This month’s coup d’etat in Burkina Faso marks the seventh coup in the Sahel region over the past 26 months, raising serious concerns about regional security. On 30 September little known army captain Ibrahim Traoré led a coup to become Burkina Faso’s new leader, supplanting former interim president Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who also came to power in a coup in January this year. The Sahel is a region in West Africa comprised of five countries including Chad, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, working as a sub-regional organization called the G5-Sahel, set up in 2014. This recent frequency of coups in the Sahel has been referred to as a ‘coup contagion.’ This ‘contagion’ is symptomatic of wider problems rooted in a combination of factors.
From the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya leading to Sahel countries being deprived of Libyan economic investment and a strong military force that countered insurgent activities by non-state actors, to a worsening climate crisis leading to prolonged droughts and food insecurity, the rise of Al-Qaeda related Islamic movements, as well as U.S., French, and AFRICOM ‘security assistance’ proving insufficient to resolve these contradictions: the Sahel security crisis is very layered and complex. Moreover, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been mostly powerless in being able to mediate these factors, and is stuck playing a reactive, rather than proactive, role in helping guide regional security.
Writing for the U.S. Institute of Peace, Joseph Sany, Ph.D., states that, “Military-led intervention by France and other outside powers has failed to stem the widening destabilization of a landmass and population bigger than those of recent U.S. wars in Afghanistan or Iraq.” He claims that U.S. and international security need a “policy reset” which addresses the Sahel crisis’ “causes rather than its symptoms.” Dr. Sany proposes supporting “inclusive processes of national dialogue that can mobilize the whole of the society to address those causes.” This more effective approach should be led by “credible, accountable institutions rooted in the region and will address the whole of society to begin meeting basic needs of people and communities in these violence-stricken states.” He concludes that this should be a “core message at the U.S.-Africa leaders’ summit,” which is to be held in Washington on 13-15 December.
Where these recommendations appear sound, one cannot help but question what these ‘credible, accountable’ institutions are, or how they could realistically engage the ‘whole of society’ throughout a populous, highly diverse, and polarized region like the Sahel.
Take for example the role of the climate crisis in deepening ethnic conflict. Severe drought conditions have affected how semi-nomadic pastoralists and sedentary farmers make their living. Many Sahel populations now struggle with food insecurity and poverty rates of up to 60 percent, which the pandemic and war in Ukraine have only made worse, as the African Continent imports a lot of grain from Russia and Ukraine. These rural contradictions often become violent but are whitewashed by regional governments as being purely due to ethnicity and characteristics inherent to certain ethnic groups. Indeed, the Burkinabe and Malian governments have painted the Fulani and Tuareg peoples as being a root cause of instability, accusing the Fulani of being part of Jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), neglecting where these conflicts are often centered around competing peripheral modes of production.
Without proper mediation these disputes become violent, causing further instability. Regional governments and wider trade bodies like ECOWAS are perhaps failing to consider not only how to mediate diverse ethnic conflicts but also where these conflicts are linked to how different clans make a living, and how these livelihoods are affected by climate change. Fulani and Tuareg groups are historically semi-nomadic pastoralists, meaning they can be identified as landless ethnic groups. They also operate in a communitarian political economy, putting them at odds with sedentary farmers, while also being subordinate to, and in conflict with, dominant corporate entities in West Africa and abroad. This produces a very complex landscape, so calling for ‘credible institutions’ to engage the ‘whole of society’ in ‘national dialogues’ is easier said than done. More action on the Climate Crisis and support for domestic agriculture and semi-nomadic groups could be helpful. Tackling food insecurity by reorganizing key imports away from Eastern Europe toward more stable sources can also help. It is also pivotal that we start a long process of genuine engagement with different groups instead of whitewashing their complex situations for political purposes.
Moreover, there lies the issue of corrupt domestic governments, many of which are military or controlled by the military. They have failed to develop deprived areas and uplift marginalized groups, and have taken part in what Djibo Sobukwe, researcher for the Research and Political Education team at the Black Alliance for Peace, calls “cash crop colonialism, corporate mineral resource extractive exploitation, French CFA constrictions, IMF imposed austerity/structural adjustment, and have collaborated with or been totally bought by narcotraffickers (see Guinea Bissau).” Regional governments have also colluded with extractive Russian entities, while further driving the militarization of colonially enforced borders by co-operating with AFRICOM, often for their own enrichment.
On top of this, as the population of Chinese citizens living in Africa grows, matters in the Sahel will not only be a question of political economy for Beijing but will also become an immediate national security concern. This is due to Chinese assets and citizens being at risk in high conflict areas. This bodes an increased Chinese military presence on the continent. It could trigger even further militarization and displacement, reproducing cycles of poverty, terrorism, and revolutions, which great powers often intervene militarily to resolve, only perpetuating these cycles further. Where it seems U.S. researchers and low-level diplomats are starting to call for a policy rethink, while ECOWAS appears willing to take a more proactive role in the region, and with China so far still keen on maintaining its investment focused, non-interventionist mantra of “Security and Development”; the road ahead is precarious for the Sahel, as it navigates severe instability and the underlying complexities that drive it.
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