Will Intervention Stabilize the Sahel?
As coups spread across the region, insecurity is growing—and international military involvement could make it worse.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Mass strikes averted in Nigeria, how Egypt’s bribes sparked the Menendez indictment in Washington, and Russian attempts to evade sanctions by making Ladas in Ethiopia.
No Easy Fix in Sahel Crisis
Burkina Faso’s army captain and self-declared interim president, Ibrahim Traoré, has said security—rather than elections—is the priority for his government. His address on state TV on Friday came almost exactly one year after he seized power from another military regime.
A security vacuum in the Sahel has increased displacement and pressure on neighboring coastal nations. More than 60,000 Burkinabe refugees have fled to the Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana, and Benin.
Traoré was the world’s youngest president, at 34 years old, when he was sworn in on Sept. 30 last year after the country’s second coup in eight months, promising a return to democracy with elections by July 2024. He has instead announced a planned “partial change” to the country’s constitution. Traoré said that the current constitution reflects “the opinion of a handful of enlightened people” and not that of the “popular masses.”
Attacks from jihadist insurgencies have increased in Burkina Faso since the military takeovers, but analysts told me that the junta’s latest announcements signal an intention to consolidate power. Last Wednesday, Burkina Faso’s junta said it foiled an attempted coup and detained four officers.
“Traoré seeks to entrench his rule in the wake of a foiled coup attempt that has highlighted the deep-seated internal divisions within the army,” said Mucahid Durmaz, a senior analyst at London-based risk firm Verisk Maplecroft. Durmaz added that the constitutional change “will likely provide a legal base for a crackdown on various factions in the military, media outlets, and civil society groups.”
The junta in neighboring Mali has also postponed presidential elections scheduled for next year. Meanwhile, Niger’s junta has proposed a three-year transition plan—a timeline rejected by the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Tara O’Connor, the executive director at Africa Risk Consulting, believes that it is difficult to hold credible elections in a country that struggles with widespread “extremism.” But “the answer is not continued military rule,” she said. Despite heavy sanctions, junta leaders have clung to office and “created a Sahelian zone of instability” that stretches across the continent.
Across Francophone West Africa, putschists have weaponized genuine criticism of France’s support for deeply unpopular or illegitimate regimes in a system known as “Françafrique” to justify what are essentially careerist coups.
In Niger, Western support had reduced insurgencies, but criticism against unfair resource deals in the country proved a useful tool for putschists to get the public to support the overthrow of President Mohamed Bazoum. Niger’s junta has expelled France’s ambassador, and French troops are expected to leave by the end of the year. Nearly 40 percent of the government’s 2023 budget was to come from foreign aid, which is now suspended in a country that had managed to increase its per capita income by 7.5 percent in 2022 and was predicted to double economic growth next year.
Similar to Mali, Burkina Faso has suspended or expelled journalists from several French media outlets, including RFI, France 24, Jeune Afrique, Libération, and Le Monde.
After kicking out French troops in February, Traoré’s administration launched a mass recruitment drive of volunteers for “the Defense of the Homeland” and sought ties with Iran. Last month, a Russian delegation held talks with Traoré in Ouagadougou on military cooperation. Russia’s Wagner Group has positioned itself as an alternative security partner to the West. However, “trying something new like a mercenary group that is only interested in the commercial outcome, as we have seen in Mali, has been totally ineffective,” O’Connor said. Wagner mercenaries have been accused alongside local soldiers of carrying out atrocities including rape in Mali and the Central African Republic.
The Sahel belt of military-run countries has increased irregular migration, with an emerging trend of Burkinabe refugees seeking asylum in North Africa and Europe, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. In the first half of the year, Guineans, Malians, and Burkinabe were in the top 10 nationalities of new arrivals to Italy.
Jihadi attacks in Burkina Faso since the beginning of 2023 have killed more than 6,000 people and left 4.6 million people in need of aid. Burkinabe forces suffered one of their heaviest losses in early September, with 53 soldiers and volunteer fighters killed in clashes with militants in the country’s northern region. Nearly 1 million students are out of school because of the insecurity, according to a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Security experts believe that the ongoing violence can only be solved through regional intervention from the African Union or ECOWAS. But diplomatic efforts by ECOWAS, the continent’s strongest regional body, have largely stalled while faced with increasingly belligerent military regimes. “Western powers will likely prioritize providing military assistance to West African coastal states like Senegal, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire,” Durmaz said.
“However,” he added, “as the public in West African countries have grown wary of hosting foreign troops, an increasing military engagement with the West risks triggering a backlash against Western-allied governments.” Rifts are appearing between ECOWAS’s 11 member states and the African Union among those that worry that violence from coup countries has crossed their borders—such as Ivory Coast and Senegal—and therefore are in favor of military action. Other countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria, are facing domestic political pushback over fears that any military engagement to contain disorder abroad could unleash a wave of instability at home.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, Oct. 4: OPEC+ holds a joint ministerial monitoring committee meeting in Vienna.
Monday, Oct. 9, to Sunday, Oct. 15: Annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group are scheduled to be held in Morocco, which would mark a return to the African continent for the first time in 50 years.
Tuesday, Oct. 10: Parliamentary and presidential elections held in Liberia.
Monday, Oct. 9, to Thursday, Oct. 12: Middle East and North Africa Climate Week will be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
What We’re Watching
Tunisia-EU deal. Tunisian President Kais Saied has denounced a financial package signed in July with the European Union, saying that the amount is small and goes against what was agreed. Saied said he rejects the deal “not because of the small amount … but because the proposal conflicts with the memorandum of understanding signed in July.” The EU had pledged 1 billion euros ($1.05 billion) to bail out Tunisia’s beleaguered economy in return for the Tunisian government’s help in curbing migration from Africa to Europe. However, the EU only released a first sum of 127 million euros ($132.87 million) to Tunisia last month as part of an agreement to crack down on migrant boats reaching the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Egyptian bribery indictment. U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has threatened to block a tranche of military aid and arms sales to Egypt if the Egyptian government does not take “meaningful and sustainable steps” toward improving its human rights record. He vowed on Saturday to block the release of $235 million in aid to Egypt. Cardin’s statement comes days after he replaced Sen. Bob Menendez, who along with this wife was indicted last week on charges of taking bribes from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government to facilitate sales of military equipment to Egypt.
Six rights groups documented beatings, electric shocks, and sexual violence by Egyptian authorities in a report submitted to the U.N. Committee against Torture on Monday. As Robbie Gramer writes in Foreign Policy, “Egypt has many supporters in Congress beyond Menendez. … But human rights advocates and lawmakers hope the Menendez indictment triggers a broad rethink of U.S.-Egypt relations.”
Sudan atrocities. Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) say they have seized a military base in the Kordofan region. Footage posted to social media on Sunday by the RSF claimed to show fighters “taking over the Wad Ashana garrison in North Kordofan and advancing toward Kosti,” although Sudan’s federal army has not confirmed the claim. Reports suggest thousands have fled the town as dozens of civilians were killed in the crossfire. Seizing the town would allow the RSF to move toward other major cities that lie south of the capital, Khartoum.
The United States, Britain, Norway, and Germany plan to submit a motion to the U.N. Human Rights Council to set up an investigation into alleged atrocities in Sudan, a draft motion showed on Friday. In August, the U.N warned that rape was being used as a weapon of war by the RSF militia. Sudanese women and girls say that perpetrators were wearing RSF uniforms and that the rapes happened in RSF-controlled areas.
Nigeria strikes. Nigerian President Bola Tinubu raised the country’s minimum wage in a last-minute bid to prevent indefinite strikes by Nigeria’s labor unions, which were scheduled to begin Oct. 3 in all sectors of Africa’s largest economy.
Nigerian junior federal workers will receive an additional 25,000 naira ($37) for six months—temporarily increasing the minimum wage from 30,000 naira per month to 55,000 naira ($71), far below the 200,000 naira ($258) the unions had requested. The increase would alleviate a squeeze on Nigerians impacted by rising inflation and a 40 percent currency depreciation against the U.S. dollar. Tinubu made the announcement in a state broadcast on Sunday to mark Nigeria’s 63rd anniversary of independence from Britain. Nigeria’s main labor unions, the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress paused strike action after further talks with Tinubu, who agreed to halt a value-added tax on diesel fuel, among other concessions.
This Week in Russian Sanctions-Busting
Ethiopian manufacturing. Ethiopia will start producing Russian Lada cars for the African market, according to Ethiopian Ambassador to Russia Cham Ugala Uriat. Lada is a range of SUV manufactured by Russian state-owned company AvtoVAZ, which has struggled with declining sales since its heyday selling cheap cars to the Soviet and Eastern Bloc market. The deal can be perceived as a lifeboat for the foundering AvtoVAZ, which shut down production last May over difficulty in sourcing foreign parts. It was renationalized later that year, after French carmaker Renault sold its stake in the company.
Ethiopia recently joined the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) group of nations, and as it aims to rebuild its domestic manufacturing industry following a two-year civil war, Addis Ababa has looked to sign deals with Russian automakers. Setting up shop in Africa is a win for the Kremlin, given a European Union ban on Russian cars.
South Sudan energy. South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit held talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which both leaders agreed to expand their trade in oil—which South Sudan produces but cannot refine domestically—and mining cooperation. The move comes as South Sudan prepares to hold its first presidential elections since independence in December 2024. Putin said the development of oil refineries in South Sudan with the help of Russian companies would strengthen ties. South Sudan wants a United Nations arms embargo against it removed but is yet to fully implement a peace deal signed in 2018.
Chart of the Week: Electrified Countries
As Chinese funding for power infrastructure dries up, African nations are hard pressed to find alternative streams to finance electricity projects. Lack of government access to finance is estimated to keep 560 million Africans living without electricity by 2030. Africa has more countries powered by a majority of renewable energy sources than any other continent, but it is also the world’s least electrified continent. The nations with the lowest electrification rates are in conflict zones, including Niger, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic (CAR). In 2021, the CAR’s energy mix was 99 percent renewable, but much of it powered businesses rather than homes.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- The Scrambled Spectrum of U.S. Foreign-Policy Thinking by Ash Jain
- The Morality of Ukraine’s War Is Very Murky by Stephen M. Walt
- How the U.S. Created Its Own Reality by Heather Cox Richardson
What We’re Reading
How people smuggling funds Haftar’s army. Militias loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army are involved in the smuggling of Syrian migrants to Europe to fund the group’s civil war, according to a report in Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ). Smuggling networks linked to Haftar’s army offered to smuggle ARIJ reporters into Italy for approximately $4,350. Migrants are flown in on flights operated by private Syrian Airline company Cham Wings with security clearances guaranteed by Haftar’s army. ARIJ estimated that in 2022, Libya’s traffickers could have earned a profit of $192 million from smuggling Syrians, Egyptians, Pakistanis, and Palestinians into Italy from eastern Libya.
DRC Elections. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner, a surgical gynecologist named Denis Mukwege, announced on Monday that he will stand in presidential elections in December in the Democratic Republic of Congo. His announcement ended months of speculation about his potential candidacy. Mukwege has been an outspoken advocate for women’s rights in a country where sexual violence has been rampant. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said in July that sexual violence remains a major problem in the North Kivu province. With the announcement of his candidacy, it is worth revisiting a 2021 profile and book review of Mukwege by Nesrine Malik in the Guardian. “We can end violence on women in Congo, or bring justice—so women can feel that they are protected by a system,” Mukwege said at the time.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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