You take off, what do I wear?

Vladimir Putin had something to rejoice about on Saturday, March 16.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 10:27
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You take off, what do I wear?

Vladimir Putin had something to rejoice about on Saturday, March 16. And not only because he was about to renew his term as president of Russia for the umpteenth time in the next day's elections. A mere procedure... With potential opponents dead, imprisoned, silenced or in exile, with all the resources of power placed at their service, his victory was tied. No, that Saturday Putin had another reason for satisfaction. Niger's military junta, which in December had agreed to strengthen military cooperation with Moscow – during a visit by Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov to Niamey – announced its decision to revoke the defense agreement with the United States and expel to the 1,000 American soldiers stationed in the country. A new piece was going to fall on the West African board.

The Americans, who from their Agadez air base – with a significant supply of drones – monitor and combat terrorist groups in the Sahel, will thus follow the path of the French, whose last soldier left Niger last December, forced by the same coup junta to withdraw the 1,500 soldiers they had deployed in the fight against the jihadists. The Western withdrawal leaves the way free and clear for Russia, which little by little, country by country, has been entering the region.

The civil war in Libya, first, and the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, later, have turned the Sahel – the vast semi-desert area that extends south of the Sahara – into the most dangerous focus of global terrorism, where groups affiliated with ISIS and Al Qaeda operate.

This effervescence already put the Malian government on the verge of collapse in 2012, harassed by the advance of armed Islamist groups, which only stopped France's military intervention in 2013. The French had some 5,000 soldiers deployed in the area. , reinforced by some 800 soldiers from the European support force Takuba and another 500 dedicated to the formation and training of the Malian army within the EUTM community operation (in which Spain participates). But all that was insufficient to end the problem. The Sahel was becoming another Afghanistan.

The tables began to turn in 2021, when a coup d'état in Mali installed a military junta at the head of the country. The following year, the coup government forced France to withdraw its troops and disband the Takuba support force, while Russian militias took over. The EUTM operation, for its part, of which less than 200 troops remain in Bamako, is also about to be liquidated.

But things didn't end there. The coup in Mali generated a domino effect that continued in Burkina Fasso (2022) and Niger (2023). Both countries, following the same path, in turn ordered the expulsion of French troops, spreading strong anti-French sentiment in the region. The new military powers waved resentment towards the former colonial metropolis with one hand while, with the other, they strengthened their ties with Moscow. For a time, Washington wanted to believe that France was paying exclusively for its historical mistakes with its former colonies in West Africa and that the US – despite having cut off all aid to Niger in retaliation for the coup – could be left out of the tsunami. . But it has not been that way.

It remains to be seen when and how the departure of North American troops from Niger – which constitute the bulk of the US Army's Africa Command – will materialize, but their expulsion, in addition to the military one, will have a political effect. As Washington's former special envoy to the Sahel, J. Peter Pham, underlined in The New York Times, “the potential consequences go beyond the non-negligible damage to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts that the loss of access to bases in the Sahel entails.” Niger, but to the broader damage to the US position on the continent.”

A position that Russia is on its way to partly occupying. The three countries concerned – Mali, Burkina Fasso and Niger – have disengaged from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and have formalized a trilateral agreement that pivots on strengthening ties with Moscow.

In Putin's Russia, these countries have found a pragmatic and unscrupulous ally, willing to provide military and economic aid without political conditions, although in exchange for juicy trade agreements and access to mining resources. Of particular importance here are the uranium deposits in Niger, which the Americans fear will now be within the reach of Iran...

In the midst of a global supply crisis due to the war in Ukraine, the Russians gave their African allies wheat, fertilizers and fuel for free. And in support of the fight against jihadism they have sent irregular troops, initially part of the Wagner Group and, after its dissolution - due to the rebellion and death of its founder, Yevgeni Prigozhin, in 2023 -, in a new device baptized Africa Corps.

If the Western effectiveness against jihadism is questionable, that of the Russians does not seem any better. In 2023, according to the report from the International Observatory for Terrorism Studies, Burkina Faso and Mali topped the list of countries in number of terrorist attacks (666 and 413) and number of victims (2,916 and 1,739), and Niger was seventh (125 and 505). Between the three of them they account for more than half of the deaths worldwide. The actors are changing, but the Sahel continues to burn.