Conflict and Fragility


The Sahel’s new geopolitics

17 Jun 2024 - 11:29
Source: Reuters
“Sovereignty” means never having to say you’re sorry

The ongoing American military exit from Niger has focused international attention not just on the Sahel, but on the swirling and increasingly complex geopolitics in the region. The arrival of a group of Russian military advisors at Airbase 101 in Niger’s capital Niamey – the same base that housed American, French and other military forces– brought the region’s awkward geopolitical context into even finer focus. 

The current fixation on Russia and Russian activities in the Sahel has led some in Europe and the United States to depict a kind of Russian-centric expansion across the region. In testimony before Congress in March 2024, the head of US Africa Command Gen. Michael Langley postulated that “A number of countries [in Africa] are at the tipping point of actually being captured by the Russian Federation.” He continued, saying that “I think at an accelerated pace, the Russian Federation is really trying to take over Central Africa as well as the Sahel.”

This stark image of Russian expansion in the Sahel masks not just the presence of other actors, but also how the central Sahelian countries – in this case Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, but many points apply to other countries in the region – use geopolitical rivalries for their own ends, extracting concessions and needed benefits and support from those willing to give them. These countries and others have upended what many in Europe and the United States thought was a well-established geopolitical order and embraced a posture of aggressive sovereignty in conjunction with new and older security, economic, and political partners.

This alert highlights what Sahelian military leaders seek from geopolitical competition, and to inform how Europe and the United States can position themselves better in the region. The Western position needs to be focused on long-term engagement and more attuned to the wants and needs of Sahelian states themselves. This alert then focuses on both the “offer” of outside partners to Sahelian states, and what these states themselves want out of geopolitical engagement. 

Read the Alert.