The Sahel coalition and the need for African self-reliance

At the end of 2023, the foreign ministers of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali agreed on a plan to “promote political and economic integration” under which the first stages leading to the creation of a confederation between neighboring countries, whose ruling regimes share the product of successive military coups with similar personal characteristics, will be launched. It is no secret to those interested that the three regimes of this state have in common the predominance of the youth element over their leaders, who take the initiative to close the file of civil systems cloaked in democracy.

In the eyes of observers, the measures agreed between the Sahel ministers for foreign affairs are at the heart of the aspirations of the West African heads of state and issued following the adoption of the Liptko Gourma Pact of the Sahel Alliance (AES), which bears the name of a historic region bordering the common borders of the three countries of the alliance.

This may be due to the cultural, political and social commonalities among their peoples and the urgent need for mutual assistance and support by military force when necessary. Moreover, for strategic reasons, these successive meetings are part of a long-term goal that must eventually be completed by the unification of the parties to the Charter into a confederation that could serve as a security alternative to the G5 Sahel (practically dissolved), which along with these three countries included Chad and Mauritania.

The new alliance could be a political and economic option in the face of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which imposes a suffocating blockade on the economies of the initiating countries, in addition to turning the page on the French presence in the region and searching for new international allies.

Why have defense policies failed in the Sahel?
The Leptakou Gourma region, also known as the “tri-border” in reference to its distribution between the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, is described as a “loose pit”. In an area of 370,000 square kilometers, the area historically dominated by pastoral communities, especially the Fulani and Gorma, but also the Tuareg and Songhai peoples, it is noticeable that state institutions are not present, despite the need to control demographic and natural overlap and the pressure of ethnic loyalties that transcend national affiliation.

According to the Terrorism Index (GTI) 2023, a report published by the Australia-based Global Institute for Economics and Peace, the region has become a hotbed of terrorism, recording in 2022 more deaths from terrorism than South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa combined. According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, more than a third of civilians killed by Islamist militant groups in the Sahel lost their lives in one of the five provinces (Ansongo, Gao, Odalan, Soum and Sino), accounting for nearly a quarter of all violent incidents linked to Islamist militant groups in the Sahel. Burkina Faso ranks first continentally and second globally in terms of the number of people affected by terrorism after Afghanistan.

The Leptakou Gourma region extends deep into the Burkinabe border with about 58 percent of its total territory, which explains why it is affected by an unprecedented set of jihadist threats targeting the Burkinabe depth, including the capital, Ouagadougou, and others in the plateau, central and north. This is not only a question of overlapping borders, but also a clear link to the chaos that characterizes the continuous displacement of unstable or expatriate groups and ethnicities, or those forced by the years of great drought from 1970 to 1985 to migrate, with the accompanying deterioration of vegetation cover, which undermined harmony and cohesion among the population.

Prolonged drought and instability have been a major impediment to civilian access in Sahel states to basic services, including securing people’s livelihoods and property during periods of hardship, which is why jihadist groups have taken the tri-border area 11 years ago as the heart of their strategies to confuse local governments. They have not hesitated to engage in illegal activities in length and breadth, combining trafficking of all kinds (in arms, drugs, motorcycles and fuel smuggled from Nigeria), targeting the wealth of dignitaries and kidnapping livestock during attacks on villages and nomadic populations.

It is clear that, in addition to gold mining and river fishing in northern Mali and Niger, which have been a major source of financing of terrorism, extremism, and recruitment of followers along distinct ethnic, racial and tribal grounds, according to information circulating, these operations have enabled IS-Wilayat Sahel leaders to begin collecting zakat forcibly in exchange for protection.

For example, it was not long before the suffering of the population in Burkina Faso was compounded by cross-border operations by groups, until Burkinabe circles became convinced that the lawlessness within the Liptakou Gourma region was an extension of the financial crisis and that the latter could no longer control its borders.

In this regard, the rulers of Bamako were seeking to remedy the imminent danger to the unity and sovereignty of their country, and the transitional president, Yonkunda Traoré, activated military cooperation treaties with France, in light of the military interventions that the Élysée had already carried out in several former colonies with the aim of keeping his popular political allies in power according to requirements determined by the “African arm of France”, often secret rules that date back to 1959 and 1961.

In keeping with the Malian appeal, then-French President François Hollande announced in February 2013 the launch of Operation Serval with the aim of preventing the Malian capital, Bamako, from falling into the hands of the armed groups advancing towards it, calling the move “the happiest day of his political life.” However, the years of honey did not last long, as the relationship collapsed after a decade horribly against the backdrop of the failure of security policies in Mali, as described by Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, acting Prime Minister, in 2022, who considered them “colonial, condescending, patriarchal and vindictive.”

Worse, civil and spiritual forces felt overwhelmingly in this direction: the French authorities did not always fully understand “the historical sensitivities that existed with the Sahel states, and often erred for a deep lack of humility and listening” to their local partners. In our view, the growing hostility to France in the Sahel is due to the confusion between France and the financial and economic interests of its visible and hidden allies in northern and southern Mali, including the powerful rebel frontline leaders, which was seen as a dubious role and a stabbing in the back of the Malian people. As the French proverb goes: “The road to hell is not without good intentions”. In January 2022, the French ambassador in the same capital, Bamako, found himself “persona non grata”, which forced the French Foreign Ministry to return him to Paris on the same warplanes carrying Barkhane’s soldiers who withdrew from Mali by a decision of another French president, Emmanuel Macron, to leave France in the Sahel region, leaving it mired in one of the world’s major humanitarian crises.

Despite the large financial and military supplies, the international forces led by France failed to confront the rebellion of Islamist groups in the Sahel countries, and were unable to help the Malian state regain control over the northern provinces, which allowed the correctness of anti-French attitudes and left a negative impression on the peoples of the region towards the old colonizer, in the light of three indicators:

  • Doubts hover over the effectiveness of the French presence: African peoples saw French bases in many countries as protective rules for companies exploiting local strategic resources, without showing the impact of this on African youth who die at sea on their way to Europe after facing serious obstacles in obtaining visas from French and European embassies in the region. However, since September 1986, when freedom of movement between France and its old colonies was the norm, France has been inaccessible to African citizens, as its influence on regimes grows and its ties to capital deepen.
  • The growing role of Panafrikanism: Social media has been an important and necessary means of communicating with people around the world, and in Africa it has played a major role as a tool for forming and building relationships and creating a sweeping sense of belonging to African authenticity. Thus emerged panafrican activists or African nationalists who, over time, constituted the most vocal and daring critics of French policies in Africa, among them Kimi Seba, Nathalie Yamb, and others. They have a kind of harmony or coordination in this regard with countries with anti-French influence in Africa, and it has often been observed that the advocates of this current and Russian interests are seeking rapprochement on the one hand, as they are constantly invited to forums and television programs, and on the other hand, the link of influence and sway between the leaders of the three countries and the pioneers of this current calling for authentic African nationalism is not hidden.
  • Failure of Operation Barkhane: The unrest and rebellions that the region has witnessed since 2012 have necessitated a response through Operation Serval in Mali and Barkhane in the Sahel countries, but the French intervention did not achieve satisfactory results. Instead, the contagion of turmoil spread in the rest of the countries, and humanitarian crises and waves of displacement worsened over the past decade, provoking the indignation of the population, who considered France’s intervention a renewal of the colonial era, and thus the escalation of anti-French rhetoric and tendencies.

The collapse of the Group of Five Sahel countries
In the days following Mali’s 2022 coup, President Macron seemed more interested in emphasizing “restoring legitimacy” and publicly committing to restoring democracy than in understanding the political elite and ordinary citizens why French-backed armies had failed to make tangible progress within areas controlled by armed groups.

Therefore, the concerned authorities did not fail to hunt the prey, which has come to be described as the “old colonizer” who tries hard to show an exaggerated role, which justifies the military’s seizure of central power by force in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. There is no doubt that this series of coups has given way to dramatic repercussions that have hit the region successively. In light of the geopolitical rivalry between the great powers, the ruling military councils have successively begun to develop their security relations with Russia and its proxy in the region, the Wagner Special Group, a step under which the latter has begun to rebuild its strategic presence in the troubled countries of the region.

Most African politicians, including France’s fiercest critic, for example activist Nathalie Yamb, have reinforced anti-Western sentiment in general, and the French-Russian withdrawal has enabled the Russians to infiltrate these powers with little competition on the ground.

To illustrate further, the G5 Sahel was established in early 2014 by Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger as contracting parties to establish a development framework with a military arm entrusted with joint defense responsibilities by states. After months of this momentum, member states decided to create a flexible structure for the organization’s structures, including a permanent secretariat in Nouakchott (the headquarters country) entrusted with coordinating the security and development policies of the five countries, with a focus on the management of border areas.

Bamako hosted operational forces, and the armies of the five countries pushed their forces to join the joint force, which was never tested on the ground due to its lack of means and equipment. The organization’s military performance remained very confused, until the Malian side dealt the first blow to the group, in May 2022, justifying its departure by saying that this five-member organization was “exploited abroad” after a decade of French deployment on its territory. In December 2023, military leaders in Burkina Faso and Niger announced their withdrawal “from all bodies of the Sahel community, including the joint force.”

Thus, without neglecting other motives, the disintegration of the five Sahel group appears to be linked to the French withdrawal from the Sahel as well. In this way, the geostrategic rivalry between the West and Russia has intensified within the five regions of the African continent in a game aimed at highlighting the presence of new poles that cannot be bypassed on the international and regional arena, forcing the West to recognize Russia as an international power added to a different international system.

The Russian project is moving in accordance with the permanent confrontation with France’s interests in the Sahel region, offering Africans immediate armament, intensive training and advice in exchange for Russia benefiting from ore mines and political support within the corridors of the United Nations.

Rebuilding the national self through the Sahel Alliance
Finally, the military councils praised the high energy of their leaders following the declaration by Mali’s transitional president, Colonel Hashimi Quita, at the beginning of November 2023, Mali’s victory over rebel movements in the Kidal region, the stronghold of the Cadre Stratégique Permanent, or CSP) in the north. The latter brings together separatist factions such as the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) and some other armed groups, which aspire to establish a national home for the Arab and Tuareg inhabitants of the north, which, if imposed, would have devastating consequences for the stability of neighboring countries such as Algeria, and in particular would put Niger and Burkina Faso at certain risk.

From this perspective, the latter two countries supported this process, which represents the first fruits of the Sahel Alliance, which was announced ahead of this development, which was the result of the support of the Russian Wagner Group. In a pessimistic conclusion to this victory, the International Crisis Group concluded that the clashes sparked by the withdrawal of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the subsequent attempts by both sides to seize the UN’s strategic bases would, in the long run, become costly for all parties, with “the Malian authorities and the Permanent Strategic Framework risking losing their territorial gains to the jihadists. Prolonged fighting between the two sides would weaken them, in favor of jihadist groups.”

It is not yet known whether the Tuaregs, who have withdrawn to the Ifoghas highlands and mountains in order to regroup, may consider a response to the new alliance in coordination with Islamist militants and retaliation against the Malian army.

Meanwhile, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM) (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) intensified its attacks on Malian forces along with Wagner, with its spiritual leader, Iyad Ag Ghali, vowing to inflict a humiliating defeat on the New Sahel Alliance, which he described as an alliance of “new infidels”, and calling for general mobilization to achieve its goals.

This stance demonstrates fierce competition with its other, most influential opponent in the future of the Sahel in general, the Islamic State-Wilayat Sahel (IS-Sahel), which stands out from other Sahel jihadist groups by its constant quest to portray itself as more “orthodox” and hyperbole than others. For its part, the group sees tight coordination between the armies of the new alliance cooperating with Russia and Wagner as a direct threat to the areas it controls, especially the border triangle or Liptako Gorma.

For example, thanks to Bamako’s revival of its defense ties with Moscow, the Malian army has acquired large shipments of Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jets and aircraft designed to support ground forces, Peters L-39 attack aircraft, Mi-8S helicopters, designed to transport troops and ground troop equipment, among others. This has allowed for a series of successes in confronting jihadist groups and rebel movements in the north of the country over the past few months.

However, this would not have been possible without the entry of the Bayraktar Turkish drone (TB2) into the war arena. These drones clearly contributed to the battle in the north, given the ability of these drones to accurately locate and neutralize targets. Available information indicates that Niger was the first to acquire this type of aircraft in the region.

At the end of this paper, we conclude by acknowledging that the dynamics of international and regional intervention in the Sahel region contribute significantly to fueling local conflicts, and their repercussions increase the seriousness of intergovernmental cooperation, causing the slow international financial support for the operations of the five Sahel countries for 10 years to cause the grouping to collapse suddenly. The international community has also made no effort to activate the peace agreement signed in Algiers in 2015 until it has turned into a burden on the signatories, at a time when the countries of the region are mired in a quagmire of regional and international geopolitical interests and raging conflicts both internally and externally, without local actors having clear roles through which they can advance options for negotiating a settlement.

In theory, in most Sahel countries, deteriorating socio-economic conditions contribute to unemployment, lack of hope for reform of authoritarian regimes, and lack of equitable distribution of national wealth. All of this has created a ticking time bomb context, with massive migration to the north, as well as the long-term cost of armed conflicts that will inevitably lead to more bloodshed or massive popular revolts.

In practice, the military leaders of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali have engaged in a defense pact in the context of the Liptko Gourma (alliance of Sahel states) pact committing them to fighting the battle jointly. In their view, “any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more of the contracting parties will be considered aggression against the other parties.” Unfortunately, this may not be achieved if deplorable circumstances and conditions push other coup forces with illegitimate ambitions to power.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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