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European and Maghrebi Dilemmas in the Western Sahel

Carlos Echeverría Jesús[1]

Two successive coups in Mali and two in Burkina Faso in recent times, consummating in both countries two military-led governments that take us back to old coup scenarios in Africa, make relations with both countries increasingly difficult for Western states that, with France at the head in terms of military contribution over the past decade, had been supporting their fight against powerful jihadist actors. The progressive deployment of Russia, both by regular means and with irregulars belonging to the private military company Wagner, and the efforts of two Maghreb countries, Morocco and Algeria, to reposition themselves in such a convulsive scenario, characterize the present and shape the future of this sub-region.

The coups and their political-diplomatic and security consequences

Colonel Assimi Goïta in Mali and Captain Ibrahim Traoré in Burkina Faso rule both countries after having come to power through coups d’état in 2022. This puts Western countries, particularly France, in a difficult position in terms of maintaining their support for the necessary anti-terrorist fight that both countries must sustain.

With Goïta in power, the pulse not only with its Western partners but also with some African partners has been sharpening in recent times, especially in view of his modification of the political normalization calendar in which he accepts to hold elections in February 2024, one year later than initially committed to them. In addition, the deployment of the private Russian military company Wagner increasingly confronts the Malian rulers with these Western countries, with several members of the European Union and Canada issuing a strong statement of condemnation on December 23, 2022 against these countries.[2]

Goïta’s coup has put Mali in an awkward position in relation to its West African neighbors and to the West African Economic Community itself, the sub-regional organization that has even applied harsh sanctions for months on the Sahelian country. The crisis has been particularly harsh between Mali and Côte d’Ivoire due to the detention in Bamako of 49 Ivorian military personnel who arrived on July 10 to be deployed in the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali.[3] Although the release of these troops seems to be on the way to being resolved, as we will see in the following section, the tension generated has left its mark on the future of relations between the two countries.[4]

In Burkina Faso, the tension between the junta and the French authorities is also increasing, putting France in the position of having to evacuate its troops from Operation Sabre, as it did previously in Mali.[5] Following major demonstrations against France in the streets of Ouagadougou and other cities in the country, the government of President Traoré demanded that France evacuate its 400 troops within a month and challenged the 2018 bilateral defense agreement.[6] And, with this, the consolidation of Russia’s positions and its tools, both the official ones via formal bilateral collaboration and those offered through the Wagner company, is only a matter of time, also in terms of substitution.[7]

European exit and the Maghreb conflict

While all this is going on, the territorial expansion of jihadist terrorist groups continues apace, not only in the Western Sahel but also extending their radius of action to countries in the Gulf of Guinea, taking advantage of the internal and international tensions affecting state actors. The Report of the Deputy Special Representative for the Sahel of the Secretary General of the United Nations Organization, Giovanie Biha, has been explicit about such weakening in his presentation to the Security Council on January 10, 2023.[8] And this weakening also affects Chad, one of the main contributors to the anti-jihadist military effort but which is seeing its internal tensions increase, and Niger, where more and more foreign troops are being concentrated, potentially increasing future internal tensions.[9]

In an ambush carried out by the Al Qaeda antenna in the region, the Group of Support for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), 14 Malian soldiers were killed on January 11, 2023, in the area between Mopti and Ségou, that is, further south of the country.[10] This at a time when in the north, from which the last French troops under Operation Barkhane left in August 2022, the evolution of the negotiations within the framework of the Algiers Agreements between the government and the Tuareg groups is particularly negative.[11] This is allowing actors such as JNIM to consolidate their position, and is increasingly hampering the normalization efforts of Algerian diplomacy, as reflected in the visit of the Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramtane Lamamra, accompanied by his main experts on Tuareg and Sahel issues, to Bamako on January 9, 2023.[12] Meanwhile, Morocco is repositioning itself in this key Western Sahel country, having played a central role in resolving the crisis with Côte d’Ivoire, having secured the release of the three female soldiers from the Ivorian contingent on September 3, 2022 and the release of the remaining forty-six troops at the end of January 2023.[13]

Endnotes:

  1. Paper finished on January 27th, 2023.
  2. Benjamin Roger, “Au Mali, plongée dans le système Wagner”, Jeune Afrique (January 4, 2023), https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1400761/politique/au-mali-plongee-dans-le-systeme-wagner/.
  3. JA, “Crise entre Ouattara et Goïta: Faue Gnassinbe à Bamako et Abidjan”, Jeune Afrique (January 4, 2023), https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1405803/politique/crise-entre-ouattara-et-goita-faure-gnassingbe-a-bamako-et-abidjan/
  4. Vincent Duhem y Florence Richard, “Les soldats de la discorde, au coeur de la crise entre Ouattara et Assimi Goïta”, Jeune Afrique (January 25, 2023) https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1409315/politique/les-soldats-de-la-discorde-au-coeur-de-la-crise-entre-alassane-ouattara-et-assimi-goita/ y LM, “Au Mali, la Minusma n’est pas viable sans une augmentation des troupes, selon ONU”, Le Monde (January 20, 2023), https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/01/20/au-mali-la-minusma-n-est-pas-viable-sans-une-augmentation-des-troupes-selon-l-onu_6158618_3212.html
  5. Pierre-Elie de Rohan Chabot, Paul Deutschmann y Fatoumata Diallo, “Discussions à huis clos sur l’avenir de la présence militaire française au Sahel”, Africa Intelligence (January 18, 2023), https://www.africaintelligence.fr/afrique-ouest/2023/01/18/discussions-a-huis-clos-sur-l-avenir-de-la-presence-militaire-francaise-au-sahel,109902852-eve
  6. Elise Vincent y Morgane Le Cam, “Au Burkina Faso, imbroglio sur une demande de départ des forces spéciales françaises”, Le Monde (January 23, 2023), https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/01/23/au-burkina-faso-imbroglio-sur-une-demande-de-depart-des-forces-speciales-francaises_6158922_3212.html#:~:text=Burkina%20Faso-,Au%20Burkina%20Faso%2C%20imbroglio%20sur%20une%20demande%20de%20d%C3%A9part%20des,pas%20en%20avoir%20%C3%A9t%C3%A9%20inform%C3%A9
  7. Alfonso Masoliver, “Tocado y hundido: Francia pierde Burkina Faso frente a Rusia”, La Razón (January 23, 2023), https://www.larazon.es/internacional/20230123/uv3nwo6d4jgvlmz452pixmw4li.html
  8. ONU, “Afrique de l’Ouest et Sahel: il faut renforcer la collaboration et la résilience contre les extremismes violents, selon l’ONU”, Organización de las Naciones Unidas Info (January 10, 2023), https://news.un.org/fr/story/2023/01/1131227#:~:text=Audioth%C3%A8que-,Afrique%20de%20l’Ouest%20et%20Sahel%20%3A%20il%20faut%20renforcer%20la,extr%C3%A9mistes%20violents%2C%20selon%20l’ONU&text=En%20f%C3%A9vrier%202020%2C%20la%20ville,%C3%A0%20l’int%C3%A9rieur%20du%20pays
  9. Newsroom Infobae, “Al menos setenta y siete muertos, incluyendo sesenta y tres rebeldes, en una operación militar en Chad”, InfoBae (January 20, 2023), https://www.infobae.com/america/agencias/2023/01/19/al-menos-77-muertos-incluyendo-63-rebeldes-en-una-operacion-militar-en-chad/
  10. Le Monde y AFP, “Mali: 14 soldats tués dans les combats avec Al Qaida qui revendique une ‘double emboscade”, Le Monde (January 11, 2023), https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2023/01/13/mali-14-soldats-tues-dans-des-combats-avec-al-qaida-qui-revendique-une-double-embuscade_6157703_3212.html
  11. EFE, “Grupos del Norte de Malí boicotean la aplicación del acuerdo de paz de Argel”, Swissinfo (January 18, 2023), https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/mali-conflicto_grupos-del-norte-de-mali-boicotean-la-aplicaci%C3%B3n-del-acuerdo-de-paz-de-argel/48214678
  12. See “Mali: David Baché, “Mali: le chef jihadiste Iyad Ag Ghali recrute et s’affiche dans la región de Ménaka”, Radio Francia Internacional (January 23, 2023), https://www.rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20230123-mali-iyad-ag-ghaly-recrute-et-s-affiche-dans-la-r%C3%A9gion-de-m%C3%A9naka y Jeune Afrique, “Accord d’Alger: Bamako déchire la proposition algérienne d’ une réunion en ‘terrain neutre’”, Jeune Afrique (January 26, 2023), https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1412368/politique/accord-dalger-bamako-decline-la-proposition-algerienne-dune-reunion-en-terrain-neutre/
  13. Vincent Duhem y Florence Richard, “Révélations sur la mediation secrete du Maroc entre le Mali et la Côte d’Ivoire”, Jeune Afrique (January 26, 2023), https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1411344/politique/revelations-sur-la-mediation-secrete-du-maroc-entre-le-mali-et-la-cote-divoire/

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The ideas contained in this analysis are the sole responsibility of the author, without necessarily reflecting the thoughts of the CEEEP or the Peruvian Army.

Image: CEEEP