Diplomacy Now – Edition 6, September 2023 – “Crisis in the Sahel”

The Niger coup crisis has entered a new chapter, with three Sahelian countries – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger itself – forming a security pact against members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), led by Nigeria and Cote d’Ivoire, should they invade the country and attempt to reinstall the ousted president, Mohamed Bazoum. As war drums echo across West Africa, a region that has remained largely peaceful since the coups and bloody civil wars of the 1990s and the early 2000s, analysts and scholars have questioned the body’s march toward intervention, at the expense of mediation and diplomacy.

The six coups that have unfolded in the Sahel since 2020, have been sparked by the perceived failures of three democratically elected governments, all French and American military allies – to deal with deadly jihadist insurgencies. The presence of foreign Western militaries, and a backlash against perceived French political and military meddling, coupled with the shocking number of deaths of both civilians and soldiers, have only added fuel to the fire. 

Coups are undermining democracy in Africa, but should the region follow Western nations and use democratic rhetoric as a pretense for war? Can democracy only be defended with the barrel of a gun? Or could these coups offer a moment of critical reflection regarding the discontents with electoral democracy in Africa and how it might be made more meaningful in the context of the everyday struggles of ordinary people? Could these coups pave the way for a New Deal between Africa and its former colonizers, one in which they are on more equal footing? With the UN largely absent, the African Union divided and paralysed, and ECOWAS taking an approach that has proven problematic, what are the possibilities for mediation over the Niger crisis? 

In ‘Crisis in the Sahel’ African scholars explore the reasons behind the wave of coups in the Sahel and West Africa, ECOWAS’ recent history of military intervention and mediation, and the possible military and diplomatic plays for the regional body. 

As in previous editions, the views of these authors do not necessarily reflect our own and we will continue to follow the developments in the Sahel in upcoming editions.
Thank you for reading Diplomacy Now and we welcome your feedback at diplomacynow@dialogueinitiatives.org.

Jamal Benomar
Chair of ICDI 

West Africa and the Sahel: Coups, Militancy and the Façade of Democracy

Muhammed Dan Suleiman argues that while Niger’s coup took the world by surprise, because of its ‘democratic credentials,’ and the fact that it has been a Western ally in the war against terrorism, it shouldn’t be seen in isolation. “[C]oups in this region are not mere aberrations and should not be treated as isolated events,” he argues. “The causes of coups straddle all levels of the political experience, implicating deep-rooted socio-political resentment associated with governance and colonial legacies, and are compounded by contemporary humanitarian challenges. Coups are the outcomes of a chain of events fuelled by the absence of a solid and sustainable democracy.” 

The Perils of Military Action and Why Diplomacy Must be Given a Chance in Niger

Dr. Festus Kofi Aubyn Regional Coordinator of Research and Capacity Building at the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) makes a compelling argument as to why ECOWAS ought to take the route of diplomacy, emphasizing that such an intervention could compound the security problems the region is facing and drive Sahelian states into closer alliances with Russia. “The fallout of any military action by ECOWAS may exacerbate the existing array of complex challenges, including violent extremism, terrorism, banditry, local conflicts, transnational organised crimes, and possibly give rise to new threats that will affect the entire region,” he writes. 

Aubyn argues for a multistakeholder approach, and that ECOWAS diplomatic engagements ought to engage “political parties, civil society, traditional and religious authorities, women, youth, and relevant international partners including the African Union, United Nations, Community of Sahel–Saharan States (CEN–SAD), Russia, France, United States and neighboring Algeria, Libya, and Chad,” and that anti-French resentment and France’s political paternalism must be addressed.

The Coup in Niger has Sparked a War Within ECOWAS

Dr Jacien Carr a scholar whose research focuses on African military history draws contrasts and lessons from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) intervention during Liberia’s civil war in the 1990s. He argues that while ECOMOG saved Liberia from complete state collapse, during its first major military intervention, the situation in Niger is radically different. With the recent announcement of a security alliance between Sahelian states, should a Nigerian-led ECOWAS intervention, could destroy cohesion between states. Furthermore, if intervention did take place, military strategists would ultimately have to consider the endgame and how long they would be willing to stay on to restore democratic and constitutional order? 

“Would ECOWAS citizens support such military action?  The answer is probably no.  An ECOWAS military intervention to rescue President Bazoum and install him back into power would be a catastrophe, creating a regional conflict lasting years and damaging ECOWAS cohesion for years to come,” Carr states bluntly.

The Twilight of French Influence in the Sahel

Constantin Gouvy, a specialist on the Sahel, explores the roots of rising anti-French sentiment in the region and the missteps of President Emmanuel Macron. Gouvy traces this rising resentment to France’s violent colonial history in the region, opaque involvement and paternalistic rhetoric and double standards on democracy. “France’s contrasting reactions to the successive coups in the region have fuelled accusations that it only pays lip service to democratization on the continent,” Gouvy argues.

Niger was France’s last bastion in the Sahel, after the departure of its decade long military operation Barkhane, and Mali and Burkina Faso ordered the departure of its troops. While Macron has framed France’s new Africa Strategy as one of ‘humility’ and ‘respect,’ and outlined plans to share bases with partners in the Sahel, rather than man their own, recent statements and rhetoric have done more damage. “France’s influence in the Sahel is on life support today,” writes Gouvy. As other players such as Russia and Turkey step up in Sahel, France is likely to take the backstage, and maintain a discreet presence in Chad and other coastal countries.

The End of MINUSMA: Back to Square One in Mali?

As the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) continues its march towards closure, in the midst of escalating violence in Northern Mali, we encourage you to read Themba Zuri’s piece on the rising public anger towards the UN peacekeeping mission. The hostility towards MINUSMA came from the perception amongst Malians that MINUSMA was a fig leaf for French interests and unable to solve Mali’s political problems and security crisis. Zuri predicted growing hostilities between Tuareg groups in the north and the central state, which we can now see currently unfolding.

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