IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2024





Syria’s Uncertain Future

Growing Public Discontent in Turkey: A Breaking Point for Autocracy?

Kais Saied’s Tunisia: A “New Republic” with Old Authoritarian Tactics

Libya 2023: A State of Chronic Impasse

Energy and Maritime Borders in the Eastern Mediterranean

Electoral Processes and Change in Mauritania: From the Institutional to the Informal

Lebanon’s Tipping Crises Converge

The Mediterranean in the Face of the Climate Emergency and the Increase in Extreme Weather Events

Corruption in the Western Balkans: An Unresolved Issue for the Accession Candidates

Serbia: The Dilemma between European Accession and Alliance with Russia

The West Fast Losing Influence in the Sahel

New Twists and Turns in the Sahel Security Conundrum: Rural Jihadist Insurgencies, Military Coups, Urban Patriotism and the Turn towards Russia

Mediterranean Port Hubs: Connectivity in Today’s Agitated Waters

Economic Impact of the Gaza War

Investing in the Mediterranean: Strategies for Infrastructure Development

Tourism Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean: Overtourism, Geopolitical Conflicts and Sustainability

Sport and the Gulf: When Saudi Arabia Leads the Way

The BRICS+ Takes All? Not Yet, But Maybe Soon

The European Pact on Asylum and Migration: An Existential Challenge?

What Does the EU’s Future Eastward Enlargement Mean for its Relations with Mediterranean Countries?

Digital Cooperation in the Mediterranean: Opportunities, Challenges and the Future

Algeria: Taking Stock of Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s First Term

The Arab-Israeli Conflict from Oslo to the Gaza War

The US’ Role Since 7 October and the Implications for US-Middle East Relations

Russia and China in the Gaza Crisis: Trying to Beat Washington at Its Own Game

North Africa and the European Union: Between Economic (Inter) Dependence and Diversification of Alliances

Morocco and the Management of Pending Challenges


The West Fast Losing Influence in the Sahel

Ulf Laessing

Head of the Sahel Programme
Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Bamako

Russian military planes unloading weapons and fighters in the middle of the night have become a familiar sight in the Sahel region, as Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are boosting military ties with Moscow. Until recently firmly in the pro-Western camp and hosting French troops, the three military-run countries are forming new alliances with actors such as Russia, although Turkey, China, Iran and Gulf Arab countries are also replacing Europe as the Sahel’s traditional partner.

Geopolitics are changing fast in the Sahel, an impoverished semi-arid region linking North Africa with sub-Saharan Africa, which has been grappling for over a decade with a rise in jihadist attacks, state failure, widespread poverty, climate change and some of the world’s largest population growth rates. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso had had close ties with Western countries for decades, especially with their former colonial power, France. European countries and the US remain by far the biggest donors of humanitarian and development aid for the Sahel. But on the political and economic level, the West is losing influence fast. Ask anyone in the streets of Bamako or Ouagadougou who they think are their countries’ future partners and they will sing the praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who allegedly sends great amounts of humanitarian aid to the region.

How did this happen? After all, just 11 years ago then-French President Hollande received a hero’s welcome in Timbuctoo, the famed Sahel city, with residents waiving the tricolour flag after French soldiers had pushed back jihadists, ending their occupation of northern Mali. In the following years, European countries pumped billions of euros in aid into Mali from development to state-building and training for the country’s police and army, while a French force and one of the largest UN peacekeeping forces sought to maintain a shaky peace in the north.

But year after year the security situation in Mali kept worsening with jihadists re-emerging – they had not been defeated, just chased away into their hideouts in northern Mali, a vast strip of land of desert and mountains which has never been fully controlled by state authority. The jihadists have been using the north as an area to retreat to, and from there expand into neighbouring countries Niger and Burkina Faso. As a result, they too are now facing similar security issues. In the capital, Bamako, a new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), was elected in 2013 amid initial enthusiasm over the French-led reconquest of the north. But IBK, as he is known in Mali, failed to reform the State, which, since independence in 1960, had never met the aspirations of its citizens, failing to develop services from health to education, combat widespread corruption and establish a real presence outside Bamako –the jihadists and bandits easily filled the void.

Western Military Aid Raised False Hopes

Western powers involuntarily made the situation worse with their military assistance. The French anti-terrorism force with its European partners in Mali as well as European and US soldiers in Niger did their job in training local forces and helping them to keep jihadists away from the large cities. But ultimately, without local security and military forces doing their part and Sahel governments failing to offer state services in rural areas, the security situation did not improve. People were struggling to understand the rapid advance of jihadists, wondering why some of the world’s mightiest armies couldn’t restore order. It also didn’t help that the armies of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were regularly accused of human rights abuses such as looting and killing of civilians suspected of cooperating with jihadists – people rejected their own state forces, which were trained and equipped by Western forces.

France made a big sacrifice in taking the lead in trying to save Mali. The former colonial power was the only one ready to intervene militarily in 2013, after hopes of an African-led force had faded and European partners had made their excuses. France lost 53 soldiers and paid one billion euros annually to run its Barkhane counter-terrorism force. But despite all its efforts, France had been the wrong partner from the start, having long overstayed its welcome in the region – it never really left its former colonies since their independence, often intervening in domestic politics, and developing an attitude which was perceived by many locals as arrogant. An anti-French sentiment built up over the years, fuelled by many misunderstandings with the hosts. Just to mention one example: for domestic reasons, the Barkhane force focused on fighting Islamic State (which had staged attacks in Paris in 2015), not on the al-Qaeda offshoot in the Sahel, the real enemy of the Malian State.

Other Western countries contributed to frustrations in Mali and the wider Sahel. EU members such as Germany mainly sent troops to demonstrate “European solidarity” with France, not willing to fight or send weapons and agreeing only to become part of a UN peace mission. They also didn’t want to give the Malian army weapons, not even for training sessions – asking Malian soldiers to pick branches from trees to imitate guns. The Malian army wanted “real” training with soldiers going with them to the frontline, but Europe’s half-hearted mission efforts had adopted a “zero-risk” approach, which didn’t achieve much in the end.

An Opportunity for Russia

Mali’s junta, which toppled IBK in August 2020 and staged a second coup in May 2021, hadn’t set their sights from the start on a partnership with Russia. Moscow simply saw an opening to offer mercenaries and “real” weapons when ties between Mali and France worsened, with officials in Bamako fearing that, after the West’s abrupt exit from Kabul in August 2021, Western troops might also quit the West African nation. There were heated talk shows on Malian television, with people asking whether the country would be overrun by jihadists. France and other European countries also made the situation worse by telling the Malians not to bring in the Russians or they would quit – Bamako rightly called their bluff.

So a mix of misunderstandings and frustrations was building up on both sides. European countries – especially France – expected gratitude from Mali and were getting more and more frustrated that the security situation was not improving. The Bamako elite went back to their old ways of enriching themselves without developing the country, while the Malian army felt that they were not being taken seriously, with the Europeans asking them to train with tree branches. Add to that the deteriorating security situation, worsening poverty, one of the world’s fastest population growth rates and perceived French arrogance, and the result is a lot of frustrated Malians.

The new rulers, the putschists, led by Colonel Assimi Goita, wanted to break with the old elites such as IBK, who had lived in France and remained close to the Hexagon, but not necessarily with Europe. The Russians were just there, offering themselves as an alternative, and then one thing led to the next. Russian mercenaries arrived in the middle of Macron’s heated re-election campaign. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian, sensing an opportunity to score some points for Macron at home, called Mali’s leadership a “junta out of control” after a spate of verbal attacks. His statement angered many not just in Mali, but also in Burkina Faso and Niger; with France maintaining close ties with Chad, another military-run Sahel country, this was seen as a double standard – Mali gets blasted by France for delaying elections and “being out of control,” while Chad is spared any criticism.

The real culprit was an absent state, but
officials in Mali and other Sahel states
did nothing to counter this Russian
narrative, happy that their own failure
wasn’t discussed

Moscow was quick to seize its chance after having spent years laying the groundwork with social media campaigns and a network of influencers praising Russia as an allegedly more credible partner for Africa, while spreading fake news, like that France was supplying jihadists with weapons. In a region where many get their news from unreliable WhatsApp groups, such claims are widely believed by those who cannot understand why the Western military assistance did not end the jihadist advance. The real culprit was an absent state, but officials in Mali and other Sahel states did nothing to counter this Russian narrative, happy that their own failure wasn’t discussed. The West ignored the Russian disinformation and lost the battle to win over Sahelians. Only now have some European countries decided to communicate more actively, although it is probably too late to have an impact.

Turkey and Gulf Countries Also Benefit

Apart from Russia, Turkey has also invested much in the past few years to win over the hearts of the overwhelmingly young populations in the Sahel countries (the average age is about 15). Turkey has been offering school education and generously given grants to study in Turkey. While Western governments and companies treat the Sahel mostly with disinterest, Turkey has long seen Africa as a growing market for its companies in areas like construction, which are struggling at home. Turkish firms built the new airport terminal and a five-star hotel in Niamey and run the best private clinic in Bamako – just two examples of Turkish entrepreneurship in the region. And thanks to Turkish Airlines flying in almost every capital on the continent, many Africans now go to Turkey for holiday, business or medical treatment – unlike in Europe, getting visas is relatively easy, so for many Istanbul has replaced Paris, Brussels or London as travel destinations. Gulf countries have also profited from this cultural “re-orientation” towards the east, investing in mosques, religious schools and awarding university grants. For years, the West, despite spending billions of euros on aid, has been losing influence among Sahelians without realizing it – then came a political crisis between Paris and the Sahel which accelerated its orientation away from Europe.

These complex dynamics led to the West’s retreat, starting with France’s quasi-forced military pullout from Mali in 2022 after Le Drian’s accusations prompted Bamako to declare the French ambassador persona non-grata. Most Western nations followed suit pulling out their troops from the peacekeeping force MINUSMA. Then Burkina Faso asked French special forces to leave some six months later. Paris had learned its lessons from the Mali spat and avoided any public criticism of the two coup d’etats that took place there in 2022, even sending a Foreign Ministry official in January 2023 to offer continued military cooperation. But the new junta chief, Ibrahim Traore, based his whole legitimacy from day one on an anti-Western rhetoric, with his supporters waving Russian flags even as his coup was unfolding – he ordered his Foreign Minister to ask the French to pack their bags within the month.

Niger Coup Shock for the West

“Losing” Mali and Burkina Faso within a year was a shock for European and especially French policymakers. But then things got even worse in July 2023 with a coup d’etat in Niger removing the elected President Mohamed Bazoum, the West’s most important security partner in the Sahel. It took many by surprise. There has been no indication that Russia was involved in the coup d’etat which brought Abourahamane Tiani, the head of Bazoum’s former presidential guard, to power. But Moscow had prepared for such a scenario for many years, betting on a coup being staged in a country where the military has so often seized power. Like in Mali, Russia had invested in social and fake news campaigns to praise Russia and undermine the West, and helped set up “protest” groups which nobody took seriously but which came in handy when, while the coup was unfolding, Russian flags were needed at anti-France protests.

The new putschists did not have a plan or vision. It was a pure power play by Tiani and his fellow officers, and their fate was unclear in the first few days (There was even a small pro-Bazoum protest on the first day of the coup asking Tiani to quit). French President Emmanuel Macron unwittingly gave the putschists oxygen. Unable to contain his frustration with the coup after Europe had delivered so much aid and assistance for the country, he said that Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso wouldn’t exist were it not for French military intervention. That gave the plotters the perfect excuse to play on long bottled-up anti-French feelings – many in Niger had taken offence at the French-Malian escalation in 2022 and Le Drian’s comments about Mali’s junta being out of control, perceiving it as a confrontation between Paris and West Africa in general. This anti-French sentiment helped the Nigerien putschists to consolidate power and divert attention from the fact that they didn’t have any vision or strategy beyond their power grab.

To make matters worse for the West, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso quickly formed an alliance, the Alliance of Sahel States (AES), a mutual defence pact similar to that of NATO – any attack on one member would be treated as an attack on the others. This was done to deter any military intervention by the West African bloc ECOWAS against the Nigerien putschists. ECOWAS had threatened military action should Bazoum not be reinstated, but then failed to follow up on it – following France’s example and giving the coup leaders oxygen to frame ECOWAS as a French conspiracy. The AES was formed after repeated visits to the region by a top Russian defence official, which leads to speculation that Moscow, if not actually behind the AES, certainly used military and political support to encourage the three countries to leave ECOWAS.

The three Sahel countries have announced their withdrawal from ECOWAS. The AES wants to coordinate policies in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso beyond military cooperation, but has so far developed no formal structure. The foreign and finance ministers regularly meet, but not the three presidents, who avoid travelling for fear of countercoups and therefore cannot attend summits in person. The alliance looks a bit like the failed G5 Sahel, which had grouped Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania, in order to coordinate military but also development cooperation. The G5 Sahel, which never went beyond limited military cooperation, saw its end when Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso quit on the grounds that it was a French-backed tool (France, Germany and other European countries had helped and co-funded the G5 Sahel.) The AES has taken up some of the G5 Sahel’s ideas, such as launching a joint airline – although the chances of that happening are close to zero with the three AES members struggling to survive financially. The AES seems more like a tool to foster anti-Western and anti-French sentiment and thereby divert attention from a lack of strategy among the three members.

The new military partnership with Niger
is Russia’s biggest success in its expansion
in French-speaking Africa, as the country
is of great strategic importance for Europe.

Niger as the Biggest Prize for Russia

The new military partnership with Niger is Russia’s biggest success in its expansion in French-speaking Africa, as the country is – despite its massive poverty and underdevelopment – of great strategic importance for Europe. Niger is rich in uranium, but even more important, it forms part of the main route for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and North Africa – the launchpad for poverty-driven migrants trying to reach Italy by boat. That makes it dangerous for Europe if Russia has a foothold in Niger, Moscow having used migration as a weapon in other parts of the world such as the Finland/Russia border. Russia wants to pursue business interests by offering weapons and fighters, but clearly also sees the Sahel as a chance to expand its geopolitical footprint and offer itself as an allegedly credible alternative to the West.

On a recent visit I paid to the smuggler hub in Agadez in northern Niger, some 100 Toyota pickup trucks packed with 30 or more migrants were heading off one night in a convoy to Sabha, the biggest city in southern Libya. The passage had been officially closed since 2015, when the European Union put pressure on Niger to ban offering any help to migrants, to the dismay of the locals – thousands were unemployed in Agadez, a former rest stop for camel caravans; moving migrants being the main economic activity since tourists stopped coming due to insecurity after the 2012 Mali crisis. Now the “transporteurs,” as the smugglers call themselves, are back in business, and its legal. Every Tuesday at sunset, a convoy, escorted by the Nigerien army, makes its way to Libya. Most migrants I met came from Niger and were only looking for work in Libya before coming home, but others clearly have their sights set on Europe. From January to April, some 160,000 migrants left Agadez heading north, most of them Nigeriens looking to work in Libya, according to UN estimates. Algeria pushed back some 10,000 in the same period.

It’s impossible to say whether Russia had been “encouraging” Niger to reopen the transit land route to Libya. For the government, the decision was an easy way to win over Agadez residents who had suffered from the ban. But the announcement of the reopening came as Niger was signing an agreement with Russia to expand military cooperation – it’s fair to say that Niger felt emboldened enough to turn its back on Europe and legalize the migration business.

European diplomats have made the mistake of overestimating their sway, making demands on the military governments, just as France or Germany had done in Mali in 2021, along the lines of “if you bring in Russian mercenaries, we will pull out our troops.” Mali was unimpressed and went ahead with a deal with Russia. In Niger, European countries fell into the same trap by ignoring – on France’s request – the new junta for almost six months, which allowed not just Russia but other new partners such as Iran, China and Turkey to offer their services. The US, which has a drone base in Agadez, monitoring Libya as part of counter-terrorism efforts, then made the same mistake when a delegation reportedly told the Nigeriens they should not allow Iran to get its hands on uranium. A day later, the Niger government asked US troops to pack up.

What people see as double standards
is to suspend development aid to Niger
due to democratic deficits, but going
ahead with business as usual with Chad.

The Sahel is a showcase for the loss of Western influence. African countries can and will pick their partners, refusing to get bullied into a partner choice like “it’s either us or Russia.” Europe is also less credible in the eyes of Sahelians due to its close ties with Chad, another military-dominated Sahel country. Unlike Mali or Burkina Faso, Chad still has excellent ties to France – it is one of the last “Francafrique” countries where Paris has held close ties since independence, despite a poor record in human and democratic rights. There are many reasons to work with a fragile country such as Chad, which is struggling with an influx of some 850,000 refugees from its war-torn neighbour Sudan. What people see as double standards is to suspend development aid to Niger due to democratic deficits, but going ahead with business as usual with Chad.

It will be difficult for Europe and the United States to regain trust and rebuild relations with Sahel countries. Young people do not have a preference for Europe like the older generations might do – they are fully subjected to Russian disinformation campaigns that seek to undermine Western values and promote Moscow. France’s former army chief of staff, François Lecointre, has just said in an interview that France and Europe would be obliged to intervene in the future again in the Sahel, as the Russians wouldn’t solve the security crises. His audience was probably France, but the general’s comments were perceived as arrogant in the Sahel. He produced a classic own goal, thereby feeding pro-Russia trolls on social media and further undermining Europe’s standing in the region.

Header photo: A man buys a newspaper whose headlines announce a major drawdown of France’s military presence in the Sahel, where forces have been battling jihadist insurgents for nearly a decade, in Bamako on June 11, 2021. (Photo by ANNIE RISEMBERG / AFP) (Photo by ANNIE RISEMBERG/AFP via Getty Images)