It is clear that rapprochement is occurring among the new military elites that have come to power in the Sahel, especially in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. This marks a new stage in a series of geopolitical shifts in the region over the past three years. These ties strengthen the influence of the new military regimes at both the domestic and foreign policy levels, while dealing a major blow to French and Western clout in the Sahel and West Africa. French and Western influence in the region has markedly declined as other countries such as Russia have taken on larger roles in the region as they try to fill the current power vacuum. These shifts have been met with both governmental and popular support in "coup belt" countries, with the exception of Gabon. This will pave the way for expanding the strategic clout of Russia and other countries at their rivals’ expense.
There have recently been various signs of rapprochement among the new military elites in the Sahel, including the following:
1. Mutual political support among countries in the region: As soon as the National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland seized power in Niger in late July 2023, the two transitional military authorities in Mali and Burkina Faso recognized the new government in Niamey. Both Mali and Burkina Faso supported the new military leadership in Niger after the coup. Bamako and Ouagadougou sent official delegations to Niamey to show their solidarity with coup leaders amidst escalating regional and international threats of military intervention from the French-backed ECOWAS. The new military leadership in Niamey has announced that it will reopen land and air borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, which had been closed since the military coup of July 2023.
Meanwhile, a recent series of diplomatic meetings between officials from these three countries have sought to strengthen ties. The foreign ministers of Mali and Burkina Faso met in August 2023 to bolster bilateral relations between the two countries. In September 2022, General Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba (who was previously head of the transitional military council in Burkina Faso until he was ousted by Ibrahim Traoré) met with General Assimi Goïta, head of the temporary military council in Mali, during the former’s trip to Bamako. The two agreed to strengthen their countries’ military partnership and to examine and strengthen these ties. It is worth noting that this coordination between the two sides has continued even after the most recent coup in Ouagadougou in September 2022, which removed Damiba.
2. Bolster military cooperation among new regimes: The new regimes have sought to strengthen military cooperation in light of ECOWAS’s regional and international plotting at France’s behest. ECOWAS threatened Niger with military intervention. The ECOWAS chiefs of staff met the Ghanian capital, Accra, in August 2023 to develop a military plan for a lightning war to restore former Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum to power. Meanwhile, a tripartite meeting that included the chiefs of staff of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso was also held in August 2023 in the Nigerien capital of Niamey to develop joint measures to repel a potential ECOWAS military intervention in Nigerien territory. Reports from August 2023 indicated that military planes and attack helicopters from Mali and Burkina Faso had arrived in Niger to support its army against this planned military intervention. This was part of a broader military and security partnership between the three countries, which aimed to train and develop the counterterrorism capacities of Nigerien forces. Other reports indicated that forces from Burkina Faso’s army were spread through the country, although Nigerien authorities denied these reports.
Further reports alleged that the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara had intercepted a convoy belonging to the Malian army in August 2023 as it crossed Mali’s border with Niger. The convoy was carrying weapons meant for the military leadership in Niger to help fend off a potential military operation.
3. Joint coordination with the UN: Mali and Burkina Faso have both tried to embarrass ECOWAS and the West, including France, through internationalizing the Nigerien crisis. On 9 August 2023, they asked the UN Security Council to use UN procedure to prevent military action against Niger in the wake of threats from the French-backed ECOWAS.
Meanwhile, Mali and Burkina Faso have responded to UN accusations of human rights violations. In May 2023, Bamako backed Ouagadougou after the UN criticized Burkina Faso for alleged violations against civilians in the north of the country. Likewise, Ouagadougou backed Bamako following UN accusations that the Malian army and Wagner Group had been involved in killing more than 500 civilians in the north of the country between 27-30 March 2023.
4. An emerging new regional nexus: This nexus includes three countries: Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, which stand together against the French-backed ECOWAS and the measures that the bloc has taken against the three countries since the recent coups. This tripartite alliance has been strengthened by several factors, including an agreement between Mali and Burkina Faso in February 2023 to ramp up coordination between the two countries in dealing with growing regional challenges. These challenges include security threats and expanding terrorist activity at a time when France has become relatively less involved in the region from a military standpoint.
There has been a clear understanding between the two African countries, particularly after Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyélem de Tambèla suggested establishing a flexible "federation" with Mali. Some Western reports indicated that Niger and Guinea could also join such an alliance. In order to address these challenges, the military governments in the three countries (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea) asked to rejoin ECOWAS to combat terrorism in the Sahel, and to bring together forces across the region on this issue.
4. Develop a united tripartite stance against the West: The transitional military councils in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have adopted a series of resolutions against France over the last two years. Most importantly, Niger expelled the French ambassador, as Mali had already done, while Burkina Faso ordered the French defense attaché to leave the country. Military and defense cooperation agreements with Paris were also annulled across the three countries. Meanwhile, Niger decided to stop broadcasting some French media, such as RFI (Radio France Internationale) and France 24.
This reflects how the new military leadership is rejecting French influence in the region in light of concerns about the effectiveness of French forces in the Sahel, particularly after French failures to combat terrorism over the past decade. The French have also been accused of using counterterrorism as a pretext for seizing African natural resources. This is why military authorities in the Sahel have called for Paris to remove its military forces from their territory.
5. Building ties with Wagner: It seems that Mali is playing a key role in facilitating Wagner’s involvement through partnerships with countries in the Sahel’s "coup belt." In an encounter made possible by Malian military authorities, General Salifou Mody, chief of staff of the Nigerien armed forces met with Wagner officials during Mody’s visit to Mali on 2 August 2023. This meeting demonstrated the new Nigerien leadership’s interest in Wagner’s services, and that the new military elites in the Sahel want to bolster their capacities to fend off regional and international pressures that could undermine military coordination in the region. This is in turn due to concerns about threats to critical interests for key actors. Meanwhile, Burkina Faso, like Mali, is turning to the Russian Wagner Group as a military and security partner across various fields in order to deal with security threats the country has faced since 2015.
The new military elites in the Sahel have the opportunity to expand their authority given clear signs of rapprochement among "coup belt" countries. This has led some to argue that a new unofficial regional alliance is starting to develop to challenge ECOWAS and the West. The coalition has arisen in response to regional and international pressures in the wake of recent coups in the region. Rapprochement could enable the military elites to achieve their goals of staying in power and shoring up their control—at least in the short term—, using the following methods:
1. The trap of successive coups in the region: This provides an opportunity to evade the West, France, and ECOWAS, through distracting them with successive events, as was the case with the recent coup in Gabon. That coup reduced international and regional pressure on the transitional military council in Niger, particularly given ongoing international and regional concerns about other countries joining the "coup belt" during the coming period. In other words, there is a sense that these coups could have a domino effect, and that other military contingents could be inspired to follow suit in other countries. This is particularly true given the incentives for instigating new coups in light of the security, economic, and political challenges that most countries in the Sahel and West Africa face.
2. Controlling African public opinion: The military has continued to back popular protests against the French and Western presence in the Sahel, and to cast the West in a negative light. The new military elites intend thereby to strengthen their authority at home and abroad, especially given French resistance to withdrawing its military forces from the region. In Niger, popular protests in support of the transitional military council continue to grow. Demonstrators are also protesting against the French presence in the country, especially the French military base in Niamey. This sentiment was also reflected in the military authorities’ decision to expel the French ambassador from Niger.
3. Threats to longevity of ECOWAS: The united stance that Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea have taken against ECOWAS’s threats to carry out a military intervention in Niger following the recent coup has raised growing concern about the potential collapse of the West African bloc. ECOWAS is now dominated by internal divisions and sharp polarization, particularly in light of accusations that the bloc answers to French and Western powers. This state of affairs has undermined the trust of the member states in the regional organization, and some countries could threaten to leave the bloc in the future.
4. Bolstering ties with Moscow: The new military elites are able to look beyond the scope of Western alliances, such as with France, and consider other potential international partners such as Russia. Russia has provided logistical support through the Wagner Group to combat terrorism, which the West and France have failed to successfully counter in recent years. This has expanded the military elites’ influence at the national and regional level, particularly given their success in creating a new state of affairs in the region which will shift the balance of power and could prolong their rule for years to come.
5. Continued pressure on France: The recent coups have contributed to undermining French diplomacy in the region, especially in light of France’s tense relations with most new leaders, except in Gabon. This could bolster the popularity of the new military elites at the local level, which will help them keep their hold on power. There are growing demands that France and the West withdraw from Sahel countries.
In conclusion, the ties developing among new military leaders in the Sahel’s "coup belt" could bode well for their political future in the region during the coming period. They will face a series of foreign pressures aiming at reinstating deposed regimes, or at least at containing the new ruling military elites in the region and compelling them to offer concessions in order to maintain Western influence and curtail Russia’s broad ambitions in West Africa.