August 10, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 512

The Great Game In The Sahel

August 10, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Africa, North Africa | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 512

It was the very first visit by an American Secretary of State to Niger, only five months ago. Secretary Antony Blinken's list of praise for Niger's government was long and sought to portray it as a model partner. Not surprising, Russia and the Wagner private military company were also on the agenda. In a jab at the presence of Wagner in neighboring Mali, Blinken praised Niger's "comprehensive way" of doing security: one that's focused not just on the security steps that we are taking, but on good governance, on development, on creating opportunity, on being responsive to the needs of the people. And I think that is exactly the difference-maker – not at all what Wagner or any other groups of its like have to offer.[1]

Niger's interim ruler General Abdourahmane Tchiani meeting Khalifa Muhammad Sanusi II, the 14th emir of Kano, on August 9, 2023. Tchiani refused to meet Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.

Now, less than five months after that visit, Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland returned to Niamey, not to praise Niger but to threaten it, specifically to threaten the military junta that overthrew the country's democratically elected government in late July.[2] While the situation is extremely volatile and anything – invasion or restoration of the previous regime – could happen, that visit did not seem to go well. Nuland met with senior military officers but not with the junta's supposed head and she was denied access to the country's detained president, Mohamed Bazoum. The Americans were reportedly dismayed that "one of America's favorite generals" was involved in the coup.[3]

Niger has allies, in some of the neighboring military regimes, and sympathy, no doubt, from Moscow. But despite the defiance, it is hard to believe that one of the poorest countries in the world (Niger is ranked seventh-poorest)[4] can stand up against the weight of the Americans and their allies, the region's traditional hegemon in France, plus African giant Nigeria for any length of time. Sanctions will cripple a society and state that is already destitute.[5] Adding to the country's woes, a new rebel group opposing the military junta has now appeared.[6] But even if the situation in Niger is somehow stabilized in the near future to the satisfaction of the West, the challenge is a regional one.

Suddenly, seemingly almost overnight, the African Sahel – that vast desert tract running from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea – has become highly significant to Western policymakers. As in the past, it seems to have become significant not so much because of itself but because of connections to other, global and regional, issues – Jihadist terrorism, competition with Russia and China, migration, and energy issues.

Something about the region's vastness seems to generate failed imperial dreams. It was Libya's Muammar Al-Qaddafi, an Islamic imperial dreamer armed by the Soviet Union, who sought forty years ago to bring the region under his sway. Qaddafi was defeated during the so-called "Toyota War" by fierce Chadian desert fighters supported by France, and reportedly also helped by the CIA.[7]

Islamist Sudan inspired by Hassan Al-Turabi also tried to spread their ideology across the region. In 1992, the regime established the International University of Africa in Khartoum to indoctrinate the Islamist cadres of the future. The Sudanese regime also sought to limit France's influence in neighboring Chad by supporting rebel groups. It was from Sudan's Darfur region that exiled Chadian commander Idris Deby would launch his attack on Chad in 1990, succeeding in taking over the entire country. Supported by both Libya and Sudan in his invasion, Deby would "switch sides" and rule for more than thirty years as an ally of France and the Americans. His son rules in his place in Ndjamena.

The spirit of Qaddafi would loom large over the region. Early on Qaddafi's ambitions were seen not only in Chad but in Sudan where he promoted what would become the Arab Janjaweed of Darfur. And, much later, Qaddafi's fall in 2011 would – as many African leaders feared and as Westerners discounted – cause further instability across the Sahel. The implosion of his regime would lead directly to war in Mali as heavily armed former mercenaries once employed in Libya returned home and tried to establish a Tuareg state in the country's north. Nationalist Tuareg would vie for power with Jihadist Tuareg newly revitalized in a destabilized region awash with weapons. The Tuareg revolt in Mali would also touch Western Niger and Southern Algeria.

The chain reaction is long but accurate: France would push for the fall of Qaddafi in 2011 and his fall would lead to revolt – ethnic and jihadist - in the region, especially in Mali in 2012, which would lead to France's Operation Serval in 2013 and Operation Barkhane in 2014, which would lead eventually to France's expulsion from Mali in 2022 and replacement by Russians from the Wagner PMC. After leaving Mali, French President Macron announced that "the heart of this military operation will no longer be in Mali but in Niger."[8]

For the West, including the United States over the past decade, a major priority in this forlorn region has been that the Sahel would not become a Jihadist safe haven that could not only destabilize the region and push south but also extend its tendrils north to Europe. Despite the EU seeing the Sahel as a kind of "European backyard" and emphasized European coordination in the region, the security situation has deteriorated drastically since 2011. Salafi Jihadists have continued to push south from the Sahel and likely heartened by the current tensions.

But even more important for Europe than the fight against Jihadism are the issues of energy and "migration management." The Sahel – Niger specifically – was to be the transit point for the African energy needed to replace supplies coming from Russia. The proposed Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline or NIGAL is supposed to run from Nigeria through Niger to the Mediterranean.[9] The project has been long delayed but has become more urgent due to the disruptions of the Russia-Ukraine War.

Perhaps more urgent than even natural gas is the Sahel's role in the burgeoning human trafficking trade.[10] In 2016, a full 50 percent of migrants who reached Italy had transited through the northern Niger town of Agadez, the same site of that famous American anti-jihadist drone base.[11]

Europe's reaction to migration flows from Africa are, to be diplomatic, complicated. While there is a strong unrestricted migration lobby, particularly among elites, there are also multi-billion Euro efforts to manage and stanch the flow. Sahel countries facing Western sanctions are far less likely to bother to stop migration flows and indeed will seek to profit from them.

It seems that concern about migration among European elites is less about its intrinsic worth or risks than it is about the fear that too much migration too soon could drive European politics in right-wing populist directions – an eventuality that Eurocrats fear far more than a flood of Africans and Arabs arriving on their shores.[12]

Human trafficking/migration routes from Africa to Europe

The Sahel plays a key role in this struggle for the future of Europe playing out inside Europe. But the current European migration management strategy seems to be fatally flawed because it depends not only on stability (or "good governance") in the Sahel transit countries but on relatively stable authoritarian regimes in North Africa needed to serve as gatekeepers for Fortress Europe. And there, with the possible exception of Morocco, every regime from Algiers to Cairo looks increasingly fragile. Not only is there turmoil and revolt from Senegal to Sudan but the EU's Arab North African "gatekeepers" seem to be at risk themselves. A decade ago, 80 percent of the migrants arriving on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa were from Sub-Saharan Africa. Now half of those arriving in Europe are Sub-Saharan Africans and the other 50 percent are North Africans, especially Tunisians and Egyptians.[13] Refashioning Niger to their liking is only one small part of a much larger and lasting European-American dilemma.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], March 16, 2023.

[2], August 8, 2023.

[3], August 9, 2023.

[4], May 24, 2023.

[5], August 7, 2023.

[6], accessed August 10, 2023.

[7], accessed August 10, 2023.

[8], February 17, 2022.

[9], July 19, 2022.

[10], October 24, 2019.

[11] Morten Bøås (2021) EU migration management in the Sahel: unintended consequences on the ground in Niger? Third World Quarterly, 42:1, 52-67, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2020.1784002

[12], September 7, 2018.

[13], July 31, 2023.

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