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Ukraine War, French Troop Exit Shake up the Volatile Sahel Region

Conflicts have raged in the Sahel since 2012 but tensions are on the rise. Dynamics are shifting amid the withdrawal of French troops from Mali and reverberations from the Ukraine war. How will this affect insurgents seeking to entrench their position? 

On February 17, 2022, France, along with its European allies, announced the withdrawal of troops from Mali due to a breakdown in relations with the ruling junta after nine years of fighting a jihadist insurgency. The move was the culmination of rising anti-French sentiment which had been bubbling under the surface for years, manifesting in rallies and backed by the junta.

President Emmanuel Macron said military forces would continue to operate from neighboring Niger to help deal with the jihadist insurgency. Just a week later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine, ordering the simultaneous attack on land and from the air after months of Russian troops building up around the Ukraine border. Both events reverberated across Africa as a whole but especially in the conflict-ridden Sahel, a semi-arid region of Africa separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south. Other countries are evaluating their relationship with France now. Niger has embraced the redeployment of troops to its territory, but there are fears that Burkina Faso and Guinea could also be thinking of extricating themselves from French grip.

News of the Russian invasion into its neighboring country have impacted the prices of wheat and gas, as well as regular imports by African countries, consequently impacting at least a dozen economies on the continent, including in the Sahel.

This adds to tensions which have been running high in the Sahel since 2012, when an insurgency began in Mali. Major terrorist networks and militant groups have emerged despite efforts to contain them by counterterrorism forces and internationally supported military operations. The insurgency has displaced approximately half a million people and hundreds of people have been killed.

Conflict has spread across the Sahel as armed groups pledged allegiance to either Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. France, eager to entrench its influence in the mostly Francophone region has been unsuccessful in taming the insurgency since it first deployed troops to Mali in 2013 under then President François Hollande.

International forces failed to stifle conflict

While the intervention successfully stemmed the insurgents’ advance and initially returned key cities such as Timbuktu to government control, extremists quickly regrouped and spread elsewhere. On 5 June 2021, gunmen killed around 160 people in the town of Solhan in northern Burkina Faso. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, this marked a shift in the epicenter of the conflict from Mali to Burkina Faso.

Since January 2019, the number of displaced people in Burkina Faso has grown by 2,000 percent and over 1.7 million people have left their homes, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Médecins du Monde France and Oxfam. Of this total, two out of three are children, according to the agencies.

Political instability has added to the pressure on the region: There have been four successful coups – Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali – in the Sahel since 2019 and two unsuccessful ones in Guinea Bissau and Niger.

Frustrated by the quality of governance and the lack of success in quelling armed factions, many citizens supported the coup attempts, hoping the military would be swift in policy execution and more defense-minded. The 2022 Mali Country Report of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) underscores how the country has regressed in this context: its governance index, which charts elites’ determination and consistency in pursuing democracy based on the rule of law and a market economy, ticked lower to 4.66 out of ten possible points this year, below its ranking of 5.19 in the 2020 report. “Today’s political and security situation hardly differs from that of 2012, with two-thirds of the country’s territory still outside the state’s control despite the intervention of the international community since 2013,” the report stated.

Regional tensions rise

A similar pattern is underway across the region, for example in neighboring Burkina Faso. The country is hardly a stranger to military takeovers, but the most recent coup is seen as different “because it is happening at the same time as increased terrorist attacks,” said Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, director of the Africa Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The rise in coups across the region is partly seen as being driven by the success of others which, according to Paul Melly, a consulting fellow at London-based Chatham House’s Africa program, “generated a broader sense of destabilization and soldiers contemplating putsch attempts may increasingly feel empowered to do so.”

Emboldened by the support of the masses, Mali’s junta pushed for and successfully got the French to withdraw, even as diplomatic relations between Bamako and Paris rapidly decline.

The evacuation of French troops alongside the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) comes just as Russian afflicted Wagner mercenaries make more inroads into West and Central Africa, as well as the Horn of Africa.

The Wagner Group, a paramilitary group linked to the Kremlin, is also fighting for influence in the region. Already, it has made incursions into the Central African Republic and Chad. And in Mali, there are increasing reports of Wagner mercenaries being seen in parts of the country.

For these countries, Russia counts as a perfect alternative to the West, especially given its history with many African countries. The former USSR served as a staunch ally during the Cold War as support for anti-colonial liberation movements even as the CIA backed coups across parts of Africa. For instance, the Soviet Union funded the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and supported independence movements from Angola to Ghana.

During the UN General Assembly vote to condemn Russia’s action, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained were African – effectively, a third of the continent. Given the vestiges of Russian soft power on the continent, increasing anti-French sentiment, a wariness of the West in general as well as an increasing suspicion of China, it has only been natural for Sahel countries to drift towards Moscow.

According to Ebenezer Obdare from the think-tank Council on Foreign Relations, by opting to stay relatively neutral on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, African leaders are “weighing their philosophical commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity against concrete material and military support from a leader whose intentions they suspect, but whose support with no strings attached has come in handy.”

The story keeps unfolding and the Sahel remains unpredictable as competing powers battle for influence. But one thing remains certain: in the shadows, the insurgents lurk, seeking openings.

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