Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum and “conveyed the unwavering support of the United States” for the democratically elected president on July 26.
Military support alone will not solve Niger’s problems.
The African Sahel includes parts of 11 countries. The region is facing severe drought, crop failures, desertification and Islamist insurgencies across a wide belt that includes northern Senegal, and parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, northeast Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. The time has come for a reset in the African Sahel region. Since 2001, with the implementation of the Authorized Use of Military Force (AUMF), the United States has worked to support governments deemed at risk for armed insurgencies. While there has been talk of broader outreach, programs like the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Program (TSCTP) have focused primarily on military support with insufficient oversight and accountability. The Watson Center at Brown University has argued that our military support for Sahelian governments has created more problems than it has solved.
The term Sahel (or Sahil) comes from Arabic and designates the southern coast of the Sahara Desert, the band of territory between the Sahara and the greener Savannah lands to the south, home to almost 150 million people. During the past three years, there have been eight military coups in Sahelian nations (Mali – 2, Burkina Faso – 2, Chad, Sudan-2, and now Niger), justified by the inability of civilian governments to protect national borders against Islamic insurgencies and chronic problems of corruption and graft.
In the wake of Muammar Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, conflict in the Sahelian region intensified as mercenary groups fled Libya through the deserts of Algeria to the west and through southern Libya into Chad. The Malian army was initially overwhelmed in 2012, leading France to launch Operation Serval in January 2013 and Operation Barkhane in July 2014. The U.S. has been content to play a supporting role during these two military operations, deploying Green Berets and Special Forces to Niger (see Tongo-Tongo incident in Niger in October 2019) and staffing a drone airbase near Agadez, Niger. We have spoken of the need to address broader humanitarian issues and even called for dialogue with insurgent groups, but our direct impact has been modest.
The approval of significant funding for climate action in Cairo last year would allow for an integrated approach to restoring peace and stability to the Sahel region, focusing on more than just military objectives. The U.S. Institute for Peace has called for national dialogues in each country to address issues of corruption, human rights, the marginalization of Sahelian populations, soil degradation and water scarcity.
In the coming weeks, we should organize meetings with the leaders of the Sahelian nations and propose a reset. There are many viable partners. In Burkina Faso alone, the UN High Commission for Refugees, World Food Program and UNICEF are helping 1.8 million Internally-Displaced People, while UN Peacekeepers have helped to protect vulnerable communities. The European Union, and especially France, have deep knowledge of the region and linguistic ties and development experience.
The French recently ended Operation Barkhane, and the Wagner Group was invited into the vacuum by the government of Mali. Russian military supplies and direct presence have been detected in Burkina Faso as well. The Wagner Group relies on military action. Pure brute force will not offer any long-term solutions. The current uncertainty in Russia’s support for the Wagner Group in Africa gives a window of opportunity.
The choice now is between a continued narrow focus on military intervention or a broader, integrated approach that allows for a multilateral effort to improve conditions in the Sahelian nations and address the root causes of instability. By reaching out to regional partners like Economic Community of West African States and national governments there is an opportunity to restart assistance to the region and foster national dialogues to build back better. The United States does not have to do this alone, but taking the lead to get things started will create momentum at a crucial time.
Charles Adams Cogan is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright Scholar who studied African History (and the Hausa language) at Northwestern University. He currently serves as a board member for Books for Africa, the United Nations Association of Minnesota, and the Northfield Rotary Climate Action Team.