American policy should end its traditional deference to Paris on Sahel matters to avoid being tarred with the same neocolonial brush.
The military coup d’état in Gabon last week, which toppled the 55-year-long family reign of Omar and Ali Bongo, followed similar putsches by military officers in Niger, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Chad that have overthrown largely elected civilian governments. More dominoes may fall, too, as harassment of opposition parties continues in Senegal, Togo and Cameroon.
Yet global powers like the US must first seek to understand the complex regional and external dynamics driving these coups in order to effectively respond to them. The risks of acting rashly and deferring to France’s hostile and interventionist approach are too high.
When four US soldiers were killed in a 2017 ambush in Niger, many Americans wondered what US troops were even doing in the country. Twenty-four years earlier, the Bill Clinton administration crippled United Nations peacekeeping in Africa after 18 American soldiers were killed in a similar ambush in Somalia, resulting in the withdrawal of American troops from the country amid loud cries of “No boots on the ground.” Then George W. Bush’s global “war on terror” was continued in Africa by Barack Obama, who massively expanded America’s presence. He established a military footprint in a dozen African countries, constructed drone bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and Seychelles, and built a $110 million drone and air base in Niger (which now has 1,100 US soldiers).
At the time of the Niger coup, its former colonial overlord, France, had soldiers protecting uranium mines in the country’s north, continuing an exploitative pattern of Gallic companies monopolizing economic interests in its former colonies. Francafrique has often represented a sordid relationship involving corrupt political dealings and military agreements that have historically kept assorted client dictators in power in countries like Gabon, Central African Republic and Chad.
French leadership of the G5 Sahel countries — Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania — since 2013 has now spectacularly collapsed. The French military was expelled from its base in Mali, while military regimes in Burkina Faso and Guinea have been hostile to Paris. Many protesters across francophone Africa now wave Russian flags in opposition to the former colonial power. The Russian mercenary group Wagner is currently assisting the military regime in Mali to battle militants, which governments in Niger and Burkina Faso are also struggling to contain.
Understanding the regional dynamics of this conflict is thus essential. The 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has threatened General Abdourahamane Tchiani-led putschists in Niger with a military intervention to restore deposed President Mohamed Bazoum to power — a position cautiously supported by Washington, which also fears the possible entry of Wagner mercenaries into Niger.
Yet ECOWAS is facing an existential crisis. It’s currently split into four broad camps.
Nigeria — the region’s “limping Leviathan” — has a new president, Bola Tinubu, who has so far lacked a sure touch in foreign policy. The regional Gulliver suffers from $100 billion of debt and grinding poverty, exacerbated by the recent removal of a fuel subsidy that historically kept the price of domestic oil cheap. Nigeria led praiseworthy interventions in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, but its military is now a shadow of its former self, struggling to contain domestic jihadists. Tinubu faces pressure from a stridently anti-interventionist public and parliament, while the presence of the large Hausa ethnic group that has traded and interacted across the Nigeria-Niger border for centuries further complicates the potential invasion that Nigeria’s president has vociferously championed.
The second group of “hawks” within ECOWAS, which has rejected the Niger junta’s proposed three-year transition to civilian rule, include Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Benin, whose civilian leaders — some with poor governance records — themselves fear coups by their own militaries. Many opposition parties and citizens across these countries have also condemned any regional military intervention.
The third group are “muddlers,” including Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo and Cape Verde, some of which have expressed concerns about the viability of a successful intervention to restore Bazoum to power. And a fourth group of military putschists has seen governments in Mali and Burkina Faso — and more quietly Guinea — pledge military support to soldiers in Niger to confront any ECOWAS intervention. The African Union (AU) remains ambivalent toward any armed operation.
American policy also appears to be in disarray in Niger — despite US Secretary of State Antony Blinken describing the country as a “model of democracy” just six months ago. Washington has so far sensibly avoided the openly hostile French posture toward Niger’s military junta. (General Tchiani has demanded the withdrawal of 1,500 French troops from the country.)
The US must now halt its traditional deference to Paris on Sahel matters to avoid being tarred with the same neocolonial brush. Any ECOWAS military intervention would be widely perceived as symbolizing a Franco-American Trojan horse to protect Western interests in Niger. Washington must instead strongly back regional mediation efforts by ECOWAS and the AU, bolstered by the UN.
Facing a tough re-election battle next year, Joe Biden will be keen to avoid another Somalia-style military disaster in Niger.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is professor and senior research fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship.
This article was orignally published by Bloomberg on 8 September 2023.