The late July military takeover in the Republic of Niger, that landlocked West African state, presented a rare test for the African Union, a continental organization uniting 54 States, and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a regional political and economic bloc of 15 States. After the July 26 military coup, Niger became the latest in the unstable region to join a list of other nations now under military rule – including Republics of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Sudan.
By geographical description, what is often referred to the Sahel, is a semiarid region south of the Sahara desert. It stretches like a belt from the Atlantic coast of Senegal through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan. The transitional zone between this arid Sahara to the humid savannahs to the south has been plagued by political instability and widespread jihadist insurgency.
France, which had maintained military operations in the Sahel, has been pulling its forces out from most of the Sahelian states, including Burkina Faso, where operations by the French army were ended in February, following demands by the government. Niger has complained about security besides experiencing deep crisis with its economy. On the surface, there is growing regional insecurity, but on the back there is serious lack of good governance from leaders.
Adding to the region’s security challenges, the anti-terrorism G5 Sahel Joint Force – formed in 2017 by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, and bankrolled by the West and China – has largely been unsuccessful. To function properly, the G5 Sahel needed an effective collective security strategy, reforms in the security sector, and development initiatives.
“This was to happen within the framework of the G5 Sahel, but it could not, because the G5 Sahel had trouble taking off, and when it finally did, there were coups in Mali and then in Burkina Faso that rendered it moot,” said Rahmane Idrissa, a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said that with the drawdown of the UN in Mali, there is concern that West Africa’s security should not be subcontracted to private foreign militaries.
Generally, ECOWAS has been looking to establish a regional army to respond to counterterrorism threats and coups. Although the intent was for the region to fund such a force, equipment and additional training would be sought from international partners, including China, Chatham Africa Director Vines said, further added that ECOWAS is always looking for predictable funding, including from UN contributions, something in which China can promote through the UN Security Council.
Scanning through several media reports, experts have argued that China is unlikely to do much beyond supporting existing mechanisms to solve security threats in the Sahel, a vast region that Beijing has substantial economic interests in, according to observers. China, which maintains an official policy of not meddling in the internal affairs of other States, could opt to bankroll regional security forces, the African Union or UN-led initiatives to cure instability in the Sahel region.
With diverse problems engulfing Africa, some still believe that security interests equal unlimited access to their natural resources. China can easily navigate this security problem as it provides simple solution, the development needs for Africa. That is China’s motto and strategic approach in Africa.
Zhou Yuyuan, a senior fellow and deputy director at the Centre for West Asian and African Studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said China would continue to support peace efforts led by the United Nations, and has pledged to provide financial support and equipment to the African Union and the G5 Sahel Joint Force.
While Beijing had increased its peace and security cooperation with African countries, its security role in Africa was still weak and could be described as supportive or complementary, Zhou said. “Facing the rising security needs of the Sahel region, I think China may continue to support the United Nations, the African Union and regional security forces to play a major role in solving the security threats, and even possibly support France and the European Union to play active roles,” he said.
David Shinn, a China-Africa expert and professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said both Washington and Beijing would seek political stability in the Sahel. But while Washington preferred to work with democratic leaders, Shinn said Beijing was willing to work with either democratic or authoritarian governments to maintain stability.
China has never supported active military engagement in Africa, and that is not likely to change, Shinn said. “China provided several hundred peacekeepers to the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, but they were involved in defensive operations and, in any event, will soon be leaving with the ending of the UN mission there,” he said, adding that Beijing was unlikely to fill the gap left by France or the United States.
The Malian Transitional Military Government’s abrupt and unexpected took a decision to withdraw from the G5-Sahel group and its Joint Force. The Joint Force was created in 2017 by the “G5” Heads of State – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to counter terrorism in the Sahel “head on” in the region. Mali’s sudden exit was most certainly a step back for the Sahel to fight increasing terrorism. Of course, the most effective mechanism is to build a collective security response to fight terrorist threats in the Sahel.
Reports explicitly pointed out that cooperation among forces from the so-called G5 states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – still remains difficult in view of the anti-French sentiments, forcing under-equipped local armies to quickly step up their game against Islamist rebels in the volatile Sahelian region.
Long ago, Nasser Bourita, Morocco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Cooperation and Moroccans Abroad, who represented King Mohammed VI in the Extraordinary Summit on Terrorism and Unconstitutional Changes of Government of the African Union (AU) held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, noted in his speech that the ecosystem of terrorism has been evolving towards a nexus between terrorism, separatism and criminality.
With an increasingly recurrent, as well as increased terrorist activities, conflicts, political instability, and pandemics, this is the time to forge a continental voice, noted Nasser Bourita, speaking the Summit. He explained that “in the face of this mutating threat, the collective strength has never been so much a function of the individual vulnerabilities, and the theme of terrorism and unconstitutional changes of government reflect a concern that is very relevant in view of the challenging situation in entire Africa.”
Burkina Faso and Mali are still under sanctions. Now the West African bloc has imposed sanctions on Niger, and its Western allies have suspended aid. Niger coup leaders could rebuff diplomatic overtures from the African Union and ECOWAS. But the point is that the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, and African leaders are grossly failing in addressing practical development goals. At most foreign summits and conferences, these organizations and African leaders hardly negotiate for support for development needs of Africa. In most situations, they succumb to the influence and dictates of external powers and players.
Niger sits in the middle of the Sahel, a thick belt of countries across the widest section of the African continent from Senegal on the Atlantic Ocean westward to Sudan and Eritrea on the Red Sea. The Sahel has become home to branches of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda terrorist groups. Both the African Union and the ECOWAS have to jointly commit, compliment and build on the security initiative launched by Burkina Faso, Guinean and Malian government’s to stamp out extremism and militancy in the region.
A vast, arid state on the edge of the Sahara desert, Niger has seen a series of coups and political instability in the decades following independence from France in 1960. The country struggles with frequent droughts and poverty. Niger is betting on increased oil exploration and gold mining to help modernize its economy. It is a significant producer of uranium.
Mohamed Bazoum became president in April 2021 in Niger’s first democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960, but was deposed in an army-led coup in July 2023. Niger hosts French and US military bases and before the coup was seen as a key partner in the fight against the Islamist insurgencies in the region.
Bazoum told the Washington Post that “In Africa’s troubled Sahel region, Niger stands as the last bastion of respect for human rights amid the authoritarian movements that have overtaken some of our neighbors. While this coup attempt is a tragedy for Nigeriens, its success would have devastating consequences far beyond our borders. With an open invitation from the coup plotters and their regional allies, the entire central Sahel region could fall to Russian influence via the Wagner Group, whose brutal terrorism has been on full display in Ukraine.”
According to several reports. France has 1,500 soldiers in Niger who conduct joint operations with its military, and the United States and other European countries have helped train the nation’s troops. Leaving Niger would also risk yielding the space to the influence of Russia and its Wagner mercenary group, which already has a significant presence in Mali, Central African Republic and Sudan.
In March, 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Niger “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.” Recognizing the threat that Niger’s potential fall poses to the region, the neighbors in ECOWAS have announced unprecedented sanctions, including a ban on exports and imports of oil, and a suspension of cross-border financial transactions. These measures are already demonstrating what a future would look like under an autocratic junta with no vision or reliable allies.
Edwin Joy Mariya, International Relations Department of the Newcastle University, argued the point declaration issued by Burkina Faso and Mali, though as a warning, has perspectives to transform into Sahel African Treaty Organization (SATO). This extraordinary solidarity and alliance shows its resemblance to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and through this joint declaration by these two Sahel countries, it may pave the way to form a broad collective defense pact in West Africa or expand it to other African regions, due to changes in the balance of power on the African continent, in particular, and on a global level in general. That’s why Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger (MBN) defense alliance reminds the evolution and subsequent establishment of the NATO and also its expansion since 1949.
But the main obstacles are that Sahel is the region that suffers from huge multidimensional poverty and lack of economic-political stability. But that could be strategically important for Africa to form regional defense pacts among states to pursue common interests. The rapid geopolitical paradigm shift of West African states and across Africa, the development of the MBN alliance has the possibility to become a wider Pan-African defense alliance, very crucial for the Africa.
The Sahel is a region in Africa. More broadly, the region plagued with abject poverty, population impoverished. It is defined as the eco-climatic and bio-geographic realm of transition between the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savanna to the south. Terrorist organizations operating in the Sahel, including Boko Haram, Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have greatly exacerbated the violence, extremism and instability of the region. Reports show militants are expanding and spreading out south of the Sahel. The area has also seen a high prevalence of coup d’etat, with military juntas currently ruling in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Sudan.