French mistakes helped create Africa’s coup belt

From Mali to Niger, anti-French sentiment on the streets has helped putschists gain legitimacy and Russia expand its influence.

Nigeriens participate in a march
Nigeriens participate in a march called by supporters of coup leader Gen. Abdourahmane Tchiani in Niamey, Niger, Sunday, July 30, 2023. The sign reads: "Down with France, long live Putin." [AP Photo/Sam Mednick]

Africa’s Sahel, home to some of the world’s poorest, most politically unstable and conflict-prone countries, is once again in crisis.

With the July 26 military takeover in Niger, the region has become a true “coup belt” across the girth of Africa, and many Sahel nations are now governed by unelected military rulers. In recent years, the Sahel has also become a leading playground for violent armed groups, from Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). According to the Global Terrorism Index produced by Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), the region now accounts for a whopping 43 percent of global terrorism deaths.

Across Sahel countries – from Niger and Mali to Burkina Faso and Chad – pervasive corruption, extreme poverty, widespread unemployment, and the perceived inability of Western partners and international institutions to bring stability to and ensure security in the region have turned local populations against their Western-allied governments, fuelling public support for coups and increasing recruitment capabilities of armed groups.

But there has been one factor, beyond chronic insecurity and economic instability, that significantly helped carry military governments to power across the region: growing anti-French sentiment.

The memory of French colonialism, defined by brutal military campaigns, forced labour, widespread repression, cultural erasure, racial segregation and forced displacement, is still very much alive in the Sahel region.

Coupled with suspicions rooted in colonial history, France’s more recent misadventures, disappointments and outright failures in Africa have led Sahel populations to grow wary of the former colonial power and everything it does in the region. Putschists in many countries took advantage of this ever-deepening hostility and managed to present themselves to the public as anti-colonial heroes resisting a neocolonial France and its corrupt pawns in local governments. This is why the masses welcomed military rule with anti-French chants in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and most recently Niger.

It all began back in 2012, when the Malian government invited France to help it resolve the rapidly deteriorating security crisis in the country’s restive north, where Tuareg rebels and fighters allied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had captured large swaths of territory. France sent in thousands of troops and routed the fighters away from the capital,  Bamako, with some help from neighbouring Chad.

In 2014, with the support of the Malian government, France moved to broaden its counterterrorism operation in the region. It deployed 5,100 soldiers in five Sahel countries in what came to be known as Operation Barkhane – its largest and most expensive operation abroad in modern history.

Despite its high economic and human cost, however, Operation Barkhane failed to deliver the desired results. Mali and the wider region’s problems did not come to an end. Instead, armed groups started to increase their power and reach. Attacks on civilians became routine and the security situation deteriorated across Sahel countries. As a result, local populations started to blame France for their chronic problems and grew more and more suspicious of the former colonial power’s intentions in the region.

In 2020, months of street protests over worsening security and alleged corruption resulted in a military coup and the overthrow of the pro-France government. Mali’s relations with Paris deteriorated rapidly and Mali’s new rulers turned to Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group for help with the ongoing security crisis.

After two years of increasing tensions, the relationship between the “interim” government in Mali, which refused to hold elections as it promised to do so after the coup, and France reached a breaking point. On January 31, 2022, Mali expelled the French ambassador from the country. By then, up to 1000 Russian mercenaries were on the ground in Mali. A few days later, thousands of anti-French protesters took to the streets waving Russian flags and burning cardboard cut-outs of French President Emmanuel Macron in celebration of the expulsion.

The same year, France announced its decision to withdraw its troops from Mali and move some of them to neighbouring Niger as part of a new Africa strategy.

As we now know, this did little to improve France’s standing in the region. Niger  soon experienced its own coup, and with the public opinion firmly against France, the putschists did not lose much time to blame France for the country’s many problems and accused it of “destabilising the country”.

The primary reason behind France’s rapid loss of influence and respect in the Sahel, where it is now widely seen as nothing but a neocolonial villain, was its faulty approach to the region’s ever-deepening security crisis.

Rather than trying to identify and address the root causes of conflict by strengthening state institutions and encouraging good governance, Paris tried to resolve the Sahel countries’ security problems solely through military force. This military focus, which did not even translate into decisive victories on the ground, added fuel to the conflict and swiftly turned public opinion against France.

The greatest beneficiary of France’s many mistakes in the Sahel, other than the putschists in Mali, Niger and beyond, has been Russia. Moscow has long been looking to improve its relations with Africa and eliminate Western dominance over the continent. And France’s recent mishaps there gave it the opening it had long been waiting for.

As it became clear that France won’t be able to bring an end to terror in the Sahel with its extensive military operation, Russia unleashed its well-oiled propaganda machine on Francophone Africa and did everything it could to add fuel to growing anti-French sentiments in the region. Meanwhile, Wagner entered the Sahel with a promise to complete the important job France, and with it the rest of the West, failed to do: end the reign of armed groups and ensure the security of local populations.

Now Russia is fighting armed groups through Wagner, building relationships with military governments and overall working hard to establish itself as the dominant outside force in this highly strategic region. This is bad news for both the West, which cannot afford to lose the Sahel to Russia, and the peoples of the region, who are already suffering from the senseless brutality of Wagner and starting to see the downsides of accepting Russian “help”.

France is undoubtedly on the back foot in the Sahel, but it can still get back in the game if it plays its remaining cards right. To return to the region as a top player, Paris will first need to win the hearts and minds of local people.

To do this, it would need to do some soul-searching and face the legacy of colonialism. It would also need to admit its most recent mistakes, learn from its military and political failures and, most importantly, start addressing the Sahel nations as equal and independent security partners rather than former colonies in need of French guidance.  Part of this would be to recognise the power Nigeria holds as the Sahel’s leading economy and work with it, as equals, to achieve its political, economic and security objectives across the region. Such a partnership would also help bridge the trust gap between Anglophone and Francophone West Africa.

To win back the Sahel, France must also be willing and ready to enter a war of narratives with Russia. As it works to clean its own image, it should also embark on an evidence-based campaign to expose the many war crimes and human rights abuses committed by Wagner in Africa and beyond.

If France fails to take these steps and build new, stronger partnerships with Sahel nations, it will remain a largely inconsequential power and will serve no other purpose than providing easy legitimacy to putschists in the region.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.