A crowded place with few solutions: old and new players in the geopolitics of the Sahel

From a general perspective it can be said that every actor in the Sahel is walking on a tight rope trying to achieve limited objectives, without remaining stuck in the many complexities of the local political milieu.

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ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
UN Photo/Harandane Dicko

The Sahel is a crowded region from a geopolitical perspective. There are several different international military missions, and more than 7 countries are involved in development and security projects. At the same time the actions of many different kinds of non-state actors are undermining the region’s stability. In analysing the different issues at stake in the area, as well as the wide number of actors involved in them, the over simplistic narrative of the so-called “scramble for Africa” does not adequately address the power games in the region. From a general perspective it can be said that every actor in the Sahel is walking on a tight rope trying to achieve limited objectives, without remaining stuck in the many complexities of the local political milieu.

There are many geopolitical players in the #Sahel, but all seem unable or unwilling to implement long-term solutions to the root causes of the instability @lupollichieni

Since last spring, the events in the Sahel have to some extent accelerated. In April 2021 one of the oldest regional leaders, Chad’s president Idris Déby, died while on the frontline leading the fight against the rebels of the FACT movement. One month later, armed forces in Mali carried out the second coup in less than one year, ousting the civilian members of the previous administration. This sequence of political turmoil has produced a series of important consequences in the region. Firstly, the trend towards military rule by many Sahelian countries has shown the weakness of France’s strategy for the region. Paris’ COIN doctrine, which aims to focus on purely military issues while avoiding any involvement in internal politics, has proven to be unsustainable and this was evident in the different approaches adopted by France in relation to the developments in Chad and Mali. While accepting with little or no debate the nomination of Déby’s son as the head of the Transitional Government in Chad, in the aftermath of the second coup in Mali, France announced a drastic recalibration of its Barkhane mission, which by the end of the year will be cut by half, and will be moved to Niger

It is in this context that another relevant power player – Russia – entered the stage in the Sahel. Since September, the military junta in Bamako has been involved in talks with Moscow’s Wagner Group a Russian Private Military Corporation (PMC) already present in Libya, Central African Republic (CAR), Ukraine and Syria. The potential deal between the Wagner Group and the Malian government is crucial because there is something more than the Franco-Malian relationship at stake. In fact, beyond the well-known historical links between the two countries, Paris’ credibility as a global security provider has been compromised by the latest developments in the Sahel as well as in other strategic regions. Losing Mali is, by consequence, losing at least in part, global status for France. On the other hand, Russia’s more pragmatic approach to African politics seems to work to some extent, at least in the short-term. According to Putin’s doctrine, Africa is crucial for maintaining Russia’s global status and if the Wagner Group becomes active in Mali, Moscow is now perfectly positioned to achieve two main objectives: 1) cultivating commercial relationships with sub-Saharan countries that are now increasingly relevant for Russia’s struggling economy; 2) continuing to keep the West under pressure on its southern border. It is important to assess how the arrival of the Wagner Group in Mali might be symptomatic of another important development in the future. In fact, with a military junta which does not seem to be willing to abide by the roadmap for the return to democratic rule, Russian contractors could easily become a tool for the suppression of dissent. 

Other key actors in the Sahel are waiting for further developments. Turkey for instance, might capitalise on France’s crisis in the Sahel. Ankara has invested in many soft power initiatives and it has also contributed to the G5 Sahel regional alliance with 5 million dollars, but it is now focusing its efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa, both crucial hotspots for its “Blue Homeland” strategy. Put succinctly, Ankara’s investments in the Sahel proves how the country is there to stay, but it is not interested in getting involved in the regional issues more deeply at the moment. 

A number of initiatives implemented by local communities in the #Sahel seem to be finding solutions for issues like armed violence or access to water @lupollichieni

In the same vein, China continues to adopt a low-profile strategy in the Sahel, even if this approach starts to show its limits. Beijing prefers to limit its efforts to the protection of its economic initiatives (including BRI hotspots) and to participate in other International Community backed initiatives such as MINUSMA. Still, populations of Sub-Saharan Africa are now starting to be more critical of the alleged long-term benefits of the Beijing consensus. Data of the last Afrobarometer shows how there are positive views of China as a trading partner, but the majority of the sub-Saharan countries continue to look at the United States of America (USA) as the best development model in the long term. Moreover, Sahelian governments understand that Beijing is not keen to act as a security-provider for its African partners in the same way that France or Russia is willing to do. Just like the USA prefer to focus its African policy on security, Beijing has decided to focus on trade.

In conclusion, the key geopolitical players in the Sahel are unable or unwilling to implement long-term solutions to the root causes of the instability. Talks on issues like economic inequalities, climate change and poor governance performance remain generally lip services at the margin of great events such as the UN General Assembly or the G20 meetings. Despite this, not everything seems lost. In fact, even if also regional organisations such as the ECOWAS are struggling to adopt solutions to the instability, a remarkable number of initiatives implemented by local communities in the Sahel is proving to be efficient in addressing the main concerns of the local population. More specifically, autonomous peace deals, such as the ones negotiated in the Mopti, Segou and Timbuktu regions in Mali as well as in the Sahel and Nord regions in Burkina Faso, show how local communities are able to find solutions for issues like armed violence or water access in the lands most affected by insecurity and humanitarian issues. These deals would necessitate strong political backing by recognised actors to be implemented on a larger scale but sadly these are lacking. This is the main lesson to be learned from the latest development in the Sahel: after years of unsuccessful top-down initiatives it is time to advance African solutions for African problems.

Luciano Pollichieni is a Research Fellow at Critica and a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham. His research focuses on geopolitics of Africa and emerging security threats. He tweets at @lupollichieni.

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