Europe faces dilemma with Africa’s Sahel ‘coup belt’

French soldiers in Mali

French soldiers in Mali's Menaka army base on December 7, 2021. French troops have been kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso, and France has announced its withdrawal of troops from Niger.

Photo credit: AFP

Civilians in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have been joining their junta leaders to celebrate the decision by French President Emmanuel Macron to withdraw troops from Niger, seeing it as a victory against neo-colonialism.

But the French, or Europeans in general, may still have to befriend the new military rulers for a political bigger picture.

In a span of one year, the three countries, alongside Guinea, now known as Africa’s ‘coup belt’ have showed rising nationalism against a country that had been controlling their economies, and politics, for years. In truth, the belt has since expanded to Chad, Gabon and Sudan, all now run by juntas but with slightly varying political contexts.

Yet the upturn of events could give the French, and Europe in general, a dilemma. It could give the coup leaders a challenge to prove they are up to the task to defeat insurgents in the Sahel. For the European Union, to which France belongs, the three countries had been crucial in filtering illegal migrants heading to Europe via dangerous routes in the Sahara Desert.

Niger military joined a wave of military coups in the region in July, when senior army officers ousted the democratically elected leader, Mohamed Bazoum. He remains in detention. France has been one of the most vocal oppositions to the coup. But it is now also the most disliked country as most see it as a former colonial power who helped install bad leaders.

After months of animosity between Paris and Niamey, Mr Macron last week announced the sudden departure of French troops, much to the delight of the Nigerien junta. The French have also faced a similar debacle in Burkina Faso and Mali. Guinea had tried to cut French stranglehold on its politics years back but at a greater pain of economic losses.

"France has decided to withdraw its ambassador. In the next hours our ambassador and several diplomats will return to France," Macron said in a live television interview, noting that military co-operation between the two countries was "over", last week.

The announcement received widespread celebrations in Niamey, from both the junta leadership and the ordinary citizens.

"This Sunday we celebrate a new step towards the sovereignty of Niger," the junta said in a statement. "Imperialist forces are no longer welcome on our national territory," it added.

But the decision by France no doubt has far reaching implications on security in the Sahel region.

Niger was the last strategic base for Western forces involved in the fight against Islamist inspired insurgencies in the region. Before Niger, French troops had been kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso, which have both seen the security conditions in their territories worsened after that. Both countries are also under military regimes.

France’s response to the coups in its former colonies have fanned anti-French sentiments, which has weakened its influence on the ground.

In these countries, many citizens believe the Western forces, particularly France, are fuelling the conflicts. This view has held even stronger sway in the wake of the Niger crisis, where France has been accused of controlling the country’s vast Uranium resources to power its energy needs while the source country has no reliable electricity supply.

According to Macron’s announcement, by December 31, the French troops will have completed their withdrawal. Macron also said in the interview that Niger was no longer interested in fighting terrorism and therefore France had no grounds to stay. That means that these countries will no longer be able to rely on its support for things like aerial reconnaissance, intelligence or ground support.

The departure of the French troops will also leave a gap that has to be filled. And Russia is the only option here. They have long expressed interest in that.

Among the three neighbours, Mali has already engaged the services of the Russian backed mercenary group, Wagner, which stands accused of human rights abuses in the country and beyond.

The gestures of the young military leader in Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traoré, indicate an eventual move towards Russia.

As we saw in both Mali and Burkina Faso earlier, the public played a role in the direction the juntas took. People poured out into the streets in protest against Western imperialism. They burned French flags and waved Russian ones. This same scene has been enacted in Niamey in the last two months.

Macron’s decision has also set confusion within Western ranks, with their diplomats in West African countries indicating the move surprised fellow Western allies like Germany and Italy, who maintain smaller troops in Niger. Public protests in Niamey, or other coup belt countries, often targeted the French though.

Unlike France, however, other Western countries are more interested about movement of migrants. Niger is a major transit point for Sub Saharan Africans seeking greener pastures in Europe. 

Meanwhile, the US has been playing safe in the background, negotiating with the new Nigerien Junta.

Washington has still not labelled the change of government in Niger as a coup, which could mean it stops cooperation with the country. It labelled it as an illegal power takeover.

Since July 26, several top State Department officials have visited Niamey, the Nigerien capital, for talks. And Washington announced it will keep its embassy open and sent a new ambassador, although he will not present credentials to the junta yet.

The US had invested about $200 million in drone bases in northern Niger, manned by more than 1,000 troops who monitor militant activities in the Sahara Desert.

But the US is not directly involved in the fight against insurgents. It only provides information, which are shared with its partners, including France and the local authorities, to act on them.

Without the real actors, information like these are irrelevant.

France still maintains bases in Ivory Coast, Senegal and Gabon, but they are not as involved in the war on terror as those in Niger. And in all these countries too, anti-French sentiments have been simmering.

Senegal is in an election period, with voting for a new President scheduled for next February. A leading contender for the presidency, Ousman Sonkoh, has placed anti-French sentiments at the top of his campaign message. And given his support base among the youths, it is working.

In Ivory Coast, President Alassane Ouattara is standing on thin ice, having changed the country’s constitution and bulldozed his way into his current third term. Much of the Ivorian populace see Ouattara as a stooge of the French.

In fact, Ivory Coast’s relations with France perfectly illustrates the symbiotic relations between France and African leaders – wherein the latter depends on the former for protection, in exchange for exploitation of its natural resources.

This is the reason we didn’t hear much about the French in Guinea, which was the second to fall under military rule in the current wave of undemocratic takeovers that started in 2020 in Bamako.

Col Mamadi Doumbouya has managed to stay longer than expected in the face of threats of sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Guinea gained independence from France when no country dared tried it, and former President Ahmad Sekou Toure’s decision to reject the CFA as currency was even worse. They paid a huge price. The French government under Charles de Gaulle retaliated through a covert operation known as ‘Operation Persil’, by destroying infrastructure it built in the country, leaving it near bankrupt.

It has all not been cosy for Guinea, but it survived.

But can Niger survive? Perhaps the answer will come in the next few months after France’s departure.