Russia-France Competition in Sahel
A governance transformation is taking place in Africa in general and the Sahel in particular. While this transformation leads to the questioning of existing trends, it also allows for the addition of new trends. In this process, the approaches of political actors to their strategic partners, the positions of external actors in the region, and the perception of their leaders - especially their relations with France - as a result of the awareness of youth and civil society have changed to a great extent. Within the scope of this process, new parameters have inevitably emerged. While these parameters are formed spontaneously in some cases, they are formed by force in some places. In this context, it is possible to observe a change – a diversification – in the relations of the leaders of this region in the last two decades. France, which was previously the dominant partner in the Sahel, has found a competitor. In short, it is Russia waging war against one of its Western adversaries. This rivalry plays out in the Sahel but has a global scope. A battle of influence, but in a different way this time. Then it is useful to ask the following questions: What is Russia's position in the rapidly changing geopolitical Sahel? What is the response of civil society to the increasing Russian presence? France or Russia, a forced choice?
The Sahel: A Region of Multidimensional Conflict
The Sahel has historically been a region of trade and communication between North Africa and West and South Africa. Caravan routes and cities supported these multifaceted transactions, which contributed to the rise of great empires such as Kanem-Bornu, Mali, and Songhai, and later cities such as Timbuktu, Gao, and Agadez. These exchanges include gold, salt, dates, grains, livestock, handicrafts, books, etc. revolving around local products. There is thus a real complementarity from the past between the economies of North Africa and those of Sub-Saharan Africa. However, these connections were broken with colonialism.
This historic and economic rupture will have a lasting impact on relations between these two parts of Africa. Trade will decline and caravan routes will lose their strategic position. After independence, the new states developed different links, thus causing the socio-economic decline and problems in most parts of the Sahel region such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad. The main reason for this is the neglect of remote regions by central governments. Much of the Sahel, which has a very fragile socio-infrastructure and almost non-state presence, was susceptible to the spread of terrorist movements in the early 2000s. In this region, which connects Niger with Chad and Nigeria and where Lake Chad is located, after the fall of the Gaddafi regime, terrorist movements in Niger and Mali have taken advantage of this existing fragility.
The Sahel states, which mostly have weak economies, continued the fight against terrorism. However, it was not enough. Therefore, support was sought from external partners – especially France. France continued Operation Serval in 2013, Operation Barkan in 2014, and Operation Takuba in 2019. However, the expected result was the opposite. Terrorist groups, which were previously only in a part of Mali, have come to control more than half of this country and spread to countries such as Burkina Faso and Niger.
France or Russia: A Forced Choice?
Since the emergence of Boko Haram as a terrorist movement in Nigeria in 2009 and the emergence of terrorist groups in Northern Mali after 2011, serious political and socio-economic problems, especially security, have been experienced throughout the Sahel. As this reality is accepted by everyone, it is a well-known fact that France failed in this situation.
The failure of France here - on purpose - and yet the failure of the leaders to seek other ways to solve the problems has been the subject of serious criticism from the public, especially the youth. It is also possible to say that this situation caused a coup in Mali. In countries such as Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, there were great demonstrations and actions against the presence of France. While these were happening, the desire to ally with Russia, which has also made a rise in global understanding, has been manifested. This has even been implemented in Mali and the Central African Republic. The results from the cooperation with Russia are very good compared to the work done jointly with France. The example of Central Africa and Mali started a kind of new trend: "Let's replace the failed France with successful Russia". France did not remain silent against this. Each time he criticized the policies of Russia, its new rival in the region. To describe the rivalry between France and Russia in the Sahel, the famous reporter Alain Foka's ironic narrative is very accurate:
“Your children are caught fire in your house where they are trapped inside. Your friend, who is the source of this fire, rushes to your aid to extinguish it, even if he did not do it on purpose. But he has trouble stopping the incandescent flames. Although a few days have passed, the fire continues to grow despite all the interventions. Meanwhile, someone else arrives who wants to help you put out the fire together. That person wants to combine their insufficient strength with yours. […] Additional help in the face of such a situation is, of course, acceptance. All of a sudden, your friend, who is fighting the fire together and threatening to leave you in the face of the tragedy that has befallen you if you don't follow his/her advice, tells you without hesitation that I withdraw when you accept the newly arrived help. He/she doesn't want the other to put out the fire that burns everything in your house.
The competition in the Sahel is not simply for ensuring the security of the states in question. There is also the question of whether France will continue to be a global power. This thesis can be explained for two reasons. First; global military influence. France is a member of the UN Security Council. In this capacity, it wants to effectively provide security in the world and especially in countries with former colonies and to keep all related activities under its own control. Having a security problem in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, or Chad actually indirectly means that France's membership of the Security Council makes it more effective. Because it is the biggest – in some countries in some periods – the only partner in the military and security field of these countries. However, until recently, security issues in the Sahel were reported to the Security Council by the representatives of France, not the representatives of the countries in question, and the resolutions and agreements prepared were also made by France - or its proposal. In summary, France is a kind of representative of African states in the council. Therefore, a state that carries out security activities in so many countries can be described as a global power – although not in reality. Latter; are economic reasons. There are various underground resources in the Sahel, such as uranium, oil, gold, and minerals. The presence of France in the region also provided control over these riches. Niger's uranium, Chad's oil, and Mali's gold are mostly sold to France.
However, when evaluating this, it does not mean that Russia is an angel ally. It is clear that Russia also observes interests in the region.
One of Russia's main goals in Africa is to gain influence over strategic areas along the southern Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This is most obvious, in 2019 Russia's Wagner Group deployed its mercenaries with the aim of placing its deputy, Khalifa Haftar, as the new strongman. If successful, Moscow will have a permanent military presence in North Africa, on NATO's southern flank.
Counterterrorism in the Sahel: Is Russia an Ally?
It took time for Russia to get back to Africa. President Putin's visits to South Africa, which will be included in the BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) group in 2011, to Morocco in 2006, and then to Libya in 2008, marked the beginning of the great comeback. Dmitry Medvedev expanded the circle by visiting Egypt, Angola, Nigeria, and Namibia in 2009. Foreign ministers' round-trip travel has increased. A meeting of African ministers and parliamentarians was held in Moscow in 2010. The opening of embassies ensued, and 40 Russian embassies were mobilized in Africa to support Moscow's economic interests, garner votes at the UN, and offer scholarships or internships. It is a question of opening the door to large Russian companies in the mining or metallurgical fields to sell weapons or grain. Thus, Russian companies started to enter the Continent.
Russia is seen as more reasonable as an ally in Africa against France. First, Russia does not have a colonial past in Africa. This is an important factor in the strategic choices of African states and their increasingly conscious youth. Secondly, African states are no longer a place where there is only strategic competition, and now they know their strategic positions and make their choices accordingly.
Is the Russian presence a financial interest or a geopolitical strategy? In any case, after its entry into the Central African Republic, Russia's influential entrepreneurs turned to the Sahel countries, relying on local actors. As France reorganizes Operation Barkhane and withdraws its troops, primarily from Mali, the number of supporters of the Russian intervention is increasing. It is possible to see the slogans "Let France Withdraw" and "Let Russia Come" from time to time in the actions and meetings. It would be naive to believe that Russia can save the Sahel. The security of the Sahel depends on the will of the Africans.