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By RW Johnson
The ferocity of the Hamas-Israel war has tended rather to blot out the news from Ukraine and other strife-torn theatres. One of these is the Sahel. Historically this was a region dominated by France and, indeed, haunted by stories of French neo-colonial control.
Russia’s Wagner Group moved into the Central African Republic where it did a lucrative trade of providing security for its puppet regime there in return for the proceeds from a local gold mine. This seems to have caught the imagination of the various other military regimes in the region. First the soldiers running Mali booted the French out and installed Wagner in their place and the same then happened both in Burkina Faso and then in Niger.
The French were indignant for they have long provided protection for all these regimes from Islamist guerrillas linked to ISIS or al-Qaeda. And there was no doubt that the French were extremely good at their job. Their long experience with the Foreign Legion fighting insurgencies in and bordering the Sahara has stood them in good stead – and they have also been able to twist the arms of some of their European neighbours to assist them as well.
The key elements of the French effort were excellent intelligence sources, rapid mobility, the intensive use of helicopter gunships and special forces. However, when these new military regimes decided to give the French their marching orders, the French needed no second bidding and every last man and helicopter has departed for France, leaving the field clear for Wagner. But while the Wagner forces are nothing if not ruthless and predatory, they don’t compare well with the French in sophistication, equipment levels or experience of the area.
The results are now showing. Mali’s two major centres, Bamako (the capital) and Tiumbuktu are currently both under siege from the Jihadists, who have made major gains. In Burkina Faso, where the ruling junta thwarted another coup just last month, the government is demanding that foreign mining concerns active in their country should pay them in gold in order to finance the continuing war with the Jihadists.
It seems likely that the Malian authorities will soon do the same. The point is that here too the war is not going well. Meanwhile the situation in Niger has also deteriorated and the junta in Niamey seems somewhat shaken by the way the French have removed every vestige of their presence. There are, indeed, reports that the junta is panicking as the insurgents gain ground and there is even talk of re-contacting the French. Thus far this has resulted in a dusty response from Paris, for President Macron was furious at the way France was summarily booted out after many years of protecting the state.
Part of the problem is that Wagner has proved a broken reed. With its former commander, Prigozhin, now dead – presumably at Putin’s hands – the outfit may count for less. And already much of its equipment, including almost all the crucial helicopter gunships, have been shipped back to make up for losses suffered in Ukraine. Indeed, some enquiries have reached South Africa from Wagner officials desperate to locate spare parts for the Mi-17 Hip light helicopter and the much heavier Mi-24 Hind. The evidence to date suggests that Russia has its hands full with Ukraine and can’t easily support other smaller wars in Africa. Benin had ordered a number of Mi-17s from Russia but was told last month that the order could not be fulfilled due to the demands of the Ukraine war.
More worrying still is the fact that there are fears of the Jihadist menace spreading to many more countries in West Africa. Already, of course, Boko Haram has been a constant and deadly presence in Nigeria for ten years now, but there are worries that Jihadist activity might also spread to Cameroun, Togo, Benin, Ghana, Guinea and Ivory Coast. The question is whether any Western country or countries would be willing to step in to prevent such a threatening development.
France was by far the most active and experienced of the Western nations in this regard and it is extremely doubtful if any other Western country has the appetite for such an engagement. But if that is the case then we may need to anticipate the setting up of one or more “independent” ISIS caliphates in the Sahel. Everything we have seen so far suggests that this would merely be the prologue to further violent Jihadist expansion. True, the USA has a major drone base at Agadez on the southern edge of the Sahara in Niger but while drones might do quite a lot of damage to Jihadist forces, there is no substitute for boots on the ground.
Yet if the West does not respond this might be tantamount to writing off large and growing parts of Africa as a permanent war zone. And as the EU is already aware, that could have all manner of knock-on effects for illegal African migration to Europe. But the larger reality, of course, is that more and more parts of Africa are becoming war zones. The Sudan and Ethiopia have been more or less continuously involved in violence for many years now, as has Somalia. The recrudescence of the M23 rebellion in the DRC reminds one that the Congo has been wracked by wars and divisions almost continuously since 1960.
The colonial era, which ended roughly in 1960, was marked by the famous Pax Colonial, an era when one could walk from one end of Africa to the other without entering a war zone. That, we were then told, was only because of colonial “pacification” and suppression. But we seem to have entered a new era of colonialist grabbing for resources – led by the Russians and the Chinese – without seeing any restoration of the Pax.
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