant natural resources. Russia is fighting neo-colonialism from the West, especially in relations with the former colonies. According to the report, Russia sees France as a threat to its interests in Francophone West Africa, the Maghreb and the Sahel. The SAIIA is South Africa’s premier non-government research institute on international issues. (SAIIA, Nov. 2021 Report)
“Sanctions have already been announced against Niger, and its membership in the organization is likely to be suspended. Thus, a belt of states in political isolation and bordering on each other is forming in the Sahara-Sahelian region: Guinea – Mali – Burkina Faso – Niger. Russia is interested in expanding relations with Niger, as well as with all other African States, and thus could help to normalize the situation there,” Vsevolod Sviridov, Expert at the HSE University Center for African Studies, told Russia’s Financial Izvestia.
Russia’s Economic Interest
In pursuit of development, the five Sahel states need peace. An analysis of geopolitical factors underscores glaring facts that Russia is getting stronger with its military influence on bilateral basis, bartering equipment in exchange for access to natural resources. Mali has an agreement with Russia to build gold refinery while Burkina Faso also wanted energy power. A four-year memorandum guarantees the West African country’s largest gold refinery. Russia’s state nuclear energy company Rosatom signed an deal with Mali in October 2023 to explore for minerals and produce nuclear energy. It unreservedly offered high-level promise to build a 200- to 300-megawatt solar power plant by mid-2025.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank research reports show Sahelian states’ economy may face relative stagnation due to unstable conditions including persistent protest in the region. Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger have been severely affected by the rise in militancy, affecting overall economic performance. Agriculture represents 32% of its gross domestic product and occupies 80% of the working population in Burkina Faso. A large part of the economic activity of the country is funded by international aid, despite having gold ores in abundance. Burkina Faso the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, after South Africa, Mali and Ghana.
The December 2023 report by the World Bank, for example, indicated that the poverty rate across the Sahelian region is still deepening due to poor management and governance. The economic and social development could, to some extent, be sustained based on ensuring political stability in the subregion, supporting and intensifying local production, its openness to international trade and export diversification.
According to the UN’s Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) report of 2023, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. It faces challenges to development due to its landlocked position, despite the fact that it posses some natural resources including uranium ore. Government finance is derived revenue exports (mining, oil and agricultural exports) as well as various forms of taxes collected by the government. Reports, however, estimated improvement on its revenues after the exit of France. Niger was the main supplier of uranium to the EU, followed by Kazakhstan and Russia.
Across the Sahel, the estimated aggregate population at 120 million is predominantly young, with 49.2% generally under 25 years old. The conflicts have only deepened poverty and food insecurity, and the challenges increasingly gaining grounds in those countries. Future growth may be sustained by exploitation of various untapped resources. Uranium prices have recovered somewhat over the last few years. But much also depends largely on state control, good governance and, by prioritizing economic sectors in the region.
Niger has scrapped two key security agreements with the European Union that were intended to help fight violence in the Sahel region. It completely withdrew from EU Military Partnership Mission that was launched in February in Niger. It has also revoked approval for the EU Civilian Capacity-Building Mission, which was established in 2012 to help the country’s security forces fight militants and other threats. Most of Niger’s foreign economic and security allies have sanctioned the country, including France, which had 1,500 troops operating in Niger. All of them have been asked to leave.
In June 2022, Mali also abruptly withdrew from the G5-Sahel group and its Joint Force. The Joint Force was created in 2017 by the “G5” Heads of State—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger—to counter terrorism in the region. Reports pointed to the anti-French sentiments and under-equipped local armies to quickly step up their game against Islamist rebels in the volatile Sahelian region. By the end of 2022, France reduced and moved its troops. That ended the so-called “Operation Barkhane” which was a military mission marked by a tactic of permanent occupation of the Sahel countries by French troops. The French government, however, apparently would try to reorganize its strategy in Africa. From some indications, it appears the focus of action turns to the Gulf of Guinea.
At the AU extraordinary summit 25th to 28th May, 2022, held in Equatorial Guinea, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, highlighted the factors contributing to lack of development including and good governance, the growing tendency of usurping power by the military and the significance of forging a collective solidarity as basis for resolving continental and regional problems. Both Senegalese president Macky Sall (then the AU Chairperson) and Moussa Mahamat, issued statements urging the interim military governments to return to constitutional regimes as early as possible, reassuring that the solutions to continental problems and overcoming the existing challenges depends on strong mobilization of African leaders and the effective coordination provided by the African Union. Regrettably, all these have not yet become thing of the past.
United Nation’s Approach
The United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary General for Peace Operations, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, has argued that peacekeeping and terrorism fight face are greater challenges than ever, and that it requires multinational mechanisms and approach. It also requires member-states to adopt a collective capacity to support political and peace processes. Conflict is more complex and multi-layered.
According to Jean-Pierre Lacroix, peacekeepers are facing terrorists, criminals, armed groups and their allies, who have access to powerful modern weapons and a vested interest in perpetuating the chaos in which they thrive. Further complicating this situation is the fact that most peacekeeping operations – particularly our large, so-called multidimensional missions in Africa – have long been affected by a discrepancy between their capacities and what is demanded of them by the Security Council and host countries. Financial resources are often inadequate for their mandated tasks.
What’s at Stake
Niger and Burkina Faso have exited the anti-Islamist force this early December 2023, withdraw from an international force known as the G5 that was set up to fight Islamists in the Sahel region. Now Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – run by military rulers following coups who have formed their own mutual defence pact. Their so-called Alliance of Sahel States (AES) was signed back in September. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has often spoken against such inter-state collaboration.
But Chad and Mauritania are still part of the G5 force which is meant to be made up of about 5,000 soldiers. A statement from the military-led governments of Burkina Faso and Niger was critical of the G5 force for failing to make the Sahel region safer. It also suggested the anti-jihadist force undermined the two African nations’ desire for greater “independence and dignity” – and was serving foreign interests instead. They almost certainly meant France, whose power has dramatically deteriorated.
Usually referred to as the G5 Sahel, these countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – are engulfed with various socio-economic problems primarily due to the system of governance and poor policies toward sustainable development. In addition, rights abuse and cultural practices to a considerable extent affect current state of development.
The big question is what impact this would have on the Islamist militant groups that have been growing in numerical strength, scope of operations and degree of force across the Sahel region. Obviously, Russia is back in prominence on the world’s stage. As it flexes its muscles and tentacles to gain influence, the stature of the EU/US continues seemingly fading away. And former French colonies are simply turning to Russia for military support, bartering their natural resources for further much-anticipated collaborative partnerships. Russia has already entered in an agreement to develop nuclear power plants in Mali, while in Burkina Faso, it plans to construct oil-refinery.
For fear and concerns about the new rise of all kinds of terrorism and frequent attacks, the Sahel-5 are all turning to Russia for military assistance to fight growing terrorism, and efforts to strengthen political dialogue and promote some kind of partnerships relating to trade and the economy in the region. At the same time, with renewed and full-fledged interest to totally uproot French domination, Russia has ultimately begun making inroads into the entire Sahel region, an elongated landlocked territory located between North Africa (Maghreb) and West Africa, and that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Unique Lessons from Southern Africa
At least majority of African leaders have to consider a complete overhaul of their security system across Africa. The Security Committees of the African Union and that of the Economic Community of West African States have to learn few lessons and methodological approach in dealing with indiscriminate threats of terrorism, militant groups, Islamic State-linked insurgencies and other related issues in Mozambique.
The worsening security situation at that time was a major setback for Mozambique, but has been controlled by the involvement of regional troops from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community Military Mission (SAMIM). Rwanda offered 1,000 in July 2021. South Africa has the largest contingent of approximate 1,500 troops. External countries are enormously helping to stabilize the situation in Mozambique. Its former colonizer Portugal and the United States both sent special forces to train local troops. Mozambique’s approach towards fighting growing threats of terrorism and conflict resolution offers an explicit valuable lessons for the G5 Sahel which are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
At the panel discussions during the mid-December U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi was very outspoken, shared valuable experiences with the audience about the use of well-constituted regional military force for enforcing peace and security in Mozambique. He told the panelists that there have been “remarkable progress” as businesses have restarted and displaced people began returning to Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. His argument simply was on the necessity in adopting ‘African solutions to African problems’ on peace and security issues across Africa, and this should be seriously considered as the best suitable, comprehensive approach under the current emerging geopolitical situation.
Joint regional forces within the context of multilateralism still has, to a large degree, significance in tackling conflicts in Africa. The Joint Forces of the Southern African Development Community are keeping peace in northern Mozambique. The rules, standards and policies, provision of the assistance as well as the legal instruments and practices are based on the protocols of building and security stipulated by the African Union. It falls within the framework of peace and security requirements of the African Union. And has an appreciable commendation from the United Nations Security Council.
“We welcome collective action from SADC in committing to bringing sustainable peace to the region. We urge our leaders to consider the lessons learnt from other similar conflicts in Africa. In the Sahel, Somalia, and the Niger Delta offer stark contemporary reminders that a purely militaristic solution (devoid of measures to address the causes of the insurgency) increases the likelihood of its intractability. It is also unlikely to pave the way towards achieving sustainable peace,” the official statement from SADC.
The complexity and challenges in navigating this regional security partnerships could be diverse, it depends also on political culture and mechanism of pragmatic approach. There have been various assessments and interpretations, but the security initiative to create the joint southern force underscores the multiplex dynamics to better play at home-grown solutions. The SADC initiative portrays a distinctive blueprint for purely African-headed peacekeeping success stories in the region, precisely for Mozambique and this could be replicated in West Africa.
The changes sweeping across the world, it is glaringly well-known that a number of external countries are using Africa to achieve geopolitical goals, sowing seeds of confrontation which threatens African unity. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), during the 36th Ordinary Session of the African Union (AU) held in Addis Ababa, interestingly used the phrase – “African solutions to African problems” – seven times in his speech delivered on February 2023. He strongly suggested that for the existing conflicts and disputes on the continent, it necessary to mobilize collective efforts to resolve them and “must be confined to this continent and quarantined from the contamination of non-African interference.”
Final Security Breathe
As the security situation stands, the best option is to consider new approaches, taking into cognizance local factors, to regulate tensions and to prioritize development and economic sovereignty in the Sahel. And of course, many experts have suggested that addressing the Sahel crisis requires collective efforts and cooperation from all parties involved that can bring positive change in the region. Ultimately, it must be through tailored collective efforts and, most importantly, within the African context taking local conditions into accounts. As shown by the Mozambique, carefully evaluating the tangible advantages combined with results, it clearly underscores the degree of considerations be given to foreign involvement in conflicts without bartering natural resources. Sometimes the geopolitical factors are intertwine, though. In any case, to separate facts from fiction, Mozambique’s exemplary case is undoubtedly marked by significant successes.
In the context of – “African solutions to African problems” – the SADC’s regional force was earlier constituted in April 2021, agreed to deploy a regional force (3,000 troops) in Cabo Delgado, located in northern Mozambique and to fight threats of terrorism in neighbouring Southern African countries. What is referred to as Islamic attacks and insurgency caused havoc and devastation in Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique. The insurgency began in 2017 and left an unimaginable negative effects on settlements of the civilian population, on business and industry operations. The situation now is under control and see as a distinctive example for the rest of Africa. With relative regional peace, Southern Africa looks now toward the direction of attaining its economic sovereignty. Besides that, SADC counted on funding from the United States and European Union (EU) and the United Nations.