The African Sahel is a part of the world far from the minds of most Americans, yet the region’s conflicts feature prominently in a contest to reduce jihadist threats and wield influence on the global stage. The Western Sahel countries were French colonies until 1960. For decades after the end of direct colonial rule, the French saw American involvement in their former African Empire as more of a threat to their interests than communist Soviet or Chinese activities. That is no longer the case because both the Russians and Chinese are aggressively pursuing influence in all of Africa, while the United States and France cooperate. The United States has had up to fifteen hundred troops in the region starting in 2013, though it began working with the French as soon as U.S. Africa Command was set up at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
What happens in the Sahel is no longer just about France’s role in Africa. It is increasingly part of an emerging global war among great powers and aspiring ones. Russia’s goal is to recreate the former Soviet Union’s empire and champion those countries and movements resisting Western colonialism, while China has its own, even more extensive ambitions in Africa.
Historical ties to the region have not necessarily kept the French attuned to the finer nuances of local politics. In 2005, as a visiting senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace working on causes of violence in West Africa, I gave a presentation on the Ivorian civil war. I had traveled several times to the Ivory Coast to write a report for CARE, a foreign aid organization. A French diplomat attended my talk, and afterward invited me to lunch.
The Ivory Coast was once the crown jewel of France’s West and Central African Empire, and France remained closely involved in its life after independence in 1960. After civil war broke out in 2002, there remained a significant French military presence patrolling a neutral area between the two sides while trying to promote a resolution.
At lunch the diplomat, a sophisticated, well-informed lady who seemed a good representative of the elite French diplomatic corps, was eager to hear my opinions. France’s major military, political, aid, and business communities in the Ivory Coast offered more information than I could possibly have. But she thought that as a French-speaking American I might have heard things Africans wouldn’t tell the French. And though the American ambassador in Abidjan had told me in 2004 she wouldn’t allow her staff into the rebel zone because it was too dangerous, I went anyway—not being a government employee—with a small Ivorian CARE team.
After some discussion with the French diplomat about the prospects for reconciliation between the rebels and the government, I brought up something people on both sides agreed with: They didn’t like the French. She looked shocked. “Après tout ce qu’on a fait pour eux!” (After everything we’ve done for them!) I thought about the long history of colonialism, of continued intervention in Ivorian affairs after independence, the sense that patronizing racism was still there, and now a renewed dependency on military assistance that was in some ways helpful but still rankled. There was no point trying to explain all this to such a well-informed, elite official. All I said was, “Hé bien, oui.” (Well, yes.) Here, in one phrase, “After everything we’ve done for them,” was the whole of the French elite’s attachment to Francophonie, to its cultural and business links and to the importance of maintaining them because that was France’s claim to being a great world power. France had continued to intervene and be far more involved with almost all its former African colonies than Britain.
The French diplomat’s expression of disbelief back then remains apt. I have no doubt that the same astonished reaction is being voiced in top French policy circles today as a large French military presence is being kicked out of two former French colonies in the Sahel, Mali and Burkina Faso. Both are increasingly under murderous attack by Muslim extremist jihadists. Now no longer helped by French and other European Union troops, they have each called in Russian mercenaries of the so-called Wagner group as replacements.
Similar jihadist pressure extends to the rest of the Sahel. Different Muslim extremists have brought chaos to northeastern Nigeria, a former British colony that is also partly in the Sahel. Worse, the violence is spreading further south.
Complexities of the Past
The Sahel is a wide zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical areas to the south. In its wetter southern part it is heavily populated. Most of the Sahel is in the belt of countries that extend from Senegal and Mauritania on the Atlantic Coast to Somalia on the Indian Ocean, but it also includes northern parts of countries to the south, like the Ivory Coast and Nigeria.
Knowing the background is helpful if we are to properly grasp recent events. Throughout the vast Sahel, ancient ways of life dependent on herding and seasonal migrations in search of good pastures have been under threat for at least a century. Partly that is a function of progress that has allowed unprecedented growth in both the human and herded animal populations. There are about seven times as many people living in the area as in 1960, when its countries gained independence. (Almost all of Africa’s population has increased as much since 1960.) In the Sahel, sedentary farmers have pushed cultivation into previously marginal areas northward. Herders who used to have arrangements with agricultural villagers—such as allowing their animals to pass through the fields at certain times of the year as they went south during the dry season—have found less room and greater resistance. It is more complicated than that because some herding people also farm, and they have ethnic kinfolk who have settled down.
More than this, the military advantages of herding people, once based on their camel and horse-riding skills, have disappeared. The Tuareg people—warlike, mobile warriors who ruled the central Sahara until the early 20th century, used to raid farther south, taking peasants as serfs and slaves as they went—are a major example. Another herding people, the Fulani, led many of the West African Muslim jihads in the late 18th and 19th centuries. They created vast Muslim empires, the most important of which was in what is today northern Nigeria.
The Tuareg were widely hated in the Sahel because they used their camels to conduct swift raids into lands far to the south of the Sahara, and to this day free, noble Tuareg tend to consider themselves “white,” though they are heavily mixed with darker skinned southern populations. (Once in 1965, when I was living in Niger, a Tuareg man whose skin color would have made him Black in America took my hand and said, “We whites have to stick together.” That was my introduction to the inherent contradictions of racial labels.) Now these onetime lords of the Sahara are marginalized and have lost their treasured way of life.
In the former French colonies following independence, it was the large sedentary communities in the southern Sahel who gained power because they were the overwhelming majority. The Tuareg in Mali and Niger staged revolts because they lost their prior dominant position and were now ruled by darker-skinned ethnic groups to the south. Their whole way of life based on migratory herding, slave raiding, and military superiority was destroyed. The process was under way during colonial times, and it has accelerated since independence.
As for the Fulani empire in northern Nigeria, when the British conquered it, its Fulani nobles seemed like appealing allies. They were a horse-riding, literate, and aristocratic ruling class in a social structure somewhat like that of medieval Europe. The British handed power to the same Fulani aristocracy when Nigeria became independent in 1960, angering many of the more modernized people farther south. That eventually sparked a vicious civil war in the mid-1960s. The Fulani still possess large herds, even if some of them don’t migrate as much. They provide much of the meat in West Africa and must move their cattle through farming villages to find good pasture lands and to get their cattle to markets. This has exacerbated conflicts with non-Fulani who resent having their fields trampled.
There are analogous situations farther east, but with different ethnic groups than those in West Africa. The strains are the same. Everywhere climate change is making it all worse.
Yet one more complicating element is that post-independence governments throughout the region are corrupt, have been mostly ineffective in providing adequate services and security, and are prone to capture by their armies. Every West African independent state except Senegal has had at least one successful military coup. Armed elites take power and grab key resources when it suits them. The pattern is hardly limited to the Sahel or to West Africa; it characterizes much of Africa in general.
The full reality, as might be expected, is even more complex because social structures, ethnic relations, and government effectiveness vary, not only from country to country, but within countries and sometimes from one village or small region to another. No brief description can capture the full picture, but generalizations do make it possible to get a more holistic sense of what outsiders trying to help might be up against.
Past Meets Present
Now back to the French, whose colonial empire encompassed so much of Africa. For decades after independence in 1960, the French remained closely tied to their former colonies, except for Guinea, which refused and broke away. France conspired to keep friendly dictators in power. The French accepted military coups that did not disrupt country-to-country relations. French-speaking elites always stayed in power and protected French commercial interests. Radical leaders who seemed to want to break away, like Modibo Keïta in Mali or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, were overthrown, probably with French involvement but at least with French acquiescence.
Then two global changes occurred after 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed, resulting in a wave of democratization in Eastern Europe. That prompted the Western powers, France and the United States included, to make it more of a priority to rethink their support of nasty dictators just because they claimed to be anti-communist. The effect in South Africa was dramatic, but there were other examples.
France put some pressure on its former colonies to get them to reform. It did not always go well, and the rise of electoral competition in the Ivory Coast was a major factor in pitting ethnic and regional groups against each other, eventually setting the stage for civil war in 2002. The fairly benign dictatorship of France’s longtime Ivorian friend Félix Houphouët-Boigny had kept these tensions under control, but after his death and the start of real voting in the early 1990s, the situation deteriorated.
The other global transformation was the rise of a set of Muslim jihadist movements willing to resort to violence. Their goal was not only to reimpose Islamic purity and greatness on their people, but also to drive out Western influence that was held responsible for the corruption of Islam and subjugation of Muslim people. Most of the African Sahel had become Muslim well before the colonial era, though it was, on the whole, a tolerant kind of Islam dominated by Sufi brotherhoods. The rise of jihadist movements in the 19th century had quieted down by the early 20th, and generally colonial powers worked with Muslim elites to keep the peace. The arrival of a far more radical kind of jihad from outside changed all that.
In 2012 there was another Tuareg uprising in Mali’s far north. It was joined by Arab tribesmen and jihadists from northern Africa with better weapons and outside money. The rebellion quickly took over northern Mali, which is mostly desert, and also towns along the Niger River, most famously Timbuktu. Mali had been held up as a shining example of a working, somewhat stable democracy, but it was all a sham covering up corruption and lack of state services.
As the jihadists took over the rebellion they moved south, and the government fell to a new military coup. France, still involved in Malian affairs, intervened with troops and beat back the insurgents in early 2013. For anyone familiar with the history it was dispiriting to see happy villagers holding up French flags as the former colonial power was arriving to save them from vicious jihadists. Subsequently, EU troops also came to help, and the United States, with a significant military presence in neighboring Niger (eventually up to eight hundred soldiers in just that country, the majority of its Sahelian force), provided logistical and intelligence help.
There were several reasons for the intervention. For the French, it was part of their country’s continuing presence in the former French-speaking empire. For Americans, Mali and the rest of the Sahel were part of the war on terror. For Western Europe, there is more at stake as it tries to resist mass African immigration. Bad governance, weak economic growth, corruption, and disruption of traditional ways of life, along with a huge increase in young people who cannot find jobs, feed a desperate exodus of migrants trying to get across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean. Many of them die on the way, get enslaved in Libya, or (the women) get raped and kidnapped by human traffickers. The rise of jihadist violence only makes it worse, and Europeans have an interest in trying to bring all this under control.
The professional French soldiers sent to Mali, including tough troops of the fabled French Foreign Legion, were decisively stronger than the jihadists. But even the Foreign Legion cannot eliminate the insurgents because there is a steady supply of marginalized, alienated, jobless young men from various desert and Sahel peoples to replenish their ranks. The insurgents have money and weapons and instead of raiding on camelback they have all-terrain small trucks mounted with machine guns. They can kill, loot, and rape at will. They also find allies, some with ethnic ties, others because they distrust their governments and foreign intervention.
An elected civilian government was eventually handed power in Mali, but as the insurgency continued with no permanent resolution in sight, there was another military coup in 2020. A theoretically civilian government was installed once more, but that was followed by a second military takeover in 2021. France protested, demanding a more legitimate Malian regime. Instead, they and other Western forces were told to leave. Many Malian villagers, once beholden to the French, had become tired of all the fighting, despaired of finding peace, and, most of all, were suspicious of the French, who were now being blamed for not doing enough despite what seemed to be overwhelming military force. The Malian military men in charge were miffed by the French demand that they hand power back to civilians and restore democracy.
Who was available to help and, most importantly, to protect the inept Malian military from another jihadist march on the capital city of Bamako? Russian mercenaries. They now do just that, but this leaves them free to raid villages, to loot and rape, and to conduct their own massacres. They have neither the capacity nor eagerness to defeat the jihadists in the north, and anyway they benefit from the chaos. Anyone who has been following the widespread, vicious cruelty of Russian troops in Ukraine, or knew what they did in Chechnya at the start of Putin’s reign in Russia, should not be surprised.
This story, with some local variations, has been reproduced in neighboring Burkina Faso, which has also told the French to leave and invited Russian mercenaries in to help control the spreading, murderous insurgency. Burkina Faso’s military just advised thousands of villagers in the northern part of the country to evacuate so the army can come in and kill anyone it finds, presumably only jihadist rebels. There will be more misery, new massacres, and no ultimate resolution. Next door, Niger is holding fast to its alliance with France and the United States but is also suffering raids and deaths. So is Chad.
Capacities and Realities
At this point the French diplomat’s remark back in 2005 could well apply. They hate us, “after everything we’ve done for them?” This time there is more merit to such puzzlement as the French really did try to help. On the other hand, resentment against the former colonial master and Europeans in general has never gone away. When the French turned out to be unable to fix everything, that anger resurfaced.
Unfortunately, the whole Sahelian tragedy cannot be remedied without changing everything. There must be massive investment to create more balanced economies. There has to be good governance. Birth rates have fallen but not far enough, so population pressure is still increasing when there are far from enough jobs for the young. To get birth rates to fall faster requires greater prosperity and more education, particularly for women. Disputes over control of land need to be resolved. Displaced and vulnerable herders require help. Farming has to improve so that marginal lands no longer get ruined. The growing damages of climate change have to be addressed. Nothing can get done without peace, yet military intervention on its own cannot be enough.
Do French and American military leaders and their political bosses know how complex it all is? At some level, of course, and there are many experts who have written about the Sahel. However, for the average French or American soldier put in harm’s way while many of the locals seem ungrateful and perhaps even treacherous, it may be too much to ask for tolerant understanding. How many Americans or even French really care about what happens in such remote places? Tuareg in Timbuktu? Fulani raiders in Burkina Faso? How exotic! More Americans know the Touareg (spelled the French way) as a German SUV than the real people whose desperate young men join jihadist killers.
What does Russia expect to get from this? It might garner a few more votes in the UN. Its mercenaries and their bosses who are Putin’s friends get to enrich themselves by what is little more than looting. Russia can claim, as the Soviet Union once did, that it has new allies in the Global South. None of that really helps either Russia or Africa in the longer run.
The reality is that this is another part of the world where the interests of major powers collide in a way that is leading only to more suffering among populations that have long lived on the edge of catastrophe. Russia is not going to provide any meaningful help. Will China? It is providing much more significant investment in Africa than Russia ever can. That is a whole other issue that requires a different essay. For now, it would not help the Sahel if the West withdrew entirely, but the interventions so far have been too small to offer any kind of long-term solution. Alas, given the way so much of the world is heading toward greater violence, autocracy, and chaos, it is very unlikely that the Sahel will get the resources it needs. It turns out that, “after everything we’ve done for them,” it has not been nearly enough, and it may never be.
Daniel Chirot, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is the Emeritus Herbert J. Ellison Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Henry Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.
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