Coups, Chaos, and the Crumbling of the Francafrique: the Widening War between East and West in Africa’s Sahel

Following his election in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to reset relations with francophone Africa based on a “partnership of equals.” If anyone has been doing so, it’s been Russia. As France has been run out of Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, and Mali, Moscow has moved in.

French troops have been forced to abandon what Paris calls its Barkhane operation to fight against jihadists in the Sahel, which has been going on for a decade.

Many are being redeployed to Niger, which is of existential importance to Paris. Three out of four light bulbs in France are powered by Nigerien uranium. In contrast, only 10 to 20 percent of Nigeriens in urban areas have access to electricity, while roughly 3 percent do in the rural areas.

Nigeriens are taking notice and might soon follow the lead of other Sahel countries looking to expel Western troops. Amina Niandou, president of the Association of African Communication Professionals, explains:

The Nigeriens who are in this position have observed what is happening in Mali and Burkina Faso. For these Nigeriens, the French forces in these countries have not been able to prevent the expansion of terrorism. So, for them, Niger will be in the same situation. Some also believe that the attacks are sponsored by French forces.

And from Amadou Oumarou, lecturer at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey, speaking to The New Humanitarian:

The reservation of Nigeriens on the French presence in their country is explained by several factors. First, the historical factor: Colonisation is an unhappy memory that pushes many people to revolt against the French and France. This explanation is [old] but current, because it dominates the subconscious of many Nigeriens who see in France those who tortured their ancestors. Second, the economic factor: France is present in our countries through several firms or companies which only benefit the French and France. This is a cause for frustration and hate. Third, the political factor: France is rightly or wrongly considered to support and maintain autocratic, dictatorial, and corrupt regimes.

Despite Nigeriens reservations, the West is increasing its presence in the country – what the Financial Times calls “the west’s bulwark against jihadis and Russian influence in Africa.” Germany is sending more troops and the US is pledging more help as part of efforts to hold back the tectonic shift taking place in the region.

Ironically, the West, as is becoming customary, helped bring it on themselves. Much of the current instability in the region that is leading Sahel states to turn to Russia/Wagner Group originated back in 2011 when Nato destroyed Libya. As the Financial Times admits:

Much of the rot set in after western powers, including France and the UK, engineered the downfall of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammer Gaddafi, in 2011. The resulting power vacuum precipitated a flood of arms into the Sahel, weaponising ancient antagonisms and providing Islamists and criminal gangs with the wherewithal to wage terror. Wagner is now fighting in Libya too, alongside the rebel general Khalifa Haftar.

Overall, Russia’s numbers in the Sahel are small. Moscow says there are  1,890 “Russian instructors” present in the mineral-rich Central African Republic. Primarily through the Wagner Group, Moscow has roughly 400 mercenaries in Mali. The extent of Russian involvement in Burkina Faso remains unclear. The EU in February announced additional sanctions against Russia’s Wagner Group for “human rights abuses” committed in the Central African Republic, Mali, and elsewhere.

Media like Politico blame France’s retreat on Russian disinformation and warn of a domino effect in other French outposts, such as Niger and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire. But of course the reality points to Russia and China winning the battle for “hearts and minds” in the new Cold War we find ourselves in.

Russia’s opportunistic “democratic security” deals with these African states are fairly straight-forward: Russia / the Wagner Group offer military support, arms deals, political backing at the UN and strategic investments. The arrangements are meant to be mutually beneficial and are part of Russia’s appeals to the Global South to prevent Western efforts to isolate it. This was laid out by Putin in his address following the signing of treaties on accession of Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics and Zaporozhye and Kherson regions to Russia. What exactly is Russia helping defend against, though?

In the Sahelian states of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, US-trained forces have conducted seven coups since 2008. More from Nick Turse:

Rarely, however, have so many coups been so concentrated in a region over such a short period of time. Last fall, after returning from a trip, alongside other top State Department and Pentagon officials to the Sahelian states of Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, Ambassador Victoria Nuland was upbeat. “We went to the region in force. We were looking, in particular, at how the U.S. strategy towards the Sahel is working. This is a strategy that we put in place about a year ago to try to bring more coherence to our efforts to support increased security,” she said during an October conference call with reporters.

After Rolling Stone pointed out that U.S.-trained military officers had conducted seven coups in these same countries—Burkina Faso, three times; Mali, three times; and Mauritania, one time—since 2008, Nuland was less sanguine. “Nick, that was a pretty loaded comment that you made,” she replied. “Some folks involved in these coups have received some U.S. training, but far from all of them.”

The fact is the leaders of all of these coups have received significant U.S. training.

Unfortunately for Nuland, these US-trained officers are now ditching the US for Moscow. Russia’s military prowess and its willingness to take on the West is an attractive alternative, and it also serves as an interesting complement to China’s economic tools. Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based political analyst, writes:

This gives Russia an edge over everyone else, especially its Western rivals whose only response to these bespoke “Democratic Security” strategies that Moscow has crafted for its African partners is to spew information warfare narratives about their ties and threaten to impose sanctions against them. Without first securing their sovereignty, these African states can’t sustainably benefit from China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) investments, hence their prioritization of ties with Moscow over Beijing nowadays.

That observation isn’t to imply that Russia is eroding China’s partnerships in Africa, but rather to raise awareness about how these two complement one another since the first ensures that those states’ sovereignty is secure while the second then helps them meaningfully benefit afterwards.

And that’s what is happening. Ken Opalo, a political scientist at Georgetown University, writes at An Africanist Perspective: 

Importantly, France is no longer the undisputed major power when it comes to francophone African countries’ foreign relations. The last two decades have seen China supplant France as these countries’ largest trade partner. China is now a bigger trade trade partner for francophone African states than the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined. More recently, countries like the Central African Republic (CAR), Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali have forged closer security ties with Russia. France’s situation looks even worse when one considers its share of total trade to/from its former African colonies. Among these countries, French share of trade plummeted from more than a quarter in the early 1990s to just over 5%.

It could be an effective arrangement. Russia provides the muscle, while China deals with the investments. Whether Russia intends it or not, its moves into Africa could also have major repercussions for Europe’s energy future. Brussels is attempting a major turn to Africa in order to partially replace supplies of Russian energy and better secure green resources.

And in the southern Sahel sits the energy crown jewel of Nigeria.

Nigeria is currently Africa’s  third largest producer of both oil and gas, and it sits on the largest gas reserves on the continent. Due to the war in Ukraine, Nigeria and its potential partners to the north are resurrecting massive pipeline projects to Europe. Nigerian president-elect Tinubu said in the runup to the Feb. election that he wanted Nigeria to replace Russia in supplying gas to Europe.

Algeria and Morocco, already at odds over other issues such as Western Sahara, are also competing for the pipeline route from Nigeria to Europe. The 3,480-mile Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline Project would run across 13 African countries and provide gas from Nigeria to West African countries through Morocco and subsequently to Europe. And completion of the project would only take [checks notes] 25 years.

Algeria wants to get moving on a Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline linking Nigeria to Algeria’s Mediterranean coast via Niger. Algiers says the 2,565-mile pipeline could be completed in three years. Europe, for its part, isn’t even sure it wants one of the pipelines. Brussels says it’s kicking the gas habit for good. Any day now.

In the meantime Europe is relying on shipped LNG from Nigeria and is hoping Abuja can increase its LNG output. The EU imports 14 percent of its total LNG supplies from Nigeria and wants to double it, but security issues have left Nigeria LNG Ltd’s Bonny Island terminal operating at 60 percent capacity, and there are other issues hampering increased output.

Nigerian ties with Russia have been hampered by Western sanctions as the country had to buy emergency supplies of Canadian potash last year after the country was unable to import the fertilizer from Russia. Sanctions have also complicated maintenance of Russian-made military hardware. In 2021, Nigeria and Russia signed a military cooperation deal providing a legal framework for the supply of equipment and the training of troops, but that has fallen by the wayside due to the Ukraine war.

Meanwhile the US is trying to tighten its grip on Nigeria, as it has done for years. Much of the increased presence is justified under the need to fight terrorism.

There is an argument to be made that the Boko Haram insurgency (and others like it across Africa) have less to do with religion and more to do with economic interests and resources – water, oil, gas, or other minerals.

Indeed, a 2011 report from the US House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence tried to explain Boko Haram’s popularity. Reasons included “a feeling of alienation from the wealthier, Christian, oil-producing, southern Nigeria, pervasive poverty, rampant government corruption, heavy-handed security measures, and the belief that relations with the West are a corrupting influence.”

The response? Nigeria, which had been transforming into an arm of US Africa Command ever since the dawn of the “War on Terror”, executed Boko Haram’s leader and state forces began killing or displacing thousands of Nigerian Muslims. And everything has gone pretty much according to plan since then. From MR Online:

It’s not as if strategists don’t understand that violence doesn’t work. They understand that violence escalates violence which can then be used as pretexts for more violence. A U.S. Council on Foreign Relations article from 2020 notes: “the last two years have been deadlier than any other period for Nigerian soldiers since the Boko Haram insurgency began.”

US military aid and involvement in Nigeria has continued to increase in an effort to secure the country’s natural resources and keep out Russia and China.

In 2017, the US sold Nigeria 12 Super Tucano warplanes, including thousands of bombs and rockets, for $593 million. Last year, the U.S. approved a $1 billion sale of 12 attack helicopters and related training and equipment to Nigeria. Alarmingly, The Intercept reports on how the Tucano sale came after Nigerian air forces bombed an internally displaced persons’ camp, and the helicopter sale right after a helicopter attack on homes, farms, and a school in an effort to strike at “bandits.”

Meanwhile, despite the boom in oil profits from the Ukraine war, Nigeria has not benefited at all. Now undersecretary of state Victoria Nuland is blaming terrorism in Nigeria and the Sahel on Russia’s increased involvement in the region. Again from Nick Turse writing at Rolling Stone:

Nuland’s assessment, however, ignored the fact that security trends have been in a free fall for years, despite the U.S. pouring more than a billion dollars of security assistance—in the form of equipment, training, and weapons—into Mali and its neighbors in West Africa over the last two decades. As Rolling Stone reported in October, the Pentagon’s own Africa Center for Strategic Studies chronicled catastrophic security failures that predate significant Russian involvement in the region. “The western Sahel has seen a quadrupling in the number of militant Islamist group events since 2019,” reads a recent Pentagon report. “This violence has expanded in intensity and geographic reach.”

In fact, the Africa Center found violent events linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel jumped from 76 in 2016 to a projected 2,800 for 2022, a 3,600 percent increase. The spike in fatalities stemming from these attacks has been almost as extreme, rising from 223 to 7,052 over that same span. Despite this record of failure, America’s playbook for the region remains largely unaltered with the United States continuing to provide security assistance—just as it has for almost two decades—as terrorist violence escalated, deaths rose, insecurity increased, and coups proliferated.

Indeed, despite the US and EU pouring weapons, training, and troops into the region, the “terrorism” problem only gets worse. And the country’s people can never seem to benefit from their wealth of natural resources. Funny how that works.

Unfortunately, it’s just more of the same. Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian architect and environmentalist, explains why he’s not optimistic about more EU and US investment in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa. The short version: “exploitation, domination, colonialism.” And the longer, from EU Observer:

“But if you look back at 60 years of oil and gas investments, none of the goals that were set out have been achieved. Instead, all we have to show for it is ecocide, extreme destruction and exploitation of local peoples.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    The truth of the matter is that France never left their Colonies but sought to maintain control and I have heard that if pushed out of a place, are not beyond sabotaging infrastructure. It’s the same sort of exploitation that lead to the American Revolution. Giorgia Meloni gave that short talk some time ago about the relationship between France and those African countries- (1:59 mins)

    Certainly that hate the fact, for example, that the Wagner are actually doing the job now of fighting those radical Islamists which is inspiring confidence among the general community. Some French reporter went to one of these African countries to find someone unhappy with Wagners but everybody he talked to were very happy with them. He did eventually find somebody criticizing Wagners – the leader at the local Mosque. Look, the long and the short of it is that these are maturing countries and with the development of the multipolar world, have now the chance of a choice in who they want to develop with. But what about the corruption I have heard asked. Is corruption a problem in that part of the world? Yes. So how is it in Washington, London and Brussels these days?

  2. Leo

    Its so curious that wherever Wagner works (Lybia, CAR, most sub-saharan countries, Arab Countries..), they end up seizing gold mines, oil derricks.. and seldom result in the victory of the party that russia supports. I mean, Russia doesnt support – PMC’s are technically illegal in Russia, actually. Progozhin is caught by his genitalia.

    1. Piotr Berman

      I read an article criticizing Wagner activity in CAF. Only 94% of the territory was cleared from rebels, there are still pockets where they can survive, complaints about abuses. Overall, the best anti-terrorist success story in Africa that I know of. About abuses, read this article about American armed and trained forces in Nigeria.

      And before Wagner, the situation in CAF was dire. Details are murky, but 1900 mercenaries cannot do it with the country of that size, Central African forces had to be trained and armed, mercenaries giving them examples and getting local knowledge from them. By no means CAF became occupied. This is an example that prompted pro-Russian sentiments in Sahel.

      From Syria, we know elements of Russian strategy that apply in Africa too. Arm and train. Treat locals with dignity, even if they want to make what you see as a mistake. Stress reconciliation with rebel supporters and rebels.

      By the way of contrast, one of the main reason of the failure in Afghanistan was the hatred of Americans among the forces trained and paid by Americans. It does not show American talents in treating locals with dignity and so on.

      1. Leonardo

        Must be a great article – 94% of the territory cleared from Rebels – which of the 14 factions, or all of them?

        And Wagner – that at one time had a neonazi as its head when Progozhin didnt want to say he was in charge – isnt nice. To anyone.

        That is what the UN says, but if you are interested, just google three words: “Wagner” + “Syria” + “hammer”

        1. Lex

          Quite a bit of whattaboutism going on here. And I’m not coming from a position of defending Wagner. The details around Wagner in Sudan are damning and mercenaries are mercenaries; certain behaviors from mercenaries are to be expected.

          So in terms of whattaboutism, it’s worth keeping in mind that it wasn’t Russia that let the cat out of the bag of mercenary usage and behavior. The US based PMCs don’t offer any reputational improvement over Wagner, and in many cases the national forces of countries active in Africa aren’t any better than the mercenaries. Again, not defending Wagner in the specific or general sense but the behavior you’re decrying (rightfully) isn’t really any different than the behavior of the Western colonial nations in Africa for centuries now.

          In my opinion, the people of African nations are the ones who should get to choose how this happens and who they’re friends with. They don’t have any “good” choices, so maybe Wagner is the least bad option they have?

          As for Syria, Wagner was fighting ISIS which is has been pretty openly supported in Syria by the US. I’m not sure Wagner can do anything worse than ISIS.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    The mis-spelling “Francafique” in the headline detracts straight out of the gate from the credibility of this re-hash of Nick Turse’s excellent work. See also Diana Johnstone’s The Queen of Chaos if you wish to understand the neocon project of corrupting and destabilizing resource-rich nations in order to expropriate their “jungle” resources for the “gardens” of Europe and North America.

    The correct spelling is Francafrique — a contraction of Franc (as in francophone) and Afrique (the french word for Africa).

    1. H. Toin

      I don’t quite see how a spelling mistake can detract from the credibility of an article, but since you bring this up, the correct spelling is Françafrique, because of how it’s pronounced (fransafrique).
      It’s in fact a contraction of France and Afrique, but without the cedilla you wouldn’t have the “s” sound and it would be pronounced Frankafrique.

      Great article, thanks Conor.

      1. David in Santa Cruz

        You’re correct about “françafrique.” Soft ç…

        Still more impressed that Nick Turse has actually confronted Nuland and exposed her dissembling and outright lies about how American arms and training have created cliques of military officers prone to plotting coups d’état while amplifying discontent among the general population.

  4. Ignacio

    For what is worth a friend of mine from Senegal tells me they are fed up with France which leaves little to local communities and Western “help” only serves to end in debt slavery. He told me last summer that Russian projects leave much more for local communities. I have met many Senegalese and they don’t easily talk about stuff like this if they don’t feel confident enough they can trust the Western listener of the day. I can easily understand that knowing too many Westerners with an outsized complex of superiority.

    Thanks a lot for this article Mr. Gallagher. This as a very good job with excellent references to dig in.

  5. spud

    funny how when you restore sovereignty over trade, things get better for the many, to the detriment of the few.

  6. NoFreeWill

    It’s not as if strategists don’t understand that violence doesn’t work. They understand that violence escalates violence which can then be used as pretexts for more violence. A U.S. Council on Foreign Relations article from 2020 notes: “the last two years have been deadlier than any other period for Nigerian soldiers since the Boko Haram insurgency began.”

    this quote is the entire war on terror in a nutshell (and over-policing/war on drugs in the US and rest of the Americas)

    weird that he includes the word “despite” when mentioning US military aid instead of “because” when this quote is in the article

  7. JBird4049

    War is a business and business is good. Just as in Afghanistan, and in the American carceral state, which is a “war on crime” or a “war on drugs” winning the war would be losing that profitable business. So, they never ever win.

  8. JohnnyGL

    Thanks for this write-up, Conor. It’s a region that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

  9. Mikel

    “After Rolling Stone pointed out that U.S.-trained military officers had conducted seven coups in these same countries—Burkina Faso, three times; Mali, three times; and Mauritania, one time—since 2008, Nuland was less sanguine. “Nick, that was a pretty loaded comment that you made,” she replied. “Some folks involved in these coups have received some U.S. training, but far from all of them.”

    The fact is the leaders of all of these coups have received significant U.S. training…”

    Still…the U.S. is giving the training in countries during periods of civil war.

  10. Winston Smith

    My wife was a peace corp volunteer in mali in the 80’s and has remained very close to people she got to know there. We met in Dakar before COVID due to the security situation in Mali. Malians are fed up with the French and see no reason why anyone else would necessarily be worse. It’s quite simple really.

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