Sahel and surroundings: domino effect?

(To Enrico Magnani)

The end of the French 'Barkhane' mission in Mali (closely followed by that of the multinational European special forces operation 'Takuba' sanctioned on the last day of June), the just preceding suspension of the EUTM (EU Training Mission) - Mali leave many questions are open about the future of the Sahel, gripped by a network of old and new problems, weaknesses that raise fear that these criticalities are expanding dangerously and also making the neighboring Gulf of Guinea a high-risk area, and here too the repercussions of the far away, but never so close, the Ukrainian crisis.

Meanwhile, the institutional framework of the area extending from the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea has become fragile with coup governments in power in Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Conakry and a similar situation is recorded in the pillar of the French presence in West-Central Africa. , Chad (although formally it is not a coup, Mahamat Idriss Deby, the son of the old president Idriss Deby Itno, who fell in combat against the Islamists on April 20, 2021, was installed at the helm of the country by the national military leaders with constitutionally dubious action, followed by the promise of a return to the democratic system after a three-year transition). All these governments have promised a return to normal democratic and institutional dynamics after being regularly suspended by both ECOWAS and the African Union, as is the practice in these states, but normalcy will not happen for two to three years.

In the Gulf of Guinea, instability emanates from the Sahel and adds new elements of crisis to an area that already has serious past problems. In Guinea-Bissau, only the urgent dispatch of troops from the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) has likely prevented the repetition of another manual overthrow in what is considered a 'narco state' (punctuated by 10 state since 1974, the year of independence from Portugal). Neighboring Senegal continues to be threatened by the rebellion of the Casamanche region; The Gambia is still manned by troops from another ECOWAS stability operation, ECOMIG. Ghana is afflicted by the separatist attempts of Togoland (which wants to reunite with Togo proper); the Ivory Coast is grappling with a difficult political crisis; Benin, influenced by the Islamist insurrection in the south of neighboring Nigeria and an ossified leadership.

But violence is on the rise in the Sahel; in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, attacks by Islamist armed groups are a constant trickle with heavy numbers of civilian victims. Despite the political, financial and military commitments of the international community, how does one explain such a deterioration in the security situation in the Sahel over the past decade?

Several factors explain this growing insecurity in the region. In the first place, there is the artificiality and weakness of the states that emerged from the decolonization of the 60s; all issues that in all these years have not been addressed, but which have actually worsened by the effects of the cold war, its end, economic necolonialism and the arrival of globalization.

Added to this is the growth of terrorist groups and inter and intra-community clashes, and the "three borders" area, which includes the common border areas between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, is the hot spot of this crisis.

The completion of the international forces' withdrawal from Mali, scheduled for late summer, has also exacerbated instability in the region and since the announcement, terrorist groups are gradually regaining ground, emboldened by the prospects of the reduction. and the disappearance of a threat that, for better or worse, had managed to reduce the range and impact of their actions.

As for the presence of Wagner in Mali, this is another apparent unknown, as her background is very clear; according to the official speech of Bamako, their aim is to support the provisional government (coup) that emanates from the Malian Armed Forces (FAMA) and to strengthen the fight against terrorism.

Finally, Russia's presence in Mali is no stranger to the information warfare the country (and the entire region) is going through, with the sudden and rapid emergence of anti-Western sentiments.

Niger, the last bastion of stability

The only one that still appears stable is Niger, but it too, like all the other states in the region, is a weak actor, where President Mohamed Bazoum (together with that of Mauritania, is the only one regularly elected in the region ), must face a public opinion, probably stirred up by external actors and factors, increasingly hostile to the French and Western presence, to the growing threat of terrorist groups and the challenge of criminal organizations operating in trafficking of all kinds. All elements that add to a difficult economic and social framework. In power for just over a year, the head of state has to deal with security imperatives, the effects of the Malian crisis and growing anti-French sentiment. If he has chosen to appear as the ally of the Westerners in the Sahel, he also knows that this bet is risky.

In recent weeks, Islamic State attacks have intensified along the border with Mali but Bamako's response is considered weak by Niger, while terrorist pressure from Chad is still being contained by N'Djamena's forces. Meanwhile, the first Turkish-built drones (obviously the Bayraktar TB2) have arrived, as part of a massive weapons program, which will operate from air base 201, built by the United States in the strategic Agadez region, and will also be used to monitor convoys of drug traffickers, which are an integral part of the jihadist funding program. Like the US, Germany, Italy and Canada have a military presence there and focus their efforts around the training of local armed forces. Finally, and above all, France is currently working to make Niger the new hub of its presence in the Sahel, once Mali's withdrawal from the 'Barkhane' operation is completed (Niger, in addition to hydrocarbons, is a producer of uranium, necessary for nuclear power plants in the hexagon).

Since the announcement of the departure of 'Barkhane' and 'Takuba' from Mali, President Bazoum has continued to be in favor of a greater presence of French, European and US forces on his territory and reiterated that one of the priority missions of his first term it is the reconquest of the territories passed under the rule of the Islamic State. Since the end of February it has launched a program of contacts with the Niger leadership and civil society to call for greater collaboration with Westerners and, above all, with France and has a good game in presenting Niger as a Western bastion in the area. of the 'three borders', being very critical of a powerless Burkina Faso and a Mali infiltrated by Wagner. On the part of the opposition, there are those who do not hesitate to qualify the Nigerian head of state as a vassal of the French, especially on social networks where anti-Western sentiment is growing.

In November 2021, the episode of the controversial passage of a French military convoy in the west of the country - during which three civilians were killed - contributed to tense this climate. France has finally agreed to compensate the families of the victims, but without acknowledging any fault. If the atmosphere is not as poisoned as that of Mali, Burkina Faso or even Chad - where the alliance with Paris is not yet questioned by the authorities but where anti-French demonstrations have recently been held - Niger operates with prudence by working for to keep the bomb of anti-French sentiment defused and favoring the deployment outside Niamey, in small bases and in this perspective explains the local government's opposition to an increase in French personnel around the capital's airport, and insistence on sharing information relating to jihadist movements, as they are largely dependent on French and American technologies.

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Among the regional actors, far from working in harmony, as they should, are armed against each other, such as Algeria and Morocco (so far only verbally), engaged in a no-holds-barred struggle to increase their influence in the Sahel at the expense of the other. With this in mind, Algiers wants to relaunch the TSGP (Trans Sahara Gas Pipeline) gas pipeline project (and subsequently oil pipeline, which can be extended to a road and rail axis) which will connect Nigeria to Algeria crossing the Niger, connecting the Gulf of Guinea to the Mediterranean. The 4.128-kilometer pipeline with an annual capacity of 30.000 million cubic meters is a colossal undertaking with enormous security challenges. The TSGP would make it possible to connect the gas reserves of Nigeria and Niger to the Maghreb country, with a direct connection with Europe, through Medgaz (Spain), Transmed and Galsi (Italy). Furthermore, Algiers has strengthened its ties with Chad, which have so far been rather weak (Algiers and N'Djamena are concerned about the climate of persistent civil war in Libya).

This pipeline is in open competition with another project, supported by Rabat, which is supposed to connect Nigeria with Europe but via underwater. The pipeline would be an extension of the existing West African gasduct (Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana). This pipeline would connect with Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco and Spain (Cadiz). The last two stages should connect the new project with the existing GME (Gasduct Europe Maghreb also known as the Enrico Mattei gas pipeline). The project is longer (5560 km) as a TSGP route, technically more complex (and therefore more expensive and which will have to be financed by external operators) and of distant construction (2046); however Rabat pushes politically to oppose the project supported by Algiers, given that like other means of influence in the region it has only the so-called religious diplomacy, given that the king of Morocco has a role in the Islamic world. Nigeria, courted by the deadly rivals of North Africa would surely be the one that would benefit most from it, having two energy export networks and a redundancy that would protect it from future crises.

Algiers, very concerned about the stability that threatens its southern security zone (Mauritania, Mali, Niger), wants to relaunch the multinational command CEMOC (Comité d'état-major opérationnel conjoint). The CEMOC, established in 2010, was to be the first brick of a force of 70.000 soldiers, a project that never materialized. It is a cell of staff based in Tamanrasset (south Algerian) which aims to fill the security vacuum of the French repositioning in the region and take its place and replace the G5Sahel, earthquake-stricken by the withdrawal of Mali from this regional organization established by the push of Paris, with a safety initiative without external influences.

The EU, a soft power that it fails to become hard

It is precisely the EU that sees the situation with growing concern and tries to cope with it, even if the project seems to have inherent weaknesses. Under the impetus of the French presidency of the EU in the first half of the year, Brussels plans to activate three new military missions in Africa after Russia expelled the EUTM-CAR out of the Central African Republic and the EUTM-Mali from Bamako and continues to threaten to block it in Burkina Faso.

The EU's military expansion into Africa, a Copernican revolution with a failed 'soft power' approach that Brussels had been pursuing for years, comes to cope with Russian (and Chinese in the background) pressure on the continent. The EU also hopes to create its own rapid reaction force by 2025 designed to operate in places like the Sahel and be ready to fight to defend European interests, the European External Action Service (EEAS) said, noting that the Union countries must accept the risks associated with closer accompaniment of partner states' forces in combat operations.

The new missions are expected to be located in Burkina Faso, in one of the Gulf of Guinea states, and in Niger. The latter seems to be the first to materialize after the Niamey authorities requested a logistic and maintenance center of excellence in Brussels, considerably expanding the existing one and forming the local police force, EUCAP Sahel-Niger. But the EU would like to go beyond this initial request to also cover a 'training, equipment and accompaniment' package for the local armed forces, hinting at the upcoming construction of an EUTM-Niger or even a larger-scale military operation to accompany the Nigerian armed forces in combat (a new EUROFOR?). The Armed Forces of Burkina Faso, during discussions at the technical level, asked Brussels for a similar package, but the junta in power in Ouagadougou has an ambiguous attitude, because in mid-April it also sent a high-level military delegation to Mali and it is suspected that it has discussed using Wagner to fight jihadists in the same way as in Mali. But the EU foreign service also envisaged setting up a limited military operation in a coastal state identified in the Gulf of Guinea (but not made public) that would host EU military trainers who could carry out "tailor-made" missions in the region. Therefore, the hypothesis of a new EUMARFOR still seems far from the current European naval presence in the area (not institutionalized), while the US Navy 'African Partnership Station' works at full capacity with the local navies of the Gulf of Guinea fighting against smuggling, growing piracy, illegal fishing, attacks on oil platforms, drug trafficking.

The EU closed its mission to the Central African Republic (EUTM-RCA) in December 2021 after Wagner mercenaries took command of local EU-trained units and committed atrocities against the civilian population, according to a pattern later seen in Mali. For the same reasons, Brussels suspended its military and civilian training missions in Mali in May after Bamako contacted Wagner who brought in its 'contractors' to fight the jihadists. The withdrawal of the EU mission (EUTM-Mali) was to prevent any reputational risk due to the EU-trained Malian defense forces falling under control or engaging with Russia-affiliated forces, as was noted in the center of the country, the EU foreign service said. But the units of the National Guard, National Gendarmerie and National Police, which have been trained by EUCAP Sahel-Mali (the other EU mission in Mali, focused on police training and analogous to the aforementioned EUCAP Sahel- Niger) are now under the direction of Wagner personnel and are estimated to be terrorizing the civilian population, particularly targeting the Fulani community, with reports of unprecedented violence. The few EU military and civilian trainers who will remain in Mali will do so to maintain some contact with Malian commands and keep an eye on the Russian presence, now notable in Sévaré, Ségou, Niono, Timbuktu and Gossi and that the air base 101, in Bamako, is used as a logistics hub for the Wagner deployment. The presence of Wagner operatives was accompanied by a disinformation campaign that aimed to divert attention from the atrocities of the Russian-affiliated forces against civilians and contained a strong Pan-African, anti-colonial, anti-French and anti-Western ideological message.

The UN, and an uncertain future

Tensions between Russia and the West in the Sahel have worsened the prospects for the future of MINUSMA, one of the United Nations' largest and most dangerous peacekeeping operations, sent to help Mali resist a ten-year Islamic extremist insurgency that it is expected to replace. the French forces of 'Barkhane'. But the country's context is difficult: the economy is choking on sanctions imposed by the EU, ECOWAS and the African Union after the military junta in Bamako further postponed the promised elections.

While the UN Security Council appeared united on the continuation of MINUSMA, the debate was poisoned over the future role of France in Mali and the presence of Wagner operators. The mission began in 2013, after Paris conducted a military intervention to drive out extremist rebels who had captured the main cities of northern Mali the previous year. French forces have saved the integrity of the country, but now the central government controls only 10% of the north and a quarter of the center.

MINUSMA now has about 12.000 soldiers, plus about 2.000 policemen and hundreds of support civilians. More than 270 'blue helmets' have died in firefights and victims of attacks. France had conducted negotiations within the UN Security Council on extending the mandate of MINUSMA and proposed to continue providing air support to the 'blue helmets', tasked with replacing 'Barkhane'. The head of mission, the special representative of the UN Secretary General Guterres, the Mauritanian diplomat El-Ghassim Wane, had requested, given the departure of the French forces, at least area coverage as a force multiplier of the 'blue helmets'. To avoid a split in the Security Council, a compromise solution was reached, extending the mandate of MINUSMA, but without giving it French air support. This choice condemns the force to a militarily poor life, with few self-defense capabilities and heralds its near end, given that many nations, besides Western ones and NATO who want to call their forces to face the emergencies dictated by the Ukrainian crisis, do not like witness the trickle of attacks on their soldiers.

The resolution, as mentioned, is a compromise; if it obtained the Russian (and Chinese) abstention, it faced the harsh hostility of Mali to see French planes and helicopters flying in its airspace; the Western countries of the Council did not want to force their hand with Bamako, risking, wanting to impose at all costs the air support of Paris to the 'blue helmets', of seeing the Russian veto (perhaps supported by China). This would have meant the immediate end of MINUSMA and this hypothesis would have created a serious vacuum in regional security with harmful effects on Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. In this context, the members of the UN Security Council also quarreled harshly on the presence of the Wagner group in Mali, but without reaching an agreement. The Kremlin has always denied any connection with the company, which is considered a mere private trading company (sic) and Mali continues to challenge the United Nations by preventing an investigation into the indiscriminate killings of civilians.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres plans to review MINUSMA in view of the upcoming withdrawal of European, Asian and South American contingents, it is planned to pass the hand to the African Union and establish an operational logistical support operation, as in Somalia with ATMIS (African [Union] Transition Mission in Somalia) and UNSOS (UN Support Office in Somalia).

NATO, the new stakeholder?

But the latest news, for some time at the center of a fair amount of work and formalized at the NATO Summit in Madrid, is the decision to soon launch a military assistance mission to Mauritania. Mauritania, also a fragile subject, risks being involved in the infernal circle of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, not to mention being at the center of the concerned sirens of Algeria and Morocco, always at loggerheads over the unresolved question of Western Sahara (former Spanish Sahara). In addition to dramatic economic and social parameters, it has flimsy armed forces and is a country divided between Arabs and blacks, adding other opportunities for possible interference by external actors interested in exploiting internal tensions.

But the NATO Summit witnessed an imprudent statement by Spanish Foreign Minister Albares, who speaking on the sidelines of the summit said that if the situation in Mali "poses a threat to our security, we will intervene." An exit that was not to the liking of the Malian transitional government, which immediately summoned the Spanish ambassador to Bamako to ask him for an explanation. "We summoned the Spanish ambassador to the foreign ministry on 1 July to raise a strong protest against these remarks", indicated Abdoulaye Diop, minister of foreign affairs of the Malian junta who added: "these remarks are unacceptable, hostile, serious" , denouncing that "they tend to encourage aggression against an independent and sovereign country" and "We have asked the Spanish government for an explanation, a clarification of this position. We hope it will arrive quickly enough." Diop reminded his Spanish counterpart that "the current situation of insecurity and the expansion of terrorism in the Sahel is mainly linked to the NATO intervention in Libya, the consequences of which we are still paying".

A little further

By expanding the analysis from the Sahel to the surrounding areas and looking back to the Central African Republic, the country has become so closely linked to Russia that it now teaches Russian in its schools and has offered Putin to send fighters to Ukraine. But if the Russian leader is to fully replicate his success in the Central African Republic in Mali, he may have to commit more resources than he currently does. The jihadist attacks in Mali have shown that the approximately 1.000 elements of Wagner along with the FAMA are not enough to clean up and maintain control of the center of the country, but a critical analysis suggests that if Russia fails to have a stabilizing influence (for its interests) in Mali, could leave this country in a state of serious and long-lasting instability and let its nefarious effects be projected on the surrounding areas and damage the neighboring states to the West of the region such as Morocco, Senegal, Costa d 'Ivory and Ghana.


The future of the Sahel and its surrounding regions, like many parts of the world today, is at stake. To the old fractures there are always new ones and the awareness of the existing risks does not mean that these are addressed in the correct measure and manner. At the very least, closer cooperation between the EU and NATO (and between the states adhering to the two organizations) is necessary to face the dangerous Russian pressure. However, the direct military response, assistance and training must be accompanied by a serious nation capacity building, emerging from the bottlenecks of the obligatory assistance to 'friendly' but unpresentable governments and which actually give space to discontent that can be easily exploited by Russia and China. increasingly clearly engaged in the assault on world power.

Photo: Ministère des Armées / web