/ 19 September 2023

Military coups and the legacy of French interference in the Sahel

Mali France Army Barkhane
Hotspots: Armoured vehicles from Operation Barkhane, led by the French military against Islamist groups in the Sahel region, are handed over to the Malian army in Timbuktu. (Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP)

The recent military coup in Niger is concerning for the Sahel region, which has been experiencing instability caused by jihadist and extremist movements and fuelled by the Nato-backed bombardment of Libya and the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

Mali was the first country to be affected, with tens of thousands of people displaced by violent attacks. A number of others were also targeted including Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria and Chad, which suggests that the instability in the Sahel is caused by more than just Islamic extremism. 

The deeper drivers of the crisis include the legacy of France’s colonial-era policies, its control and manipulation of the CFA Franc zone monetary system and the kleptocratic extraction of mineral resources, with the collusion of African political and business elites. As a consequence, this has fuelled poverty, lack of employment and frustration which has created the incendiary conditions for military coups in the Sahel region. In addition, the so-called elected government’s inability to address insecurity has made the region more volatile, which points to the need to address the root causes of the current regional crisis. 

Colonial legacy

Since gaining independence, the countries of the Sahel region have struggled with volatility and political instability. Military coups have been prevalent, resulting in the downfall of many of the region’s leaders. Despite efforts to improve the political and social landscape, tangible progress has been slow. In the 1990s, the end of the Cold War prompted a wave of democratisation, but it ultimately failed to bring about significant change. Much of this can be attributed to France’s meddling in the internal political affairs of its former colonies and particularly its control over the issuing and management of the Franc CFA, a currency used in Western and Central Africa that has hindered the region’s ability to promote trade and industrialisation. The young citizens of West African countries see France’s control over the Franc CFA as a continuation of neo-colonialism, and despite gaining independence, they have struggled to break free from the economic grip that their former colonisers have had on them for decades now. 

Peace missions

Since the first jihadist attacks took place in Northern Mali in 2012, the terrorist threat has been growing and spreading in the Sahel region. To counter the extreme violence, there have been several initiatives that included military operations designed to secure the affected areas. These include “Operation Serval”, spearheaded by France, which had some results back in 2013. Other peace missions were the Barkhane Operation supported by the G5 Sahel operations and the United Nations mission in Mali. But the insecurity has continued to rise, affecting more and more people across the Sahel. As a result of the inability of many elected governments to tackle the threat caused by jihadist movements and the dire insecurity conditions the local people live in every day, there is an ever-growing anger and frustration. In a context of overspread insecurity, which the French and other Western troops have not been able to contain, there is a perception that they are only in the Sahel to protect their own geostrategic interests. The multitude of peace missions in the Sahel, with sometimes overlapping or incompatible mandates, leads to their inability to address the myriad problems in the Sahel region. 

Military coups

The rise of military rule in the Sahel region is less a question of democratic regression and more of an expression of anger and frustration at the widespread insecurity and the failure of Western strategy in the region. This explains why younger officers have decided to take matters into their own hands. In the past, France has been playing a prominent role as a security guarantor. But, since the launch of the Barkhane Operation, the forces have not been able to stop the jihadist movements and their violence. In addition, the young military leaders have been accusing France of not offering enough military and logistic support in the fight against the jihadist groups which are proliferating in the region. This explains why the Malian and Burkina Faso governments have requested the departure of French troops previously stationed on their territory. In Mali, the UN mission has also started to evacuate its positions while being replaced by Malian forces. Diplomatic ties between France and Mali have deteriorated to the point where French has been demoted to an administrative language. The military government in Mali repeatedly accuses France of acting unilaterally, without considering national authority. In Burkina Faso, Guinea and now in Niger, there are similar trends. 

Shifting geopolitics 

The region’s natural resources have attracted the attention of influential nations such as Russia, China and Turkey, highlighting the region’s geopolitical significance as these countries strive to exert their influence and safeguard their interests. For instance, Russia aims to establish a stronghold in the security sector as an entry point while creating new markets for its weapons. Similarly, China is expanding its trade relationships to consolidate its position as a global economic power. The United States runs a drone operation centre in Niger while France seeks to maintain its access to Niger’s uranium for its nuclear reactors. The different viewpoints and approaches to the Niger situation are all rooted in the geostrategic interests the great powers seek to protect.

Local population 

France’s efforts to curb the Islamic insurgency in the Sahel have been ineffective, leading to disillusionment and frustration among the local populations. Russia is offering solutions to security problems through proxies armed militia such as the Wagner Group. The issue of France’s control over the economies of 14 African countries through the CFA franc is a complex one. Many view the currency as a hindrance to true sovereignty and economic progress. This has led to frustration and violence among West African youth, who see themselves as victims of French’s outdated policies in the region. France will need to re-evaluate and re-configure its policies towards the Sahel region, and overtly acknowledge its past and current controversial role. It needs to change its paternalistic approach to a collaborative one, which responds to the needs of the local population. In this way unnecessary confrontation will be avoided, as well as its unpredictable consequences.

Patrick Hajayandi is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. The views expressed in the article are solely that of the author.