Maria is a 2nd year Arts and Sciences Student at UCL, originally from St Petersburg but based in London for most of her life. She studies a mix of political philosophy, economics, and French, but is also keenly interested in international relations and diplomacy.
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.
In the past couple of years, we have witnessed a series of political crises and military coups across Africa’s Sahel Region. The latest of these occurred on July 26th in Niger, leading to the region being labelled as a ‘coup belt’ with other countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan suffering from similar putsches in recent years. These countries collectively suffer from economic instability, including widespread poverty and unemployment, as well as pervasive government corruption. However, most importantly they also share a common disdain for French involvement, which has helped fuel anti-French sentiment, the expansion of support for illegitimate governments, and facilitated the extension of Russia's influence in the region, the result of which will likely have far-reaching implications for the global order.
It’s important to note that coups have been a continuous issue in the African continent since its emancipation from colonial rule in the mid-to-late 20th century. A staggering total of 106 successful coups have occurred since 1950. Of the 14 successful ones since 2000, 10 have
taken place in former French colonies. This begs the question: if Anglophone Africa is experiencing a comparatively stable political climate, why has Francophone Africa resisted the establishment of durable governments?
France has a long history of colonialism on the African continent and although it is no longer a colonial power, it has continued to exercise military, financial and political influence over African governments. The memory of forced labour, racial segregation, brutal military campaigns, and cultural erasure lives on in the minds of many inhabitants of the Sahel region. Coupled with France’s almost excessive interference in internal affairs and recent foreign policy failures in the region, this has stoked anti-French sentiment and disdain for the democratically elected governments which France supports. Ibrahima Kane, a Senegalese human rights lawyer stated that “the French always sided with the people in power, regardless of whether they were popular”.
An illustrative case of France’s interference in the internal affairs of its former colonies lies in the control of their economies and support for dictatorial regimes in order to shape the political landscape of these countries and gain access to precious natural resources. Through the Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA), France has managed to effectively manipulate the monetary policies of these countries by requiring them to deposit a minimum of 50% of their international reserves into an account in Paris under the control of the French Treasury. This is one of the methods that they use to ensure cooperation from these widely unpopular governments and, particularly in the case of Niger, to guarantee a steady supply of uranium which enables more than 80% of France’s electricity production. It is no wonder that the French have become widely unpopular when they have continued to promote a system of neocolonial control in order to further their own interests, whilst the citizens of these countries continue to suffer from poverty and unemployment.
France’s move to broaden its counterterrorism operation in the Sahel region and particularly in Mali, which began in 2014 and became known as Operation Barkhane, has stoked similar resentment. Operation Barkhane - France’s largest operation abroad in recent years, had an extremely high human and economic cost and yet despite this failed to achieve the desired results of stability in the region. In fact, the situation only worsened with attacks on civilians becoming more frequent and militias only increased their power and influence. Consequently, street protests over worsening security broke out in 2020 and led to a military coup to depose
the pro-French government. The new government of Mali turned to the Russian mercenary group Wagner for help with the deteriorating state of security in the region and by January of 2022, when the French ambassador to the country was expelled, there were almost 1000 Russian mercenaries working in the region. Protesters had taken to the streets waving Russian flags and burning posters of the French President Emmanuel Macron to celebrate their emancipation from French influence. Following this failure, France moved its troops to neighbouring Niger, but with the country experiencing its own coup earlier this year it's safe to say the French were equally unwelcome there.
The decision to combat the Sahel’s security problems with brute military force as opposed to looking at the root causes to encourage development, the strengthening of institutions and stable governance has resulted in them being branded as neocolonial villains and in them losing a foothold in the strategically important region. President Macron even openly acknowledges the importance of economic and military interference as a ‘post-colonial strategy’ to protect the interests of France, security and otherwise.
Moreover, France’s fall from grace in the Sahel region has presented an indispensable opportunity for Russia to expand its influence. Moscow has long desired to establish a foothold on the African continent where the West has been dominant since colonial times and with the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent implementation of sanctions, which have undoubtedly limited Russia’s ability to trade, this is all the more an important part of Putin’s agenda. Moscow has been working hard to establish friendly relations with the Francophone states, whether this is through attempting to foster good diplomatic relations through events such as the Russia-Africa Summit or through deploying troops on the group in order to establish a sense of not only security but a sense that Russia, rather than France, is the dominant external force within the region.
With the Sahel being an important strategic region due to its abundance of key natural resources, Russia’s increased influence in the region, which is in many cases welcomed by the citizens, is bad news for the West. However, it's also not a given that France is entirely out of the game. Looking forward, it's likely to be a war of narratives between the French and the Russians, who do not have a spotless reputation themselves. To win back the Sahel, France may need to rethink its image and present itself less as a neocolonial power and more as an alternative to Russia’s rigid, dictatorial regime.