Rahmane Idrissa: Future of the Sahel Region


In recent years, the African states of Sahel underwent a multitude of governance challenges, leading to a series of coups. At the moment, Sahelians are witnessing an increase in a surge of violent extremism, and the activity of terrorist groups prevails. Future prospects are also influenced by changes in global energy architecture. These topics and more were discussed with Dr Rahmane Idrissa, a political scientist focusing on West Africa and a professor from Leiden University.   

There is a number of international actors in the Sahel countering violent extremism and terrorism. Are they mutually inclusive? 

I think there are clusters, and within those clusters is that kind of cooperation. There’s the European cluster with a high level of cooperation, but then you have Americans, who may cooperate with Europeans, but they have their own agenda and own places to focus on. For instance, I have the impression Americans tend to focus much more on Libya, than on the rest of the Sahel. And then you have new actors, like, I’d like to say Russians, but I’m not sure how to call them, it’s this mercenary Wagner group. And you probably also have Russian state agents, they of course don’t cooperate with anyone else. And then the Sahel states themselves. They’ve been organised into the group called the G5, they were supposed to work together, but they actually never managed to, for plenty of reasons. Right now, the organisation is falling apart, because Mali has recently pulled out from the organisation.

Upon what had Mali decided to withdraw from G5?

They got into quarrels with the other members of the group. It was their turn to be the chairman of the organisation this year, but the chairmanship was not given to them because Mali is under sanctions from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). They gave an ultimatum to withdraw unless given the chairmanship, which didn’t happen and so they withdrew.

What is the role of the Wagner Group, and how does it affect countering of terrorism and violence against civilians? What is their impact on the security of the region?

The impression I have with Wagner is that they try to get insecurity under control by creating more of it. It’s a bit Orwellian, but that’s what they did in another place where they intervened, in the Central African Republic. Of course, they also work in Libya, but the most important place they’ve been deployed in is the Central African Republic. In Mali they’re not intervening all over the country, it’s only in central Mali. In Mali, there are two regions, that are plagued with violence, northern Mali and central Mali. Northern Mali is where the French were intervening. Wagner group is in Central Mali, which is a very complicated region, it’s more densely populated than northern Mali, and also the fights between communities are more intense. Central Mali is the epicentre of Jihadi groups connected to Fulani communities. And the Wagner group increase the violence by getting involved in the community fighting and also in persecution of Fulani, in cooperation with Mali’s junta. Fulani are the ones who are mainly caught in jihadist war. So, for now, at least, the Wagner group is worsening the situation.

Do you think the Wagner influence is divisional in the community?

In central Mali, there are two big communities, that are fighting, Fulani and Dogon. From the perspective of the junta, the Fulani are a problem, because they’re the ones involved in terrorist groups. So, the Dogon are seen as allies. In fact, authorities use Dogon militias to attack the Fulanis. There you have an alliance between Junta and Dogon and of course Wagner group, playing the role of the mercenary force. And the three together attack the Fulani.

What is the role of tribes in respective governmental armed forces? How does tribal affiliation influence the involvement in regional security?

I don’t see too much influence. You can say that majority ethnic groups are represented more, just simply by force of numbers. If an ethnic group is 60% of the population, then you have more of those people in the administration, army, and everywhere, compared to minorities. I know that in Niger, because most of the problems are happening in agropastoral areas, there was lobbying for the state to recruit more people from agropastoral areas, like Fulani and Tuareg. The idea behind this is that they know the region better, therefore they could orient themselves there better and they also know the languages in the region. So, Niger did actually recruit more of them. I’m speaking about the state of Niger because it’s the only country, that is actually following some kind of consistent policy. Mali has been very unstable, coup after coup, protests, and uprisings, too unstable for any kind of policies to be analysed in that way. And Burkina Faso wasn’t really hit by the insecurity until 2014, they had a different kind of government that was overthrown by popular insurgency in 2014. So, they didn’t have that kind of depth of involvement as Niger has. So, Niger is the only country which can be used to draw conclusions related to this issue.

Troops of Operation Barkhane. Source: Wikimedia Commons

French president recently announced a withdrawal from Mali. How was it perceived?

They wanted to change ways of intervening, instead of having 5000 troops on the ground, doing the fighting on the ground, which is what they’ve been doing, they want to do less of that. They want the states of Sahel to do more of the fighting, and the French to have a role of advisor, providing information, equipment, aircraft coverage of the region, and logistics. But less fighting on the ground is behind Macron’s announcement. Mali did consider it a kind of treason. The Prime Minister of the junta announced to United Nations, that “La France abandonne le Mali en plein vol”, sort of a metaphor, that they have been abandoned by the French, a pilot decided to leave them in the middle of the flight. They looked into that decision and turned it into a diplomatic quarrel with the French, that’s my analysis. And now the French are even more eager to leave Mali because of the kind of conflict they have with the Malians.

Do you perceive French forces‘ withdrawal as a political decision in the context of presidential elections in France? Or as a long-term decision?

That’s what many people think, but I don’t think so. I think they just realised it’s not working. They couldn’t defeat Jihadists in the way they were doing it. You destroy a group and another one emerges over there. They couldn’t intervene all over the territory, in Central Mali, for instance. Intervention in Burkina Faso was a bit difficult, because of the sensitivities of the government there. They realised something needs to change and the idea they had, and I don’t think it’s related to elections, because when I did the research, I saw debates they had at the level of national assembly, inputs from the military, from the French presidency, and the basic idea they had was they’re going to degrade the capacity of Jihadist so much that they could be handled by the Sahelian armies themselves instead of French doing all the work. But the corollary to that was that Sahelian states should reform their military and defence sector so it would work, and they didn’t. Well, you see what path Mali took, Burkina Faso ended up having coup d’état, in Niger, I don’t see any will for reform to be made. But it’s not related to elections, in my opinion.

What is the future prospect for G5 Sahel? Do you think they will be capable of restructuring in some limited version? 

Yes, now when Mali is gone, they’ll have to work without Mali. I don’t think G5 would disappear, but at the same time, they’re losing the country that is at the epicentre of the crisis, at least in that part of Sahel, so it’s going to be tough. I suspect that the country, which blocked Mali’s chairmanship in G5 is Niger. I’m not sure, but I don’t see Burkina Faso doing it, because they have a junta themselves. I also don’t see Mauretania or Chad doing it, they’re more distant. And Niger has always been very critical of the junta, so I suspect it was them. And if Niger did that, they knew Mali could actually withdraw. And maybe they thought: “Fine, do it. We’ll still do our thing.” Although G5 wasn’t working well anyway. But it had some advantages and rules. For instance, if Jihadist outfits from Mali would get into Niger, attack, and run back to Mali, Niger forces could actually follow them to the other state. G5 would allow that. But if Mali is now gone, it would be illegal for the Nigerian army to enter their territory.

How would you describe the role of the African Union within all the international bodies?

The most important organisation in West Africa is not African Union, it’s ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) and WAEMU (West African Economic and Monetary Union), they’re partially overlapping. WAEMU is mostly consisting of French-speaking countries that use CFA franc currency. ECOWAS includes all West African countries except Mauretania. They don’t actively participate in Mali. Due to the coup, and the coup within the coup, ECOWAS has imposed sanctions on Mali, after the junta refused to enter into an agreement which would settle a road map for democratic rule. Because of that, Mali is isolated. ECOWAS countries closed borders with Mali and WAEMU has imposed sanctions on Mali state, prohibiting their access to the reserves in the central bank. There’s not much else these organisations can do. The African Union works in West Africa through ECOWAS, not directly.

Should the EU/UN support the Multinational Joint Task Force and how specifically? How is the integration even between the countries of the Joint Task Force themselves?

This organisation relates to the Lake Chad area and its problem is that it sometimes gets dormant, because it depends on the political will of the involved states. For a while it was dormant. It recently became more active, mostly in a military sense, whereas the problem involves much more than the military. The development factor is really important. And in that aspect, they do need help. In fact, one of the reasons, why these organisations are a bit ineffective, is funding. Including the G5, which was mentioned earlier. That is something similar to the Multinational Joint Task Force, the same type of organisation. And one of the problems of G5 was that it starved of funding. So, it couldn’t be very effective, and I think with the Joint Task Force it’s the same problem. I think one important point is, you need that the initiative needs to come from African countries, but they don’t have the resources.

EUTM Mali. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now let’s focus more on  UN-AU cooperation, specifically on meeting United Nations – African Union Joint Task Force on Peace and Security in Africa in May, which underscored the need for restoration of constitutional order in Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea and Mali; what would elections mean for the stability in the region? How long would the elected governments last?

Would there even be elections? In Burkina Faro they decided that transition would last three years, so they’re not going to have elections now. Mali is also postponing elections for months and months. Chad has never really had a democratic government anyway. They had elections, but sham ones and probably if they have elections now, it would be sham elections again. But at the same time, they need to have an elected government to live in peace with the African Union and ECOWAS. The organisations have in their charters and treaties, that member countries should be democratic. That’s what people in Burkina understand and managed to convince ECOWAS that they need some time to get there. But for now, they need to have this system due to the problems we’re dealing with. Mali didn’t have this kind of conciliatory interaction with ECOWAS and that’s why they’re isolated.

One of the topics of the meeting was the impact of covid pandemics. Was there any influence of covid pandemics in terms of security? What about redirection of funds towards covid-related measures?

I don’t see much impact there. My impression is that with the security situation, the problem is not really the funding, it’s in reform. You can pour all the money you have, but if you haven’t reformed your system of operation, you’re not going to solve the problem anyway. It’s not the amount of money, but how you use it. Also, did they really spend so much money on the covid fight? I’m not sure. I studied the case of Niger, it hurt the economy because of restrictions, but governments didn’t spend a lot of money to support people who suffered from it, meaning economically, like businesses. Most businesses are in the informal sector and due to that, the government actually doesn’t know how to support them – because of the bureaucracy.

The destabilization in the Sahel was linked to the Libyan civil war since 2011. What is the role of Libya in the security and stability in the Sahel after these 10 years?

I think it started the problem, but it became a sideshow, it’s less important now. It used to be very important because of the weapons, because Libya became a huge source of weapons after the regime of Gaddafi fell, and that probably lasted for a few years, but now it’s not really that important. It’s still there and it’s a problem. But I think it has more impact on Lake Chad than on the Sahel. It’s geographically closer, so that means more traffic from Libya, including weapons. Related to conflicts in the Sahel, if you want to do something from Libya, you have to cross through Northern Niger, through Algeria.

Turkey is influencing Libyan politics and security situation, is there a similar activity in the Sahel?

No, not the same. For Turkey, the Sahel is a market opportunity mostly. I’m not sure how active they are in Mali. I know they’re very active in Niger – in public construction. Reconstruction is one thing the Turkish can do cheaply, and these are very poor countries, so it’s a good opportunity for both of them, and for Turkey to sell their expertise. They also sell weapons, at least for Niger. Mali prefers to buy its weapons from Russia, but they also purchased the Turkish drones which you can see in Ukraine. Niger is also interested in those ones. And all this of course helps the influence of Erdogan, who also travelled to Niger a few years back to open an embassy in Niger and broker all these deals and contracts. So that is a way to extend Turkish influence. But this is part of their general African policy, not the just Sahel. They bring it all over Africa. They’re creating bonds and it’s not just political, it’s through commerce with political impacts. And If Turkey has international ambitions, it can more easily count on the backing of such befriended countries.

What is the position of West Africa in the current discussion on energy security, supplies and prices? Is it an opportunity for the region in terms of potential boosted demand for energy sources from the EU countries? 

In West Africa I think it’s only Nigeria, that is a big player in this field. They produce oil and natural gas, and their main customers are in Europe anyway. Probably there’s pressure on them to produce more, which will of course take some time. So, they can increase their capacities, but nothing that could reach the level of amounts delivered from Russia. If you take the three largest producers of natural gas in Africa, their production combined can’t replace Russia. But Europeans are ready to take any bit from anywhere, so Nigeria is trying to increase, and of course, there is the logistical problem with how to carry the gas to Europe. There were already some plans for gas pipelines crossing from Nigeria through Niger to Algeria and to Europe, and one that goes through Morocco. But all these are in the project stage and need money and time to develop. Nigeria is also exporting liquified natural gas to Europe, which is the main customer. My impression is that instead of building the pipelines which have to cross all the unstable areas of the Sahel plagued with Jihadists, they’re going to increase the capacities of liquified natural gas exports from Nigeria through the sea.

What influence do world powers have in the energy sector in West Africa? Does the ROSATOM engagement mean anything for Russia’s further involvement in the region?

I think it also relates only to Nigeria. I don’t think ROSATOM engage with any other West African countries. They sent a reactor to Nigeria, but not for producing energy, it’s research-based commerce. ROSATOM is doing it a bit like Turkey. They’re selling infrastructure to African countries, who can buy it very expensively from western European countries. When ROSATOM sells something, they also provide loans and train the staff, it’s actually a package of services you can buy from them. The most enticed country was Rwanda, I think. In west Africa, it’s only Nigeria, and I don’t think they got too far with this. Plus, it’s nuclear energy and many people are worried about it. To have nuclear facilities in an unstable region, also adding the maintenance throughout the years… Maybe it’s cheap now, but maintenance can make it very expensive. But ROSATOM is very cunning, so they manage to convince a lot of countries. With the geopolitical situation now, I’m not sure, but I think that if Russia tries to expand, the West will try to block them, it’s almost a cold war situation. But Russians can be very persuasive. If you need to electrify your countryside and then you have these people coming and telling you “It’s cheap, we going to lend you money, we also going to train your people to operate.” That kind of training they give is not enough for expertise in maintaining and running a nuclear reactor. But they still can persuade many people. Especially in Africa, there’s a hunger for sovereignty and autonomy. And they’re actually selling the autonomy. So, they have convincing power. But for now, it’s just a small number of countries.

Dr Rahmane Idrissa is a political scientist, who teaches at Leiden University. Idrissa’s research expertise ranges from issues of states, institutions and democratisation in Africa to Salafi radicalism in the Sahel and current projects on the history of state formation in Africa, with a focus both on the modern (Niger) and premodern eras (Songhay). He is the author of The Politics of Islam in the Sahel: Between Persuasion and Violence and a Historical Dictionary of Niger.
His doctorate in political science, with a concentration on democratisation and political Islam in Africa, was obtained at the University of Florida.


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