Get out, I'll get in

Vladimir Putin had reason to rejoice on Saturday, March 16.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
30 March 2024 Saturday 11:22
6 Reads
Get out, I'll get in

Vladimir Putin had reason to rejoice on Saturday, March 16. And not only because he was about to renew his mandate as president of Russia for the umpteenth time in the next day's elections. A simple procedure... With the potential opponents dead, imprisoned, silenced or in exile, with all the springs of power at their service, their 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 the Russian Deputy Minister of Defense, Yunus-bek Yevkurov, to Niamey - announced its decision to revoke the defense agreement with the United States and expel the 1,000 American soldiers stationed in the country. A new piece was about to fall on the West African board.

The Americans, who monitor and fight terrorist groups in the Sahel from the Agadez air base - with a large supply of drones - will thus follow the path of the French, whose last soldier left Niger in December , forced by the coup junta itself to withdraw the 1,500 soldiers deployed in the fight against the jihadists. The Western withdrawal leaves the way free and fast 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 stretches south of the Sahara - into the most dangerous focus of global terrorism, where groups affiliated with IS and Al-Qaida operate.

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

The tide began to turn in 2021, when a coup 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, on the other hand, of which there are less than 200 troops left in Bamako, is also about to be liquidated.

But things did not end there. The coup in Mali created a domino effect that continued in Burkina Fasso (2022) and Niger (2023). The two countries, following the same path, in turn ordered the expulsion of French troops, which in turn spread strong anti-French sentiment in the region. The new military powers stirred up resentment towards the former colonial metropolis with one hand while, with the other, they tightened ties with Moscow. For a while, Washington wanted to believe that France was paying exclusively for its historical mistakes with its former West African colonies and that the US - despite having cut off all aid to Niger in retaliation for the coup - could remain margin of the tsunami. But it hasn't been like that.

It remains to be seen when and how the withdrawal of American troops from Niger will materialize - which make up the bulk of the forces of the US Army's Africa Command - but their expulsion, in addition to the military, will have an effect politician. As Washington's former special envoy to the Sahel, J. Peter Pham, emphasized in The New York Times, "the potential consequences go beyond the not insignificant damage to counterterrorism and intelligence efforts that the loss of access to the bases in Niger, but to the broader damage to the US position on the continent”.

A position that Russia is occupying in part. The three countries concerned - Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger - have disassociated themselves from the Economic Community of West African States (CEDAO) 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, but in return for juicy trade deals and access to mineral resources. Of particular importance here are the uranium deposits in Niger, which the Americans now fear will be within 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 it was dissolved - due to the rebellion and death of its founder, Yevgeny Prigojin, in 2023 - in a new device dubbed Africa Corps.

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