August 1, 2023

Geopolitics of The Sahel Region In Africa

Expect a rise of Islamist "militancy" in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

An excerpt from, "Mitigating the Sahel Security Conundrum: The Need for a Strategic Paradigm Shift" By Trayo A. Ali, 2018 Harvard Africa Policy Journal:

Precariously balancing the African continent in in almost every aspect —from geography, history, culture, environment, population, security and politics—the Sahel region stretches from the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea coast in the East to the Atlantic Ocean in the West Coast.  Covering an expanse of more than 7034 km from Mogadishu, Somalia to Dakar, Senegal, the region includes countries such as the collapsed Somalia, the small and resource-scarce Djibouti, drought-prone Ethiopia and its archenemy Eritrea, the Islamist hub and ethnically polarized Sudan, and the newest and highly troubled nation of South Sudan.  The Sahel belt further encompasses potentially explosive Chad, drought-stricken Niger, Burkina Faso, war-torn Mali, resource-cursed Nigeria, poor Togo and Benin, religiously tensioned Cote d’Ivoire, little Gambia, and one relatively stable state—Senegal.   The rest of the states in the belt are the anti-slavery-campaign-target Mauritania, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the two Guineas (Bissau and Conakry).  Serving as home to more than 60 percent of Africa’s population, the Sahel is the origin of most of the Africa’s civil wars.

The Sahel’s geographic scope and the unfortunately violent and volatile realities of its component countries have made her the host of the largest international peacekeeping forces. From the environmental perspective, the Sahel belt (boxed-in by the Sahara Desert and tropical Africa), is classified as having cyclically hard-hitting environmental degradation records associated with drought, rapidly encroaching desertification, scarce water, and acute food insecurity. Furthermore, in economic and developmental terms, the World Bank has designated all the Sahel countries, except Nigeria, as “Heavily Indebted Poor Countries” (HIPC).  This all around chronic situation is further compounded by the reality that the Sahel region has most of the continent’s refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). Moreover, the region has become a fertile breading ground for the seemingly ever-expanding radical Islamist militants, as well as a conducive ground for the proliferation of small arms and international drug trafficking. The Sahel region is also the sole major exporter and traditional exit corridor for the largest percent of Africa’s illegal migrants to Europe.

This multi-faceted security crisis facing the Sahel region has already spilled past its boundaries and been felt by the region’s neighbors, and often with terrorism-related events, especially in Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroun and Ghana.  It is this intricate mosaic formula that constitutes the metabolism of the Sahel security nexus.

An excerpt from, "Conflicting agendas and strategic rivalry in the Sahel" By Mohammed Ahmed Gain, Middle East Institute, November 16, 2021:

The Sahel reveals a lot about how Africa has become an area of competition between world powers with different foreign policy priorities, as they vie for greater political, military, and economic influence on the continent. Their conflicting agendas are affecting the Sahel, as reflected in a series of high-level forums and summits that address the region’s longstanding challenges but fail to acknowledge the essential role of African countries in responding to them.

A major arena of geo-economic and geopolitical contestation, the Sahel presents both challenges and opportunities for many traditional and emerging players. With nearly two-thirds of its population under the age of 25, the region is one of the youngest in the world, and its human capital is becoming the most important characteristic of its global profile. It also has abundant natural resources and great potential for renewable energy. As a result of these and other converging dynamics, the allure of the Sahel is intensifying the strategic rivalry between the West, Russia, China, and ambitious regional actors like Turkey.

An excerpt from, "Development And Security Challenges In The Sahel Region" By Ahmet Berat Conkar, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, December 2020:
Established in 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is a 15-member regional group with a mandate to advance regional economic integration. Member countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Togo. As mentioned above, regional integration efforts led by ECOWAS have facilitated regional migration and commercial exchange. All member states grant ECOWAS citizens the right to enter, reside and operate economically in the territory of other member states. In the 1990s, when conflicts shook Liberia and Sierra Leone, ECOWAS transformed itself into a regional security actor. Under the aegis of the AU's African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), ECOWAS has emerged as one of the most consequential regional 
security organisations on the continent.

Generally judged by the international community as a more suitable forum for coping with the Sahel crisis than the AU, ECOWAS obtained the authorisation from the UN Security Council to organise a military mission to support the Malian government during the Northern Mali conflict. It 
launched the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) in December 2012.

However, logistical problems and material bottlenecks undermined ambitions to deploy forces rapidly into the field of operations. ECOWAS has had grave difficulties mobilising the 3,300 soldiers that it had initially hoped to deploy. The mission finally failed for lack of sufficient financial support. But military planners operating within ECOWAS had also underestimated the strength of extremist groups operating in central Mali (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung). The mission was folded into the UN mission (MINUSMA) in the summer of 2013.

. . .

In the Sahel, small groups of US special operations forces have advised local troops and militia to defeat violent extremists in the field (Foreign Policy, 2020). The US military also provides much-needed intelligence, logistical (including airlift and refuelling) and drone support to its French ally. ISGS fighters ambushed US troops in Niger in October 2017, which resulted in the death of four Army special operations soldiers. According to then Secretary of Defence James Matthis, US forces in Niger at the time were operating under a “train and advise authority”. In 2019, the US military started moving its drone operation from Niamey to Agadez (Niger), where it had constructed its so-called Air Base 201. At the time, this represented the largest US Air Force-led construction project in recent history. Agadez is more centrally located and has provided the US military with surveillance over a larger and more strategically consequential area.
An excerpt from, "The Sahel trilemma" By Teresa Nogueira Pinto, GIS Reports, April 28, 2022:
According to the EU, “the countries of the Sahel and of the European Union are natural partners, bound by history, geography and culture.” Sahelian countries play a significant role in the EU strategic concept. After the 2011 fall of Libya’s regime of Muammar Qaddafi, it became clear that the Sahel had become a front line in the war against terrorism and organized crime, as well as a point of transit for many migrants trying to reach Europe.

There is also an economic dimension. Mali is richly endowed with gold and lithium and is home to Africa’s biggest uranium reserves. Until recently, the country had been a strategic supplier of France, whose energy security largely relies upon nuclear power. However, COMINAK, once one of the world’s largest uranium underground mines, ceased operations last year due to a depletion of resources.

The relevance of the Sahel to Europe’s strategic concept is reflected in the unprecedented decision to establish a stabilization action in Mali under the African Peace Facility. At this point, though, the initiative has failed: in February, shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and while citing political, operational, and legal obstacles, France and the European states comprising the Takuba Task Force announced a coordinated withdrawal from Malian territory.

The decision resulted from a combination of factors: rising casualties, the upcoming presidential elections in France, and increasing anti-French feelings as people accuse Paris, and ECOWAS, of double standards regarding regimes in the region. The junta’s refusal to follow the transitional road map and its decision to rely on the Wagner group for security finally prompted the Europeans to back off, at least for now.

As France and the EU exit Mali and recenter their operations in Niger, discussing a relocation rather than a withdrawal from the Sahelian theater of operations is more accurate.