The past month has sharpened a decade-old question for U.S. and international policymakers: How best, in 2024, to help stabilize what is now the world’s largest single zone of military rule and violent conflicts — Africa’s Sahel region? After three military-ruled Sahel states withdrew from the West African regional community in January, those juntas last week proclaimed an alliance aimed at resisting international pressures, including those for their return to elected civilian rule. Former U.S. and African officials yesterday urged what they called vital changes in U.S. and allied policies to prevent a dangerous spread of the Sahel’s crises.

Young Burkinabe gather in the capital, Ouagadougou, following Burkina Faso’s January 2022 coup d’état. Burkina Faso’s junta, like those of Mali and Niger, has resisted pressures for an early return to civilian rule. (Malin Fezehai/The New York Times)
Young Burkinabe gather in the capital, Ouagadougou, following Burkina Faso’s January 2022 coup d’état. Burkina Faso’s junta, like those of Mali and Niger, has resisted pressures for an early return to civilian rule. (Malin Fezehai/The New York Times)

Amid headline-seizing crises, notably in the Middle East and Ukraine, the United States and other international partners struggle to sustain a consistent focus on the Sahel, where eight coups in three years are part of a pattern of rising violence. The insurgencies, coups and instability bred by a years-long collapse of effective governance in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have driven violent incidents and more than 100,000 refugees into coastal West African states from Benin to Ghana. A more general spread of the western Sahel’s crises to coastal West Africa — a region five times more populous, with roughly 368 million people from Senegal to Nigeria — would pose a massively greater threat to U.S. and international security, trade routes and economies.

The United States, France and other international partners have too long ignored the crises of governance that for years have too often failed to meet even basic needs of the 68 million people across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, allowing the rise of communal and jihadist uprisings that ultimately led to the military coups and the current humanitarian crisis, say analysts such as Bisa Williams, a former U.S. ambassador to Niger.

Needed: a Broader, Proactive Partnership

“For a very long time, U.S. policy in Africa has not been a priority in general,” Williams told a forum on the Sahel at USIP. Only after failed governance caused massive violence through the 2010s, “the attention turned to the Sahel.” Williams echoed scholars who say Western policies have sought to build security through narrowly military means rather than helping people and governments in the region solve the root problems of unresponsive, frequently corrupt, governance that has tended to serve the needs of elites rather than their populations.

Williams was one of 10 diplomats and scholars who last month issued a report specifying improved policies to help stabilize the Sahel and prevent the catastrophe of a wider West African crisis. She underscored a finding by that bipartisan and multinational study group that the international community is missing a vital opportunity to shape the much greater changes that population growth, the rise of digital technologies and the needs of climate change can bring to the Sahel in the next few decades.

The region’s “expansive fertile lands are ripe for innovative, sustainable agriculture; the sun-soaked terrain beckons for lucrative solar energy ventures that can usher in energy autonomy; and the region stands on the brink of a technological revolution powered by increasing mobile connectivity and digital access,” that report notes. “The United States has an opportunity: by engaging now, it can guide this explosive growth in a positive direction that benefits both the people of the Sahel and the United States and its African allies. Ignoring this potential and focusing solely on political volatility and security challenges risks, paradoxically, exacerbating instability in the Sahel and increasing the danger.”

Past efforts at “partnership” by assistance donors have failed to offer truly equal roles to African nations, Williams said, echoing the study group and other scholars’ critiques. The United States vowed to build more equal partnerships as part of its new Africa strategy, showcased in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit it hosted 14 months ago.

A Crisis of Multilateralism

Addressing West Africa’s crises requires strong leadership from the region’s own multilateral community, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), noted the experts at the USIP forum. ECOWAS stepped in repeatedly between the 1990s and 2007 to provide peacekeeping forces, diplomatic mediation and other support for democracy and peace in the region. In recent years, ECOWAS has suffered an erosion in its influence, highlighted by the recent weeks’ announced withdrawal by the juntas now governing Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.

“This is part of a bigger picture; a worldwide crisis of multilateralism,” said Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly, a former foreign minister of Mali. The United Nations and its allied global institutions, founded after World War II, have lost influence in part through failures to evolve with global realities — a problem reflected by Africa’s continued lack of a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, he noted. “The African Union and the [African] regional economic commissions,” such as ECOWAS, “face the same problem” of corroded influence, he said. “What that leads to is rule by force, politics pursued through violence, and the creation of regional potentates, often by forces external to the region.”

The roots of the world’s crisis of multilateralism include “hypocrisy in the international community,” said Francis Béhanzin, a former army general from Benin who has worked to mediate regional crises, notably as ECOWAS’ recent commissioner for political affairs, peace and security.

Béhanzin underscored the failures by leading powers to treat peoples and whole regions with equal value, and proposed an example. He noted that ECOWAS developed a broad plan for confronting extremism and violence through the improved governance and human security that he and others agreed lie at the root of the Sahel’s crises. That plan, prepared in 2019, required a budget of $2.3 billion but “did not receive a kopek from 2020 to 2024,” he said. By contrast, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered tens of billions of dollars in immediate Western assistance, such as $44 billion in U.S. military aid over the past 24 months, he noted.

No Loss of Hope

Béhanzin and Coulibaly both stressed that policymakers should not see the announced withdrawal from ECOWAS of the three junta-led nations — Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso — as definitive. First, those pullouts cannot be immediate under the treaty binding ECOWAS members, which requires a year’s notice for any pullout to take effect. Coulibaly underscored that deepened isolation through such a withdrawal will be self-defeating for those countries and their landlocked populations and economies. And, Béhanzin stressed, a dialogue continues among ECOWAS members and the juntas.

The changes of recent years have eroded ECOWAS former effectiveness in supporting stability and democracy in the region so that in a sense, “that engine has broken down,” Coulibaly said. “But that does not mean it cannot be repaired.”

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