New partnerships forming in fight against Sahelian insurgency

Ryan ShawRyan Shaw | Updated: 30-11-2021 12:03 IST | Created: 30-11-2021 12:03 IST
New partnerships forming in fight against Sahelian insurgency
Image Credit: Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Military leaders from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria have warned that a more robust response is required to deal with the steadily increasing terrorist activity in the area. Senior officials from the Multinational Joint Task Force, headquartered in N’Djamena, met last week to formulate a strategy to counter the rising tide of insurgency.

While the threat of terrorism in Africa (and more specifically, the Sahel region) is nothing new, jihadi activities have intensified quite considerably in recent years. Key political events have served to reshape the security landscape, calling for a new approach to the issue from actors both local and international. As the struggle against extremism on the continent becomes ever more urgent, it’s becoming clearer which powers intend to take their place on the front lines of the battle.

Shifting terrain

Globally, terrorist incidents linked to Islamic extremism have fallen from their 2014 peak, with 59% fewer deaths between that year and 2019. Nonetheless, Africa has suffered increasingly common and lethal extremist attacks. While this has occurred as a natural consequence of jihadists being squeezed out of the Middle East, several political factors have combined to reshape the situation on the ground in the Sahel.

Perhaps one of the most significant was the sudden death of longtime Chadian leader Idriss Déby, who was slain on the battlefield in April while fighting rebel groups. Déby had clung to power for more than 30 years, and his efforts in quashing uprisings by extremist organizations such as Boko Haram and the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP) were instrumental in maintaining some semblance of stability in the region. It was initially feared that Déby’s loss might create a vacuum which could be exploited by insurgents to make territorial gains or even overthrow the regime—something which thankfully has not panned out, as the former leader’s son Mahamat Déby, himself a four-star-general, stepped in to head up a transitional government.

If Chad has remained more stable than feared in the wake of Idriss Déby’s battlefield death, the opposite is true in Mali, which recently suffered its third coup in just eight years. As a result, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has imposed sanctions on members of the incumbent military junta, and relations between Bamako and Paris have soured. With support for French presence in the Sahel on the wane both at home and abroad, France has become further disillusioned by Mali’s apparently unsolvable stability problems and has accelerated plans to wind down its large-scale military intervention in the area.

Mali, in turn, has turned to Russia, from which it has received official aid in the form of weapons, ammunition and military equipment. Unofficially, it is rumored that Mali is also in negotiations to contract some 1,000 mercenaries belonging to the notorious Wagner Group, earning sharp rebukes from the international community.

A new ecosystem of actors

While France is seeking to transition to a more international and unilateral peacekeeping mission, it will certainly still figure as one of the most significant overseas players in the conflict. Indeed, the reports linking Bamako with the Wagner Group, given the reports of Wagner’s close ties to the Kremlin and alleged involvement in wide-scale war crimes, appear to have even drawn Washington into the fray.

Under Donald Trump, the US had already been implementing a hands-off policy with regard to African operations, and the first few months of Joe Biden’s administration saw its involvement decrease even further. Anecdotal evidence from the remaining American security forces in the region suggests that insurgents have been capitalizing on that withdrawal through important victories and gains. However, Bamako’s cozying up to Moscow seems to have finally drawn American attention, with the White House not only warning Mali against such a course of action but also reaffirming its commitment to collaborate with France on the fight against terror in the Sahel.

Locally, it seems as though Chad will remain as the lynchpin of counterterrorism on the ground in Africa. The interim government, led by Mahamat Déby, has already signaled its intention to almost double the size of the army from 35,000 today to 60,000 by the end of next year, calling on greater defense spending in the next budget to achieve that target. Despite the concerns at the time of his father’s death that the country’s stability might be in question, Déby the younger has made an encouraging start to his tenure leading the provisional government and has participated in productive talks with both regional and international allies to put in place a plan going forwards.

Burkina Faso and Niger also remain actively engaged in warding off the threat of jihadists and insurgents, with Burkinabé leader Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and Nigerien head of state Mohamed Bazoum recently joining Mahamat Déby in Paris for a strategic meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. On the other hand, traditional G5 Sahel ally Mali seems less reliable by the week, with the country’s political upheavals and growing isolation calling into question its faithfulness to the fight against terror in the region.

Battle lines drawn

The indignation in Mali’s official response to the concerns raised by powers such as France and the USA over its relationship with the Wagner Group has meant the government in Bamako cuts an increasingly isolated figure. That’s bad news in counterterrorism terms since opportunistic insurgents are likely to seize upon any chink in their opponent’s armor to spread doubt and seed dissent.

Such a strategy is already evidently in place; reports from Cameroonian troops indicate that ISWAP have changed tack from their Boko Haram predecessors by concentrating their attacks solely on military outposts, thus keeping the civilian community onside. As such, it’s becoming a matter of no little urgency that anti-terrorist forces in the Sahel – whether they be homegrown or imported – present a united front against the creeping evil of that intent on shattering stability and disrupting peace throughout the region and beyond.

(Devdiscourse's journalists were not involved in the production of this article. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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