A wave of jihadism, Russian influence and authoritarian regimes ravage the Sahel

Europe and NATO are concerned about the destabilization of a region full of gold and uranium and central to migratory movements to the north

Manifestantes a favor del golpe de Estado en Níger
Pro-coup demonstrators in Niger holding pro-Russian signs and Niger flags in Niamey in August.STRINGER (REUTERS)
José Naranjo

At the NATO summit held in Lithuania last year, the allies decided to initiate a debate on the threats on the so-called Southern Flank. Of all the regions that fall under this rather vague concept, the Sahel is one of the most worrisome. Jihadism has been rampant inside Europe over the past decade and has gained a foothold in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, where it coexists and profits from all kinds of illicit trafficking, from arms to drugs. At the same time, the region is traversed by the main migratory routes to the north. These factors, compounded by poverty and climate change, have led to the destabilization of the region. All three countries are ruled by military juntas that are increasingly relying on Russia as a new strategic ally, while the West, the U.N. and the European Union are being pushed off the map.

Of these issues, Islamist terrorism poses the most serious threat. The Al Qaeda-affiliated Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) and the two branches of the Islamic State in the Sahel and West Africa have managed to establish roots in central and northern Mali, in the whole of Burkina Faso except for the capital and its southern zone, and in eastern and western Niger. The national armies’ shortcomings in dealing with these groups have allowed them to settle and subject the local population to their rules, enabling them to draw on the local population through recruitment, in the absence of a state to protect civilians.

While security forces and soldiers in the big cities withstand their onslaught as best they can, the rural areas become the grazing ground for this occupying force that imposes taxes, organizes the economy and massacres those who resist. “The modus operandi of these terrorist groups is to settle on the outskirts of towns or medium-sized cities and lay siege. No one enters or leaves without their knowledge and they exploit this. They do not come into conflict with the army if they can avoid it and they survive,” says Ibrahim Yahaya, coordinator for the International Crisis Group for the Sahel.

The extreme poverty of these regions located far from the capitals has provided fuel for a fire that has not stopped spreading since 2013, when the landing of French troops forced the groups to retreat and reorganize. Climate impacts, such as droughts and extreme rains that have intensified in recent years, have only aggravated the problem in a region that is highly dependent on agriculture and livestock grazing. Coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea, such as Togo, Benin or Ivory Coast, have already endured the first assaults and attacks in the process of occupation of territory by terrorist groups, but for now these states, which are more solid from the defense and security perspective, have limited the threat to their northern regions.

Strategic natural resources

Despite its extreme poverty, the Sahel is endowed with strategic natural resources, particularly uranium in Niger and gold in Mali and Burkina Faso. The latter mineral, exploited by both large foreign companies and artisanal miners, in recent years, has become an indirect source of financing for terrorists in those areas under their control where there are mines, whose owners are extorted to ensure that they are not attacked. Historically, uranium from northern Niger has poured into France, but the coup d’état in the Sahel country last summer is driving a change of destination: the United States claims that there is already an agreement between the military junta and Iran for the export of this critical mineral for the nuclear industry.

The other extreme source of concern for the allies is Russia’s rapid expansion. The inability of the Sahel states, in alliance with France, to combat jihadism is at the heart of the successive military uprisings that have shaken the region. The new authorities, first Mali, then Burkina Faso and finally Niger, turned to Moscow as a new major military partner, both for the purchase of armaments and for the provision of technical instructors on their territory. Indeed, Wagner’s mercenaries have been operating alongside the Malian Armed Forces for two years, which has enabled them to regain ground against jihadists and Tuareg rebels, and to ensure the security of the Burkinabè president, military officer Ibrahim Traoré.

“The big problem is the human rights abuse and violations suffered by the civilians,” adds Yahaya, “Wagner has gone further than the Malian army. They already did this in Syria with the intention that terror would change sides. It is violence, but also pillaging and looting, they take people’s money and valuables,” explains the expert.

For Russia, it is as much a matter of access to raw materials and markets as it is of geopolitics. Its ever-increasing international isolation since the occupation of Crimea in 2014 has driven it to place value on its relations with the African continent, of which it is the first arms supplier. This is evidenced by the Russia-Africa summits held in Sochi in 2019 and St. Petersburg last year, where dozens of heads of state came to further strengthen their relations.

A canoe with 53 sub-Saharan migrants, 200 kilometers south of Gran Canaria, Spain, on Wednesday.
A canoe with 53 sub-Saharan migrants, 200 kilometers south of Gran Canaria, Spain, on Wednesday.Salvamento Marítimo (EFE/Salvamento Marítimo)

The Sahel, where Moscow offers itself as a much more robust solution to its security problems in comparison to Europe and the West, is fertile ground. The abstention of dozens of African countries on the U.N. resolution to condemn the invasion of Ukraine two years ago illustrates the continent’s traditional neutrality as well as its appreciation of the ties that bind it to Russia.

The organized crime that arises around irregular migration is the other shadow of concern for Europe. As previously seen after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, instability has facilitated the movement of people across borders while also favoring the business operations of criminals who profit from it. In recent months, thousands of Malians have risked their lives in their attempts to reach the Canary Islands via Mauritania, which became the principal departure point for dugout canoes between November and February, while northern Nigeria remains the obligatory passage to Algeria, Tunisia and Libya for tens of thousands of migrants from the east of the continent.

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