Uncertainty in the Sahel
This article was previously published by ICDI, on 9 January 2024.
By the end of 2023, the central Sahel continued to grapple with multifaceted, enduring conflicts as various putschist factions, rebel movements, and jihadist groups challenged state authority, adding fuel to a dire humanitarian crisis. Regional and international alliances remained in a state of flux, with military juntas in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger shunning France and seeking rapprochement with Russia, while the inking of a mutual defense pact among the juntas reconfigured the regional security architecture. Going into 2024, the prospects for the Sahel are uncertain. Juntas pursuing militaristic strategies are likely to continue to face mounting challenges by jihadist groups, and civilians are likely to remain vulnerable to attacks from all parties involved. In parallel, military leaders in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are likely to further consolidate their grip on power and their new tripartite alliance in a bid to strengthen their collective strategic posture and fend off the possibility of international interference, while Niger and Burkina Faso are likely to seek to secure alternatives to their now revoked security partnerships with France and the European Union (EU). Finally, coastal countries in the Gulf of Guinea risk becoming theaters of prolonged low-level insurgencies spilling over from the central Sahel.
Worsening jihadist and junta violence in the aftermath of coups
Despite disparities across the region, a pervasive decline in security, socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions looms large over the Sahel, as juntas continue to cement military rule. Deep-rooted issues, exacerbated by ineffective governance, continue to foster the proliferation of armed groups and alienation of local communities, highlighting the enormous challenges in fostering peace.
The Sahel’s conflict landscape today remains dominated by the Islamic State Sahel Province (ISSP) and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM), which operate chiefly across Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Each of the junta leaders justified their military takeovers in the name of restoring security and have sought to respond to jihadist violence by increasing defense budgets and launching more aggressive military operations, indiscriminately targeting civilians and in particular those from the Fulani ethnic group. Yet all three countries witnessed worsening jihadist violence in the wake of each coup, with ISSP and JNIM capitalizing on the political instability. In Burkina Faso, where the junta has effective control over only about half of the country, over 6,000 people – of which over 1,600 were civilians – had died in 2023 by September already, the highest death toll since jihadist attacks started in 2015. In this context, the transitional authorities are increasingly relying on state-backed paramilitaries by increasing recruitment targets and increasing their remuneration. In Mali, violence against civilians by JNIM, ISSP, but also Wagner-backed Malian forces continues unimpeded while the junta pursues its partnership with Russian paramilitaries of the Wagner Group. In Niger, where violence had decreased prior to the July coup that deposed President Mohamed Bazoum, the new junta is facing a tall order after their first month in power was marked by a 42 percent increase in violence, driven chiefly by jihadist attacks but also continued banditry and intercommunal violence.
Beyond the central Sahel, jihadist groups continue to defy national borders and expand their reach southwards to the coastal states of Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Togo. The risk of “spillover” now constitutes a permanent threat to these countries whose security forces have struggled to respond to the increasing movements of armed groups at their northern borders. While active in border operations, they have not been able to prevent a number of attacks in recent months.
In parallel, hostilities worsened in northern Mali between Bamako and armed groups signatory to the 2015 Algiers Accord. Following the slow crumbling of the peace process in recent years, the transitional authorities’ decision in June to force out the UN Mission MINUSMA, a guarantor of the Accord, precipitated a sharp uptick in violence in the wake of the UN peacekeepers’ withdrawal, marked notably by the seizure of Kidal by Wagner-backed Malian forces in November.
Subject to jihadist violence and abuses by security forces and state-backed paramilitaries throughout the central Sahel, and to clashes between rebel groups and Bamako in northern Mali, civilian populations remain stuck between a rock and a hard place. As of December, there were over three million internally displaced persons (IDPs), refugees and asylum seekers in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, with the latter counting over two million IDPs. Insecurity also continues to exacerbate vulnerabilities rooted in everyday livelihoods, notably by disrupting local economies, and compounding issues of poverty, food shortages, unemployment, and feeble governance.
Meanwhile, the recent surge in coup d’états in the Sahel continued with July’s military takeover in Niger, just as Mali and Burkina Faso’s juntas further entrenched their military rule, with Mali notably yet again delaying elections scheduled for February 2024. This democratic backsliding has continued to transpire through the shrinking space for free press and civil society in all three countries, where the suspension of independent media outlets, and the arrest of military personnel and of dissenting voices results in a restriction of the political space.
Diplomatic ruptures and new alliances
In recent months, regional and international diplomatic dynamics have undergone significant shifts, marked by both new alliances and partnership ruptures. Notably, ECOWAS’s internal contradictions came to light in the wake of its swift response to July’s coup in Niger. While the regional bloc was quick to condemn the Nigerien putschists, impose strict sanctions, and even to contemplate military intervention, its chairman, Nigeria’s President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, was soon forced to walk back the threat of intervention after facing domestic backlash. As of earlier this month, ECOWAS continues to try to strike the right tone with the juntas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in order to bring about swift democratic transitions.
Partly fuelled by the bloc’s sanctions and the widespread international condemnation of the coup in Niger – and of previous coups in Mali and Burkina Faso – the three juntas formed the Alliance of the Sahel States (AES) in September, signaling an important shift in the regional security architecture. The creation of this new alliance, in essence a mutual defense pact against rebellion or external aggression, marked the death rattle of the France-backed G5 Sahel. The final blow was struck earlier this month when Burkina Faso’s and Niger’s juntas followed in Mali’s footsteps and officially left the G5, leaving Chad and Mauritania, the last remaining members, to move to dissolve the alliance.
While the G5 Sahel had long faced criticism, and while there is in abstract something to be lauded in the emergence of an endogenous regional security initiative, there is little at this stage to indicate that the AES will perform any better, and it remains to be seen whether its purpose will go beyond its seemingly immediate goal: presenting a common front to its regional and international critiques.
Meanwhile, the continued reconfiguration of the Sahel’s geopolitical landscape has cemented France’s status as persona non grata and Moscow’s new role as an inescapable international security partner. Having been forced out of Mali and Burkina Faso in 2022 by military juntas unsympathetic to France’s increasingly unpopular military presence, French troops faced a similar fate in Niger, hammering the last nail in the coffin of French influence in the central Sahel. Beside Mali’s continued partnership with Russian paramilitaries, the Burkinabè and Nigerien juntas further pivoted to Russia in recent months, a move which enjoys support from important segments of their citizenries. In late August and early November, the Burkinabè transitional authorities held security cooperation talks with Russia, after which the two countries’ military cooperation shows signs it is accelerating. As for Niger’s junta, it reportedly approached Moscow over summer, and earlier this month it revoked its security agreements with the European Union, signed a protocol agreement with Russia, and hosted the Russian deputy Defence Minister with full honors.
Delayed democratic transitions and insecurity spreading south
The year ahead is likely to be marked by continued jihadist violence across the Sahel, further rebel fighting in northern Mali, the tentative entrenchment of military rule, as well as the continued reorganization of the region’s international partnerships.
In Burkina Faso, the army is likely to continue to face mounting challenges by jihadist groups, including further besiegement of towns, while the junta’s increasing reliance on state-backed paramilitaries and possibly on Russian paramilitaries could further endanger civilian populations. In Mali, both the forcing out of MINUSMA and renewed hostilities in the country’s north with rebel groups are likely to lead to intensified violence. Finally, in Niger, jihadist groups could exploit any post-coup disorganization and the power vacuum left by the withdrawal of foreign military support to scale up attacks.
Meanwhile, the Sahelian triumvirat of military juntas in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are likely to continue to pursue closer ties through their Alliance of Sahel States and to delay democratic transitions while further consolidating their authoritarian grip on the state and their respective societies. The newly formed regional alliance is unlikely to enable its three members to significantly scale up their fight against jihadist groups in 2024 – violence has only worsened since their respective coups. However, it could play an important role in their efforts to rally their citizenry under the flag and against what they paint as external threats such as France and ECOWAS. This will be all the more crucial to these juntas’ attempts to entrench their power at a time when they are failing to deliver on their promises to restore security, or at the very least to alleviate violence. Once the fad of military popularity starts to fade and it becomes clearer that a militaristic approach falls short of addressing deeper drivers of conflict, the respective juntas could become vulnerable to renewed popular discontent.
In parallel, the central Sahel’s geopolitical chessboard is likely to be marked by the further reorientation of France’s regional policy towards coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea while the U.S. attempts to strike realpolitik compromises in Niger, and European partners strive to reinvent their approach to the region, in part moved by concerns that the repeal of Niger’s migrant trafficking law may lead to increased migratory flows to Europe at a time when the issue is high on their domestic agenda.
Either officially, or through its proxies, Russia is likely to build on its latest forays into Burkina Faso and Niger to consolidate its growing influence in the region. A partnership with Moscow would offer an opportunity for Ouagadougou to give the illusion of progress on the security front, and for Niamey to further shield itself from international and ECOWAS pressure to reinstate Bazoum. As the new triumvirat doubles down on its isolationist approach with former regional and international partners, it however remains to be seen whether it can build alternative international partnerships beside Russia, such as with Turkey, China, and Saudi Arabia.
Finally, on the central Sahel’s periphery, the uncomfortable reality heading into 2024 is that coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea affected by jihadist violence at their northern borders are becoming a theatre of low-level insurgency. Notably, in Benin, where jihadist violence levels continue to increase, violent extremism is morphing from an exogenous problem into a localised insurgency.