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Security shifts in the Sahel: declining Western influence and rising extremist violence


Written by Mickey Beckmann - June 2024

 

In recent years, the United States (US), United Nations (UN), European Union (EU), and regional political and economic blocs have sought to fight extremist organizations and implement democratic principles in the Sahel* to enhance stability. While some countries have made progress, there has been a rise in anti-western sentiment over the last couple of years, with an increasing number of countries questioning the legality of western operations. The ongoing decline in international interventions, as well as weakening regional (democratic) leadership, has created a security vacuum in the Sahel that extremist groups exploit, launching indiscriminate attacks on government forces and civilians.


* The Sahel is a climatic zone in Africa stretching from Senegal to Eritrea. While definitions of the Sahel's precise boundaries differ, in a geopolitical context it typically encompasses the countries shown on the map. This article follows that standard.


Anti-western sentiment 

In the past year, the influence of Western nations in the Sahel has been increasingly questioned by countries in the Sahel. Rising anti-French sentiment over the past two years led to the withdrawal of France's 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane force from Mali in August 2022, Burkina Faso in February 2023, and Niger in December 2023. Local resentment and frustration with perceived French neocolonialism and ineffectiveness drove these departures. Chad might be next to loosen ties with France, although its long-standing relationship with the country makes it challenging to shake ties off. 


A country that has been at the forefront of western counter-insurgency operations - Niger - expelled French troops as well, and ended two EU security missions, both following the July 2023 coup in Niger. On March 16, 2024, Niger’s military government, the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), also suspended security cooperation with the US due to warnings about Niger's growing ties with Russia, and US’s perceived diplomatic disrespect.


After months of protests and discussions, an agreement was reached in May 2024 to withdraw all US troops by mid-September 2024. This decision will hold significant implications for US and other western interests in the region, as Niger has been a key ally, hosting two major US bases, approximately 1,000 military personnel, and a $100 million drone base - Nigerien Air Base 201.



Following Niger’s decision, Chad also questioned its cooperation with the US. Late April 2024, the US military withdrew about 70 troops from a French military base in N’Djamena, although it was said to be a temporary departure because of the 6 May elections in Chad. With the electoral process now concluded, the US is eager to resume security cooperation consultations with the government, yet, Chad has also shown interest in alignment with Russia.


In the security vacuum left by the West’s declining influence, Russia has rapidly strengthened its security relationship with countries in the Sahel. Its involvement includes sending troops, military trainers, and air defense systems. On June 5, 2024, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Chad to discuss strategies for combating terrorism and strengthening military, diplomatic, economic, and trade relations. The declining western power has also allowed non-state actors, mainly the Wagner Group, to expand their influence. Since December 2021, Wagner has deployed thousands of mercenaries to Mali, taking over former French bases. Wagner's approach includes partnering with resource-rich, poorly governed states, exchanging paramilitary, intelligence, and security services for financial gain. In March 2024, Wagner allegedly helped government forces in Mali carry out raids and drone strikes, killing dozens of civilians, including children. This shift in intervening parties, driven by a complex mix of historical grievances, geopolitical maneuvering, and regimes' needs for stability and security, is reshaping Sahel’s geopolitics and has profound security implications for the region.


Coups d’état

The Sahel has witnessed several coups d'état over the past three years, each contributing significantly to the exacerbation of regional instability and the resurgence of jihadist movements. Mali saw a coup in 2020 driven by dissatisfaction with President Keita's governance amidst escalating security threats and pervasive corruption. Despite international pressure to restore civilian rule, military influence remained strong, prompting another coup in 2021. Burkina Faso experienced two coups as well, stemming from failures to effectively counter jihadist insurgencies and escalating public discontent with entrenched corruption. Niger's 2023 coup resulted in widespread anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments. In the capital, thousands took the streets draped in Nigerien and Russian flags, chanting anti-French slogans. 


Efforts by regional organizations like the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore constitutional order have been challenged by the persistence of military influence and external intervention from actors like Russia and the Wagner Group.

Military leaders have justified the coups as necessary responses to security challenges and governance failures. These events not only did raise anti-Western sentiment, but also made extremist groups gain more influence, heightening fears of increased jihadist violence. The resurgence of extremist movements in the Sahel not only threatens local populations but also poses risks beyond the region, including Europe and the broader international community.


The surge of extremist (jihadist) groups

In recent years, the Sahel region has emerged as a global hotspot for terrorism. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, it witnessed 43 percent of global terrorism-related deaths in 2022, and in Burkina Faso the impact of terrorism has been the highest of any country in the world between 2019-2024.


Major jihadist groups such as Islamic State in the West African Province (ISWAP), Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), Jama’atu Nusratil Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM), and Boko Haram have exploited the void arising from the declining international counterterrorism support and poor regional governance. These groups, following a Salafi interpretation of Islam, oppose elected governments, reject national borders, and consider non-adherents as infidels. Consequently, they frequently use violence against both local and international security forces, as well as civilians.


The rise in terrorist violence in the Sahel is driven by a complex interplay of issues. Despite numerous international interventions over the past decade, these problems have only intensified. The Sahel nations, consistently among the world's poorest, face compounded challenges of weak governance, poverty, food insecurity, high unemployment, illiteracy, ethnic divisions and rapid population growth. Violent extremist organizations exacerbate these humanitarian conditions, exploiting the insecurity to recruit and dominate populations in the Sahel. In regions where governments have been largely absent, they have stepped in to resolve land tenancy issues, protect cattle from theft, prosecute thieves, and provide social welfare by distributing food, medicines, and cash incentives. It has proven to be a good strategy, not only to extend their political and economic power, but also to make people become dependent on them, or even sympathize with them. 


The groups are also responsible for widespread atrocities, including mass kidnappings, attacks on civilians, and assaults on military bases. In February 2024, at least 170 people were killed in northern Burkina Faso where attackers targeted four villages in Yatenga province. The country is battling Islamist militant insurgency groups in this area, where armed groups - some affiliated to Al Qaeda and ISIS - regularly launch attacks on civilian and military installations. In March 2024, Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on Niger's army, killing at least 30 soldiers and wounding several others. Furthermore, over the last few months there have been several large-scale kidnappings by Islamist insurgents, especially in northwest Nigeria, an area where ISWAP frequently operates. In this area relentless violence by Islamic militant organizations and bandit groups have crumbled communities and killed thousands of people. The abductions usually have the goal to obtain ransom, having become a lucrative business.


The persistent and growing strength of violent extremist organizations in the Sahel threatens to only worsen the ongoing humanitarian crisis. As of 2023, more than 4.2 million people have been

displaced across the region. In 2024 tens of millions of people in the Sahel need protection and humanitarian assistance, with millions facing acute hunger due to food insecurity (see here our article on the impact of climate change on food insecurity in Sub Saharan Africa). With the region also serving as a major transit point for migrants traveling from Sub Saharan Africa to northern coastal states and Europe, the Sahel faces the risk of increased displacement and migration due to ongoing violence. 


Moreover, the rise of violent extremist groups has fueled illicit activities and the growth of criminal organizations in the region. Especially since 2022, the conflict-ridden region is becoming an influential route for drug trafficking, with the seaside countries being a crucial transit point for Latin American cartels trafficking drugs to Europe and beyond. Last April, Senegal seized nearly 1,140kgs of cocaine. The involvement of various extremist armed groups in drug trafficking undermines regional peace and stability, with the drug trade financing these groups, enabling Islamic extremist networks to flourish.


Conclusion

International efforts to combat extremism and promote democracy in the Sahel have struggled in recent years. The rise in anti-western sentiment and increasing Russian involvement reshape the geopolitical landscape of the region. The prevalence of coups d’états in combination with diminishing presence of Western forces has left the Sahel vulnerable to extremist violence. Weakening regional leadership and the resurgence of jihadist groups are likely to keep destabilizing the region, posing significant (security) risks to both local populations and the broader international community. The region’s humanitarian crisis seems to have no end in sight, giving violent extremist organizations room to keep exploiting populations, thereby becoming more powerful and exacerbating the humanitarian conditions further.



 


 

21062024 Security shifts in the Sahel
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