top of page
  • Writer's pictureRobbie Sutton

Mercenary Diplomacy: The Contest for Influence in the Sahel

Regional conflicts across the Sahel have morphed and combined over the decade into a web of interconnected insurgencies and conflicts. The Red Line’s Robbie Sutton surveys the developments and the role of foreign states and actors in exacerbating the situation.

The ongoing security crisis across the interior of Northern and Western Africa has, over the last decade, undergone a geographic expansion and a compositional diversification. The Sahel region, an arid belt of semi-desert separating the Sahara from the tropical coastline, is now home to multiple, varyingly-aligned insurgent organisations.

The CFA is a colonial-era currency that is still used in several former French colonies in Africa. Credit: AFP

These groups operate across lengthy and porous state borders, taking advantage of the increasing incapability of those states to respond to their activities. Furthermore, drought, ethnic conflict, and the slow death of the Francafrique are compounding upon the instability created by the insurgencies.

The complex and in many ways fragmentary nature of this regional crisis, emerging from localised grievances and conflicts in different zones but becoming interconnected with each other, has contributed greatly to the difficulties faced by regional and foreign governments in confronting it.

Unity and Division

The Jihadist insurgent forces across the region originate from multiple sources and hold varying allegiances, which makes it difficult either to refer to, or counteract, a singular insurgency.

The Turkish drilling vessel Kanuni at Haydarpasa Port in Istanbul. Credit: Chris McGrath
The core elements of Boko Haram continue to wreak havoc across Northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin.

The establishment of the Islamic State in 2015, somewhat paradoxically, drove a process of consolidation amongst these disparate Islamist groups while also creating bitter divisions. A ‘sorting out’ has occurred as jihadists (individually or following their emirs) have aligned themselves with globally-oriented networks according to their preference. Previously the Jihadist landscape in the region was one of small, loosely aligned groups, but has transformed into a situation whereby two principal coalitions dominate this space, competing for recruits, funds and territory. One comprises the “West African” (which splintered from the infamous “Boko Haram”) and “Greater Saharan Provinces” of the Islamic State (along with some separate allies such as Burkina Faso’s Ansarul Islam).

The other formation is Jaam’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, formed by the consolidation in 2017 of al-Qaeda linked forces, namely those cadres of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operating in Mali, Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun (formerly MOJWA), amongst others. AQIM, which descends from the aftermath of the Algerian Civil War, established their initial presence in Mali in 2003. They would be joined a decade later by regional home-grown “Ansar Dine” and the AQIM splinter “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa” (MOJWA).

In addition to these two main networks, the core elements of Boko Haram who remained loyal to long-time leader Abubakar Shekau continue to raise havoc across northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin

"The establishment of the Islamic State in 2015, somewhat paradoxically, drove a process of consolidation amongst these disparate Islamist groups while also creating bitter divisions."

Islamist militancy is often intertwined with, or operates as a proxy for, more localised social grievances. These factors can include difficult relationships between ethnic groups (or peripheral regions) and their respective central governments, frustrations with ossified social traditions and establishment, or resistance to state neglect and brutality.

The original uprising in 2012 in Mali was led by Tuareg nationalists, a movement which is not in itself Islamist (though the destabilising effects of its conflict with the Malian state opened the door for the Jihadists rise to power). As a nomadic, Berber-speaking people, the Tuareg have been consistently at odds with various historical and contemporary Malian states. Since Independence, political power has been concentrated around the predominantly Mande-speaking southern capital Bamako, and this marginalisation of the northern district created fertile ground for Tuareg nationalists seeking independence. For the south’s part, the northern areas are viewed with suspicion, as a land of criminals, unstable and pointless to invest in.

In Burkina Faso’s case, excellent research by the International Crisis Group on the growing conflict there identifies a complex bouquet of ethnic and class tensions motivating the renegade preacher and insurgent leader Malam Ibrahim Dicko. Dicko espouses a rhetorical challenge to long-established conditions in Fulani society, especially the “Marabout” class of hereditary preachers, as well as between the ‘true’ Fulani and the assimilated ‘Rimaibe’ clans.

The growing instability, and the evident failure of governments to restore order has stressed the existing political order to its limits, opening the way for ambitious actors to try their luck. State inadequacies provide ample populist sentiment for would be putschists to ride into office, as can be seen in Mali and Burkina Faso. In Mali’s case, the soldiers involved in the 2012 coup cited the failure of the government to provide adequate resources, and Colonel Assimi Goita’s 2020 coup d’etat came on the tail of months of protests in part over the government’s continued inability to win the war.

Another example is the overthrow of Burkina Faso’s President Kabore in January this year, in large part due to soldiers frustrated with poor living conditions and the draining of the security budget through corruption. Since then, the security situation in Burkina Faso has only worsened, the junta headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Damiba making little progress, and through a perceived reliance on French military support, alienating Burkinabe nationalists. This culminated in a second coup at the start of October, and a new clique of young officers seizing power.

The French Connection

The dramatic expansion of the Maghrebi insurgency in 2012 necessitated a commensurate expansion of regional and foreign counter-terrorist operations, one which France was especially well positioned to spearhead, thanks to their pre-existing security relationships and military deployments in-theatre. This was conducted through Operations Serval (the 2013 intervention against the Tuareg uprising in Mali), and Barkhane, the latter being a more regionally focused, multilateral campaign at the head of the “G5 Sahel” nations, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauretania.

France has had a long involvement in West Africa, their virtually hegemonic sphere of influence in the region (popularly known as Francafrique) stemming back to the Second Empire’s takeover of the region in the late 19th century. Despite the formal independence of these states, the French have maintained a deep engagement and interest in the affairs of their former (or not so former, depending on ones’ perspective) colonial holdings. Not only acting as a military hegemon, having carried out numerous interventions, France openly consorted with dictatorial figures such as Idriss Deby (and his succeeding son Mahamat) (Chad) and Paul Biya (Cameroon).

New Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Credit: AFP Photo
A French soldier loads his baggage at the Operational Desert Platform Camp (PfOD) in Gao, Mali in 2019. Credit: Reuters/Benoit Tessier.

Another key aspect of French influence is the regional currency, the CFA Franc, through which France has maintained significant financial control in the region, requiring the deposition of national currency reserves in its own Treasury, and dictating the exchange rate (and thus relative purchasing powers). This provided companies like Orana (formerly Areva), which dominates the Nigerien Uranium Industry, an important bedrock for their operations. In 2013, at the beginning of the French intervention, France received as much as a third of its uranium from Niger, giving it a considerable interest in ensuring regional stability.

The close relationship between France and sections of West Africa’s political elite (usually understood to be to the general detriment of the populace at large) has been heavily criticised through a neo-colonial framework, and controversies over French geopolitical and economic influence continue to this day.

"Despite the formal independence of these states, the French have maintained a deep engagement and interest in the affairs of their former (or not so former, depending on ones’ perspective) colonial holdings."

France’s long history in the region has unsurprisingly produced a populist backlash against their influence. This has come to the point of protesters blockading roads used by French military convoys in Burkina Faso and Niger, and there is growing opposition to the regional currency, the CFA Franc, seen as being effectively under France’s control.

This Anti-French populist sentiment has formed the social base for several of the recent coups. Following Assimi Goita’s May 2021 coup in Mali, relations between Mali and France deteriorated rapidly, in part due to Mali’s use of Russian mercenaries, but also due to growing popular dissatisfaction with the French presence (stemming greatly from civilian deaths). French forces subsequently withdrew from Mali in late 2021, along with the adjutant “Takuba Task Force” of other European troops.

Team America

While France has never been shy about its activity in West Africa, an oft-times unacknowledged actor is America. Since 2001, the USA has become increasingly drawn into the region as an aspect of the ‘War on Terror’ but, outside one or two notorious incidences, has generally flown under the radar. Officially, US efforts are limited to training, advisory and support (intelligence and logistics) operations, the capstone of which is the annual “Flintlock” multinational exercises, but are increasingly (or at least, there is increasing public knowledge of them) engaging in active combat.

The relative secrecy of operations is a result of their legal basis, which Lawfare notes as being the “inherent [Presidential] authority to use force to repel sudden attack” or in defence of important national interest” as well as the right of deployed troops to defend themselves or partner forces if attacked. Given that these forces are frequently situated in remote forward operating bases alongside local militaries directly engaged with insurgents, such ‘defensive’ action naturally becomes a lot more common.

"While France has never been shy about its activity in West Africa, an oft-times unacknowledged actor is America."

Tactically, the Americans have relied upon the use of special forces, including the eponymous Army 'Green Beret' Special Forces and Navy SEALs, to wage what has been described as a “Secret War” across North Africa and beyond. Journalist Nick Turse has reported on the use of the ‘secretive’ 127e Budgetary authority, which provisions for funding and support to ‘proxy’ formations in pursuit of ostensible counter-terrorism objectives. This facilitates (just in the Sahel region), operations in Mali, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, via at least eight named programs.

An investigation by Rolling Stone has shown that this campaign is both expanding beyond its formally acknowledged geographic footprint, and, seemingly having little effect on curbing ‘Violent Extremist Organisations’. Despite the efforts of external actors to control the insurgencies, instability has only spread. By 2021, Boko Haram was attacking civil targets in northern Cameroon, and JNIM is also expanding into northern Benin, taking advantage of a sparsely populated network of nature reserves as a base area. Furthermore, the links between participants in the Flintlock exercise and the rash of military coups across West Africa in the last couple of years is another source of embarrassment for the US.

From Russia with Guns

As France stumbles in its hegemony over the region, Russia has apparently taken the opportunity to expand its own influence, transforming the Sahel into a canvas for great-power competition. Russia has been greatly expanding its efforts to influence and support to several governments, especially in the military sphere, across the Sahel and Africa more broadly. To this end, they have succeeded in peeling away both the Central African Republic and Mali from France’s sphere of influence over the last few years.

Wagner is a paramilitary and mercenary formation who often operate in a deniable role for the Russian government. Their arrival in Mali has been accompanied by numerous accusations of atrocity, including the massacre of as many as 380 people at the village of Moura in central Mali, while in the CAR, Wagner has been acting as essentially an enforcement mechanism for mineral resource concessions. These have been granted to companies like M-Invest and its subsidiary Lobaye Invest, both linked to the Russian Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Putin and self-admitted founder of Wagner. Wagner troops not only engage in direct combat, but also act as guards for these mines. It has also been reported that Wagner personnel have conducted raids and assaults on other mines, particularly the small, local goldmines, seemingly just to rob them. Although the CAR is not considered a Sahelian country, Wagner’s behaviour there has disturbing implications for Malian society if continued unchecked.

Emmanuel Macron, during his state trip to Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau and Benin this past July, blamed the recent string of coups in the region on Russian propaganda and diplomatic influence, and decried Russia as “one of the last colonial, imperial powers” (in reference to the Invasion of Ukraine). Following Captain Ibrahim Traore’s September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, crowds supporting the coup waved Russian flags and chanted anti-French slogans, while Yevgeny Prigozhin was quick to congratulate the new ruler, prompting much speculation as to future Wagner or Russian state action in that country, and leading many to see Russia’s hand in the coup. Despite the moralistic stance taken by France and other Western powers when commenting on Russia’s presence and influence in Africa, they are fighting an uphill battle of public opinion, hamstrung by their own long histories of imperial action.

World Bank senior mission chief Peter Breuer, right, speaks with Masahiro Nozaki, mission chief for Sri Lanka, by his side during a media conference in Colombo.
Malians protest against France's military presence in Mali on the 60th anniversary of Mali's independence in Bamako, waving anti-French and pro-Russian banners. Credit: H. Diakite

With the War in Ukraine however, it is unlikely Russia will be able to muster the resources to replicate the geopolitical and security role which France has played through Ops. Serval and Barkhane. So far, they have seen relative success with the deployment of Wagner PMC troops, and so will probably continue with this format. However, this has been only an estimated few hundreds of soldiers, compared to the five thousand or so deployed by the French. Unlike the French and America operations, the small-scale nature of Russia’s involvement may preclude them from establishing durable, longer-term relationships in the Sahel. Frankly, it remains to be seen if this is indeed even Russia’s strategic goal in the region, or if it will be enough for them simply to try and help France’s decline as much as they can. Joseph Siegle, writing for AfricaCentre, described the Russian strategy as one of “mercenary diplomacy” characterised by a clientelistic[sic] model of co-opting African leaders. Such diplomacy may be difficult to carry on beyond the lifespan or careers (perhaps both) of those leaders, though it must be said, this never stopped the French.

In all likelihood, the imperial games between Russia and France (and its allies) will be first and foremost to the detriment of the people of the Sahel. The evident weakness of local state governments in the face of these insurgencies means that support from major powers is necessary to restore some sort of peace; as long as those powers are more concerned with their own rivalries then efforts against the Jihadists will be divided and potentially futile. In the worst-case scenario, the Sahel could become a new arena for proxy conflicts, escalating the situation and placing yet more stress on an already battered region, undoubtedly with dire humanitarian consequences.


Written by Robbie Sutton.

Edited by Wade McCagh.


bottom of page