Africa

The Sahel region of Africa is experiencing a spiral of jehadi activity, political instability and violence

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Independence Square in Bamako on June 4, supporters of the M5 opposition coalition at a rally to mark a year since the start of protest marches that contributed to the ouster of former President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita. The sign reads “Death to France and allies”. Photo: Amadou Keita/REUTERS

Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of two military coups in Mali and now the interim President, at his inauguration ceremony in the capital, Bamako, on June 7. Photo: Amadou Keita/REUTERS

The Sahel region in Africa faces an increase in jehadi activity, political uncertainty and violence, as demonstrated most recently by the second coup in less than a year in Mali and the imposition of martial law in Chad after the President is killed and his son takes over, sidestepping constitutional norms.

In recent months, Chad and Mali, two former French colonies in the Sahel region of Africa, have witnessed illegal and unconstitutional power grabs in the midst of political instability and rising violence. In both countries, the French-trained and -equipped army officer corps were responsible. The Sahel region has been witnessing political turmoil and violence for decades now. This only increased after the regime change engineered by the West in Libya in 2012 and the appearance of the “jehadist” threat after that. France played a leading role in that adventure and had convinced the United States and the United Kingdom to join in. Since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, the situation in the Sahel region has gone from bad to worse.

Every other day there is news of civilians being massacred by armed groups. In the first week of June, Islamist fighters killed more than 160 villagers in Burkina Faso in an area located at the country’s borders with Niger. The attack has been described the deadliest so far in the country since 2015. More than a million people have been forced to move out of their homes because of the long-running conflict in the country. The attacks in the Sahel region have increasingly been carried out by groups affiliated to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Arsenal of weapons

After Libya descended into civil war and anarchy, the huge of arsenal of weapons that the Gaddafi government had accumulated during the more than four decades of its rule fell into the hands of an assortment of forces, including those aligned to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. It was Mali that experienced the first big upheaval. Tuareg separatists, aided by their fellow tribesmen and Islamist militant groups, launched an attack in the north of the country and within no time captured important historical cities such as Timbuktu and Gao. The sparsely inhabited north had felt discriminated against since the time the country got independence from France in 1960. The numerically stronger ethnic groups from the south continue to monopolise power in the country.

It was the intervention of the French military in 2013 that saved the capital, Bamako, and other cities from falling into the hands of the rebel fighters from the north. By then, the militant Islamic groups had sidelined the Tuareg leadership. A counteroffensive led by the French army forced the Islamist groups out of the cities in the north, but they have remained entrenched among the populace there. France has more than 5,000 soldiers deployed in Mali under its “Operation Barkhane”.

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The other countries in the Sahel region where French forces are deployed include Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. These countries have seen a spurt of jehadi activity since the collapse of the secular Libyan government under Gaddafi. After the government in Mali signed a peace agreement with the northern rebels in 2015, the United Nations deployed a 14,000-strong peacekeeping force in the country known as the U.N. Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, or MINUSMA. Its mandate is to implement the agreement and to stabilise the north. The U.N. force is however not legally allowed to intervene if fighting breaks out. But that has not stopped attacks on the peacekeepers. Three U.N. peacekeepers were killed in March this year, the latest reported attack.

Almost a million Malians have been made homeless since 2012 and more than 6,000 killed. More than 50 French soldiers have been killed in action. In recent years, groups aligned to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have established a strong presence in the central part of the country and frequently target civilians and the security forces. The militant Islamic groups have been active in exploiting the political instability created by incompetent civilian governments and the recurring military coups. Only the presence of the French army has prevented an all-out assault by these groups.

Many Malians initially welcomed the French military intervention as it forced the jehadi forces to make a quick exit from the cities they had captured. But since then the rebels have regrouped and become stronger. In recent years, the growing French military presence on Malian soil has become a cause for resentment, and there have been huge protests against it, with many politicians and activists describing it as “neocolonialism”. They are also angry that the French are refusing to take responsibility for the killing of Malian civilians. Earlier this year, according to a U.N. report, French forces killed 19 people who were attending a wedding in a remote part of Mali. The French military claimed that all those killed belonged to a militant group. The report was the outcome of the first-ever investigation by the U.N. into French military activities in Mali.

The military-dominated government that has been in power since last year has not questioned the culpability of France in the killing of civilians. The U.S. military has also become increasingly involved in counterterrorism operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region. According to reports, it has a small military outpost in Gao. But the footprint of the Pentagon’s AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) is expanding by the day in the Sahel region in tandem with that of the French.

The coup in Mali on May 25 this year showed that the military can oust civilian governments at will. This is the second time in nine months that the Malian military has overthrown a civilian-led government. When anti-government protests broke out in the middle of last year, the army led by Colonel Assimi Goita staged a coup in August to overthrow the elected government led by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. After pressure from the French government, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union (A.U.), a new transitional government was constituted, which included the mutinous segments of the military. New presidential and legislative elections were scheduled to be held early next year. Goita was made the Vice President of the interim government appointed after last year’s coup. He was unhappy with a Cabinet reshuffle interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane carried out in early May, terming it “a breach of trust” and “a demonstrable attempt” to sabotage the transition to civilian rule next year. Two army officers who were close to the coup leader were dropped from their posts in the reshuffle. “The Vice President of the transition saw himself obligated to act in order to preserve the transitional charter and defend the republic,” Goita said in a statement after seizing power in the latest coup. Mali’s constitutional court was quick to give its approval for the military takeover. In a ruling, the court recognised Goita as the country’s new interim President. The military leader has said that elections will be held as scheduled early next year.

The military leadership has indicated that Goita would name a leader from the opposition June 5, 2020 Movement (known as the M5) as the new Prime Minister. It was the countrywide anti-government protests by the M5 last year that provided Goita and his group of young military officers a pretext to stage a coup. But ECOWAS and the French forced them to share power with civilians. The M5 was excluded from this power-sharing arrangement and had turned against the interim government. The M5 became a vocal critic of the interim government, describing it as “a disguised military regime”. But after the May 25 coup, the M5 changed its tune yet again when the military leadership made it an offer to share power. In the first week of June, the M5 organised big rallies in Bamako in support of the military. One of the key players in the M5 is an Islamic preacher called Mahmoud Dicko, who had served as a mediator between the Central government in Bamako and the Muslim rebels in the north. But now, the French view him with suspicion for his alleged proximity to radical Islamic groupings. Choguel Maiga, the M5’s nominee for the Prime Minister’s post, has been a vocal critic of the 2015 peace agreement. Decentralisation of power was an important pillar of the agreement, and the northern region was supposed to benefit from the accord in terms of developmental projects and employment opportunities. No progress is visible on the ground yet.

The international community was quick to condemn the latest military coup in Mali. The A.U. immediately suspended the country from the organisation. ECOWAS similarly suspended Mali from the grouping until February 2022. That was the earlier time frame announced for the holding of elections to elect a civilian government. The coup leaders turned down the proposal from a high-level ECOWAS delegation for an immediate return to the status quo that had prevailed until the middle of May. Mali’s President and Prime Minister were released following strong criticism from regional groupings and France.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had demanded the “unconditional release” of the two civilian leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron described the latest events in Mali “as a coup d’état within an unacceptable coup”. In the first week of June, France announced that it would suspend its joint military operations with the Malian army unless it received “guarantees” that a civilian-led government would be restored to power. The French are afraid that an internationally isolated military junta would strike up an alliance of convenience with the parties sympathetic to the Islamist cause. The current military leadership in Mali has not ruled out negotiating with the Islamists in order to establish a durable peace in a country that has seen nothing but bloodshed and violence since the disintegration of Libya. Before launching his second power grab, Col. Goita had held talks with Islamist opposition groups

Claiming that the French military were sent into Mali to rescue it from the forces of “radical Islamism”, Macron has warned that all French soldiers would be withdrawn from the country if it lurches towards “radical Islamism”. The war the French forces are overseeing in Mali is deeply unpopular among the Malian people. But Paris and Washington have kept on insisting that the next serious terrorist threat to the West emanates from the Sahel region. In the run-up to the presidential election in France, Macron has been positioning himself as an uncompromising foe of Islamism in all its hues. The right wing in France, now led by Marine Le Pen, has put Muslim bashing on the top of its agenda.

Chad

In neighbouring Chad, President Idriss Deby, who had been among the most loyal allies of France and the West in the region, was killed under mysterious circumstances in April. If the Chadian government is to be believed, he died leading from the front against rebel forces from the north of the country. Deby seized power in a French-backed coup in 1990 and had ruled Chad with a heavy hand since then. The Chadian army had fought side by side with the French in many of the regional wars, including one with Gaddafi’s Libya in the 1980s.

Chad’s geopolitical influence had grown, and under French tutelage, it interfered in the internal affairs of countries with which it shared borders. Deby had provided Chadian troops for French military operations in many parts of the Sahel region after 2013. Chad under Deby was an essential part of the Multinational Joint Task Force that was formed to combat jehadist groups such as Boko Haram and other insurgent groups linked to the Islamic State. Chad also helped rebels fighting the Sudanese government in the restive Darfur province.

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Immediately after Deby’s death, he was replaced by his son, Mahamat, with the tacit approval of France. Constitutional norms were put on the back burner and the country’s parliament and opposition parties were not consulted when the transition took place. The Constitution calls for new elections to be held within 18 months after the demise of an incumbent President. One of the first things the 38-year-old Mahamat Deby did was to dissolve the National Assembly and introduce martial law for 18 months. The A.U. called for the restoration of the constitutional order and the transfer of power to the civilian authorities. In 2006, 2008 and again in 2019, France deployed its fighter jets and drones to keep Chadian rebels from taking over the capital, N’djamena. France has more than 5,000 soldiers permanently deployed in Chad also. The country is among the poorest in the world despite having substantial oil reserves. Most of the oil wealth was either used to bolster the army or line the pockets of Deby and his cronies.

The French have seen to it that they have retained a strong military presence in their former African colonies. The only leader in the region who demanded genuine independence from France was Ahmed Sekou Touré, the leader of the independence struggle in Guinea.

When French President Charles de Gaulle visited Guinea in 1958 hoping to persuade Touré to stay in a proposed confederation with France, the Guinean leader said in a speech delivered in the presence of de Gaulle: “We prefer poverty in liberty than riches in slavery.” All the other leaders of the Francophone countries in Africa preferred to be under the tutelage of France. Many of them still are.

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