North Africa, West Asia

A dangerous ideological battle in Africa's Sahel arena

While foreign powers with France at their head continue their journey across Africa, where are the African countries ?

Abdelkader Abderrahmane
18 June 2019, 5.19pm
Presidents of Burkina Faso Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Mauritania's Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, France's Emmanuel Macron, and Niger's Mahamadou Issoufou at a G5 Sahel anti-terror coalition summit in France, on Dec 13, 2017
Picture by Pool/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The release of hostages - two French, an American and a South Korean - last month in Burkina Faso, as well as the death of six people killed in an attack against a Catholic church in northern Burkina Faso confirm if needed be that the Sahel is plunging into a deeper chaos.

Six years have passed since Operation Serval in northern Mali, neither this, nor Barkhane nor the G5 Sahel have so far managed to defeat or even contain terrorism in the region. On the contrary, hostage taking and the recurrent attacks remind us that terrorist groups are not only well rooted, but that no Sahelian country - and Africa - is today immune or spared from terrorism. Terrorism continues to spread eastwards in Niger -28 Nigerian soldiers were also killed in an ambush this May-, in Burkina Faso and elsewhere, but also further South, in the Gulf of Guinea, underlining thus the limits of counterterrorism strategies. Bearing in mind this chaotic situation, the growing presence of foreign troops in the region with French forces at the forefront, cannot alone explain such material, financial and human investments.

The G5 Sahel irrelevance

The G5 Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad) group is supposed to eventually take over from Barkhane’s forces in the fight against terrorism. This is the official version. However, beyond the indisputable inability of its military forces to defeat the terrorist groups, the G5 Sahel ignores de facto the north-south and interregional dynamics, weakening in turn the security mechanisms already in place such as the Nouakchott Process - which includes eleven States ranging from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea-, conceived and conceptualised in 2013 by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU) to address the security crisis in this region as a whole. In doing so, it not only delineates the geostrategic issue of the Sahelo-Saharan region, but also underlines the interdependence of all concerned States, from North to West Africa.

Ignoring this, the G5 Sahel and their allies effectively divide the geographical and political region which stretches from the Gulf of Guinea to North Africa into three different subregions: the Maghreb, the Sahel and West Africa, ignoring thus their deep historical, political, geographical and security interdependencies. This ultimately weakens the coordination and cooperation among all the states that make up the Nouakchott Process - if not making it eventually irrelevant. Meanwhile the worrying advance of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Islamic State (IS) to Togo, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin and other countries in the region, demonstrate if still necessary, the interdependence of these three regions.

In addition, the explosive situation in Libya where through his offensive launched on Tripoli on April 4, Marshal Khalifa Haftar definitely shattered any prospect of settlement of the conflict, making the country’s chaotic situation even more vulnerable to terrorism. This illusion of all-power that inhabits Haftar is reinforced by the position of France for whom the former is a valuable ally. In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro on May 2, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian, welcomed the fight against terrorism by the Libyan National Army (ANL), stating: “I support everything that serves the security of the French and countries friends of France.” What le Drian refrains from saying however, is that more than the fight against terrorism, Haftar is a precious ally Paris needs in its geo-strategic ambition to tighten its grip across the whole saharo-sahelian region. Indeed, as the French historian Sophie Bessis points out, France would not be a world power without its presence and penetration of Africa.

A fierce strategic military battle

For years now, foreign military bases have been spreading all across Africa, and even more so across the Sahelian belt, from Djibouti to Côte d'Ivoire, worrying France, increasingly challenged in its historical chasse gardée (private hunting). The United States, Russia and other nations are disputing between one anothers every hectare of this region to install their military bases. Officially, to fight transnational terrorism. In reality, it is a fierce war of influence that is being played between the Western powers but also emerging ones, such as India, Brazil and China.

In 2017, China opened its military base in Djibouti - a French bastion par excellence! - a stone’s throw from the American base of Camp Lemonnier where 4000 men are present. Which is not to reassure Paris. As for Russia, if its presence in the Sahel still remains insignificant, its ambition to establish itself more and more in Africa, beyond the Sahelian belt, in countries such as Mozambique, Namibia or the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is real.

The bull in the arena

Having said that, nothing can better summarise what is happening in the Sahel than this slip of the tongue of Angel Losada, the EU’s Special Representative for the Sahel. At a strategic consultative meeting on the Sahel organised in March 2018 in Nouakchott, under the auspices of the African Union, where the main issue concerned the G5 Sahel and its articulation with the various pre-existing cooperation mechanisms of the Sahelo-Saharan region, Losada stumbled verbally saying, « to explain what we are doing ... uh ... you are implementing. » Even though he then tried to minimise his sub-conscious verbatim, it is difficult not to see in this ‘we’ a confession of European policies and ambitions in Mali and the Sahel in general.

The ideological-strategic train led by foreign powers with France at their head, continues therefore its journey across Africa. Meanwhile, African countries in general, and the G5 Sahel leaders in particular, remain behind on the platform. Worse, like a bull in the arena, they continue to head headlong towards the muleta waved by the Franco-European torero, failing to see and understand that what is at stake in the long term is not this red cloth on which they focus. Because beyond the fight against terrorism and the enormous economic interests which are at stake, Africa has in fact become the centre of gravity of a politico-strategic battle of the world powers. And the Sahelian countries, which are also the weakest links of the continent, are their gateway par excellence.

As Alvin Toffler once said « if you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy ». Because of their inability to understand this, because of their lack of strategic vision, these G5 Sahel countries, which have never succeeded in coordinating their regional actions previously, blindly apply a programme and strategy conceived in Paris and Brussels, provided that it can keep them in power and incidentally, enrich them even more. In so doing, they however endanger not only the entire Sahel region - in its broadest definition - but also much of the African continent, if not Africa as a whole. For while the G5 Sahel [mis]guided by the military forces led by Barkhane are busy trying to neutralise the terrorists who, like the Hydra of Lerne, keep growing in numbers to spread more and more across the continent, another battle much more important is being played without them. That ideological-strategic battle for the control of the entire region of the Sahel, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic coast. A control which will have devastating effects for the African continent and its future generations in the long term.

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