The region is plagued by a proliferation of weapons, and these are increasingly falling into the hands of terrorist groups, ethnic factions, and separatist movements seeking self-rule or independence.
Some of the worst conditions are concentrated in countries such as Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Sudan.
In northern Mali, the situation deteriorated significantly less than a decade ago, with the declaration of a northern state in which calls for separatism among some of the region’s Tuareg people were mixed with the participation of terrorist groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
Burkina Faso, located in the southern part of the Sahel, experienced one of the most significant waves of violence in recent years after the fall of president Paulise Compaore in 2014. This led to a period of political instability marked by three coups in a period of no more than seven years.
A similar scenario was repeated in Mali.
The Sahel is home to some of the most violent extremist groups in the world, including Boko Haram, which is particularly active in northeastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin that encompasses the Sudanese Darfur region, Chad, Niger, Mali, Nigeria, and northern Cameroon.
The unrest in the Sahel is closely linked to the region’s struggling economies and people’s inadequate access to basic services. Many Sahel countries rank at the bottom of international development indices, according to UN reports.
The Sahel also faces a daunting demographic challenge in the future, as some countries in the region are projected to experience some of the fastest rates of population growth in the world. This casts a shadow over the region’s governments, peoples, and long-term prospects.
Coup against France in Niger I
Niger could turn to neighbouring countries to support its fight against terrorism after distancing itself from its Western allies in the wake of last week’s coup, writes Haitham Nouri
Niger’s newly installed military rulers, who orchestrated a coup to overthrow the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, remain the target of threats from the EU, France, the former colonial power in Niger, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) if they do not reverse the coup and restore the former president.
The military leaders have released statements pledging to safeguard the nation and refusing to abandon the coup. Many countries have denounced the coup spearheaded by General Abdourahmane Tchiani, commander of Niger’s Republican Guard, including France, Algeria, and the US, along with the EU.
The EU is supporting sanctions put in place by ECOWAS against Niger in the wake of the coup. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned of an immediate and severe response should there be attacks on French citizens or interests in Niger.
The warning comes in the wake of a demonstration on Sunday in front of the French Embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger, in which protesters attempted to storm the building and were eventually dispersed with tear gas.
Some of the protesters vandalised the embassy plaque, replacing it with the flags of Russia and Niger, according to the French news agency AFP.
Niger, a vast and landlocked country in the African Sahel region, is beset with challenges compounded by high poverty rates, desertification, and a burgeoning population of over 26 million people.
According to the UN, Niger ranks among the world’s poorest countries.
The situation is further complicated by the country’s high birth rate, with an average of seven children born for every woman in 2021. Around 50 per cent of Niger’s school-age children are not enrolled in schools.
The country’s agricultural land is also under threat due to a wave of desertification that began with the famine in Africa in 1983. This has caused desert areas, which make up two-thirds of Niger, to encroach upon the country’s increasingly scarce agricultural land, exacerbating food insecurity.
Niger is a strategic partner of France and provides it with 20 per cent of Europe’s uranium. Niger’s uranium industry dates back to the early 1960s, and the country has since begun producing oil and gold on a small scale, though agriculture remains its primary source of employment.
Niger has a long history of political instability, marked by four successful coups, and five failed coup attempts since gaining independence from France in 1960. The most recent coup, which ousted Bazoum, followed his assumption of power in April 2021 after the end of the two terms in office of his democratically elected predecessor Mohamed Issoufou.
Bazoum’s accession to power was met with opposition from the country’s ruling elite and from tribal factions not supporting his Arab Mahamid affiliation. The Mahamid tribe is a branch of the Rizeigat tribe, which has extensions in Sudan, Libya, and Chad, but is relatively new to Niger, with a population comprising only 1.5 per cent of the total population.
The president’s limited support base played a role in two previous attempted coups against him, one before his election and the other the previous year, both of which were thwarted by Tchiani.
These tribal dynamics, along with the country’s fragile economic situation, were among the driving factors behind the recent coup. Niamey’s ongoing fight against terrorist groups affiliated with both Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group has further contributed to the country’s instability.
Niger is currently fighting on two fronts in its battle against terrorism, with one conflict in the southwest against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants who have crossed over from neighbouring Mali since 2015, and the other in the southeast against Boko Haram militants based in northeastern Nigeria.
These conflicts have resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, creating a humanitarian crisis and putting significant strain on the country’s economy.
The Nigerien army has received training and logistical support from the US and France, both of which have military bases in the country. Niger also became a focal point for French operations against jihadists in the Sahel (the Barkhane Operation) last year, following the withdrawal of French forces from Mali and Burkina Faso after military coups in those countries.
Although Western reports have denounced the recent coup in Niger, expressing concerns that it will exacerbate terrorism in the country, the economic situation suggests otherwise.
Despite Niger being a longstanding Western ally, France, the EU, and the US have failed to improve its deteriorating economy or effectively combat the wave of terrorism that has been sweeping the African Sahel region.
This has generated resentment in many countries in the region towards France and its Western allies, leading to a political shift towards Russia and China, as demonstrated by the recent coup and widespread protests against French influence in Niger.
Following the announcement of the coup, a Nigerian diplomatic delegation travelled to Niamey to urge the military leaders to return to their barracks. President of Benin Patrice Talon was also commissioned by ECOWAS to persuade the coup leaders to abandon their takeover, but he was similarly unsuccessful.
Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Deby also visited Niamey on a personal initiative to meet the coup leaders, Issoufou, and Bazoum.
Chad is monitoring the situation in its neighbouring countries, as Arab armed groups earlier emerged from Libya to the north of Chad and clashed with the army led by late Chadian President Idriss Deby, the father of the current president, who was subsequently killed.
Sudan, particularly its Darfur region, is also experiencing ethnic conflict between Arabs and Africans that could potentially impact the stability of N’Djamena.
The situation in the Central African Republic, south of Chad, is also unstable, with much of the region siding with Russia against France. Niger now finds itself at the centre of regional tensions.
A statement by ECOWAS on Sunday did not rule out the possibility of using force against the coup leaders in Niger. However, the situation is different from that in Gambia, for example, where Senegalese forces were deployed in 2017 to force former president Yahya Jammeh to accept the results of the presidential elections.
Niger is a much larger country, is ethnically and linguistically diverse, and is also strategically important due to its uranium reserves. A significant portion of the country’s tribal population, the majority, may not defend a president who belongs to a minority of only 1.5 per cent of the population.
ECOWAS does not have its own armed forces that can be deployed to intervene directly in the country.
If Niger now distances itself from the Western countries, this may impact its ability to combat terrorism. However, continuing cooperation with neighbouring countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso will be crucial.
Given the hostility of these countries towards the West and their earlier expulsion of French forces, cooperation with them had been difficult for Niger.
Mali and Burkina Faso have made progress in their fight against terrorism, though it is difficult to evaluate the success of their strategies compared to those of Chad and Mauritania, which have been supported by France and the West.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 3 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly