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US moves from counterterrorism to great power rivalry in the Sahel

Washington is falling back on the same old Cold War/War on Terror mindset that propped up authoritarians at the expense of local populations.

Analysis | Africa

The United States has worked on several fronts recently to counter Russian influence in the Sahel.

In February, U.S. officials reportedly shared intelligence with Chad, alleging that the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group mercenaries are plotting to topple Chad’s transitional government and even assassinate its president. The New York Times has compared the administration’s approach to Chad — not just sharing intelligence, but also leaking it — to the administration’s approach to Ukraine in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion.

Then, on March 16, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Niger, announcing $150 million in new direct humanitarian aid to the Sahel. “We’ve seen countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent,” Blinken warned, “as a result of the association with Wagner.” In the wake of Blinken’s visit, there has been another round of commentary in the U.S. about a “new Cold War” in Africa. 

Blinken is correct that partnering with Wagner has brought disaster. That dynamic is on display in Mali, where Wagner’s deployment since late 2021 has contributed to new heights of violence against civilians. Wagner has also become a key factor in Malian domestic politics, with significant and growing potential for corruption and collusion involving Wagner and certain members of Mali’s military junta.

Yet as the U.S. attempts to counter Russian influence, the administration’s main strategy seems to be to repurpose “War on Terror” relationships into ones adapted to the “new Cold War.” That approach involves a continued choice to gloss over undemocratic elements of Niger’s political system and the brazenly authoritarian character of Chad’s. Ignoring or downplaying those problems, however, risks reinforcing the fragility of those countries, the very fragility that makes them an attractive target for Russia and Wagner.

Niger and Chad have been U.S. darlings for a decade now. In Niger, Presidents Mahamadou Issoufou (in power 2011-2021) and Mohamed Bazoum (2021-) have made their country into an eager, even pliant partner of Washington, Paris, Brussels, and Berlin. On issues ranging from hosting drone bases and troops to cracking down on irregular migration, Niger’s leaders have worked with Western powers and reaped the rewards in terms of development aid, security assistance, high-level visits, and more. Niger is a major recipient, for example, of funding from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Niger’s rulers also appear to understand quite well that in a region beset with unpopular autocrats, inept civilian politicians and, more recently, ambitious colonels and captains, they could stand out by offering an image of competent, democratic leadership. That image has proven highly seductive to Western diplomats — Blinken is only the latest of many Western officials to praise Niger as “a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation.”

That framing overlooks some inconvenient facts, beginning with Issoufou’s re-election in 2016 with 92.5 percent of the vote, while his main opponent spent the campaign period in detention. The more that Washington and Paris and others accept a kind of superficial democracy in Niger while ignoring troubling patterns just below the surface (corruption, crackdowns on free expression, and brutality by the security forces), the more Western governments risk abetting a situation where the Nigerien authorities become dangerously out of step with popular sentiment.

Humanitarian aid is a good thing — and Blinken laid out crucial priorities such as “shelter, essential healthcare, emergency food, safe drinking water, sanitation, hygiene services,” and assistance for hosting refugees. But turning a blind eye to Niger’s soft authoritarianism means the U.S. takes on several roles in Niger that are in tension with one another, as Washington becomes not just a provider of humanitarian assistance but also an enabler of impunity.

In Chad, President Idriss Deby (in power 1990-2021) put himself forward as a regional security guarantor. Deby made his troops available for risky combat missions, including alongside the French during Operation Serval in Mali in 2013, and in the Lake Chad Basin in a mission to push back Boko Haram in 2015. Unlike his Nigerien counterparts, Deby made little pretense about being a democrat, winning elections with large margins and openly intimidating his opponents.

After Deby died in battle against rebels, his son Mahamat and numerous regime insiders organized a kind of palace coup, contravening the Chadian constitution and installing a military regime. Given Chad’s special status as a military ally for Paris and Washington, and given Deby’s carefully crafted web of relationships with the African Union and other leaders, Chad’s coup was treated much differently than were those in Mali (2020 and 2021), Burkina Faso (twice in 2022), and Guinea (2021).

Western powers have applauded the younger Deby’s bid to make peace with the country’s numerous armed rebel groups, and have quickly moved past the more troubling decisions of the transitional authorities — such as unilaterally extending the transition period in October 2022, and then opening fire on pro-democracy activists who protested.

The U.S. strategy for countering Russia in the Sahel and indeed across Africa is thus a very top-down one, relying on wooing the rulers of some of the world’s most fragile countries. That top-down approach rests on the assumption that such leaders can manage serious pressures within their societies. U.S. officials seemingly have less to say to ordinary Africans, and indeed Washington — meaning not just U.S. officials, but also most think tankers and journalists — appears highly unsympathetic to ordinary Africans who resent France and are curious about Russia or outright supportive of Moscow and/or Wagner.

For many commentators in Washington, Russia builds influence in Africa through a combination of propping up dictators and spreading propaganda. Such analysis, which appears to both reflect and influence the thinking of the Biden administration, leaves little room for considering how ordinary Africans might perceive France — or even the United States.

The strategy of relying on a select few elite partners to advance strategic priorities works, to some extent, until it doesn’t; that was the fate that befell France in Mali, where it enjoyed a relatively permissive environment under civilian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita until a coup toppled him in 2020.

With the number of even superficially stable countries in the Sahel shrinking, Washington should consider looking beyond its cozy relationships with a handful of presidents and instead acquaint itself more closely with the profound discontent of many citizens, even in key U.S. partner countries.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken shakes hands with Minister Hassoumi Massoudou. Niamey, Niger, on March 16, 2023. [State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy]
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