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Igniting conflict in the heart of Africa

The perils of US empire have driven a spiral of violence in the Sahel

War ZonesAfrica

US Marines wait to be extracted by helicopter during a military exercise in Cap Draa, Morocco, April 16, 2012. Photo courtesy Defense Imagery/Wikimedia Commons.

Decades of poverty, ethnic strife and state repression cannot explain the recent, dramatic rise in violence in Africa’s Sahel. The Sahel is now said to be the epicentre of global terrorism, with terrorism deaths in the region accounting for 43 percent of total terrorism deaths globally. While the Sahel had historically been a rear base for jihadism, it only became a frontline of conflict in 2012 when ethnic Tuareg and Arab fighters launched an insurgency in northern Mali after the destruction of the Libyan state. Since then, armed conflict has spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, and further south to northern Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

The surge in bloodletting has been driven in large part by the misdeeds of US empire, starting with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya by NATO forces in 2011. Montréal Professor Maximilian Forte, author of Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa and AFRICOM, NATO and the 2011 War on Libya, combed through several hundred diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tripoli that were published by Wikileaks. From that trove, Forte concluded that Washington pursued several geopolitical objectives in toppling Gaddafi, chief among them access in Libya for US companies that had been locked out under the Gaddafi regime, access to petroleum resources sought after by China and Russia, and increasing the presence of AFRICOM, the US Defense Department’s regional command on the African continent which is part of Washington’s ostensible War on Terror.

NATO’s US-led intervention—involving France, Italy, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Belgium and Norway—could not have been more disastrous. It unleashed civil war and led to weapons proliferation, organized crime and human trafficking throughout the Sahel.

It also ignited battles across the Sahel. The semi-nomadic Tuareg had longstanding grievances against the governments of Mali, Niger and former colonial ruler France; their tribe had been falsely promised a nation of their own but were marginalized and deprived of pastures after the creation of post-colonial states. Many went to Libya in the 1970s where Gaddafi welcomed them into his military forces. After Gaddafi’s overthrow, the stateless Tuareg returned to Mali to launch their rebellion, creating fertile ground for the arrival in the Sahel of other groups, including Islamic fighters.

“Killing Gaddafi created a wave of violence across the Sahel, particularly in the Liptako Gourma area (a region in central Sahel which borders Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger) that continues to this day,” says David Smith, who has worked extensively in the Sahel, establishing radio networks in the Lake Chad Basin. Smith has worked on media projects in conflict zones throughout Africa, having founded Radio Okapi in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The Touareg who returned to Mali from Libya had lots of cash and lots of arms, and … are determined to carve out a homeland, known as Azawad, in northern Mali. The Bambara, Mali’s majority ethnic group, do not treat them well; it is a sort of Malian apartheid,” he told me during a recent trip to his hometown, Montréal.

In the worst affected areas of Burkina Faso, civilians are trapped in a cycle of violent reprisals between Islamic groups such as Ansaroul Islam and the Islamic State in the Sahel, on one hand, and armed forces and Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland, known as VDPs, on the other. In besieged villages, residents flee in order to survive. Those who stay, such as the elderly, face violence and deprivation. Many civilians join armed groups for economic survival.

“People on all sides of whatever groupuscules are looking for safety and protection for their families, something to eat, and ideally a source of income as well. Sometimes it appears that such luxuries are only attainable through belonging to a jihadist group or a militia,” Smith explained. “There’s nowhere to hide—unless you are a member of the ruling class.”

Rather than create stability in the Sahel, AFRICOM has actually amplified the violence. A spate of coups in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali were led by commanders who had been trained by AFRICOM. The Sahel is also rife with mercenary outfits such as Blackwater and Bancroft—both are private US military and security companies—and Russia’s Wagner. “War is big business—the Sahel is off most Western radar, so weapons can be sold and tested there. It’s only Africans or African terrorists (sic) who are losing their lives,” Smith lamented.

“AFRICOM is part of the problem,” he added.

US journalist Nick Turse has chronicled how US military training in the Sahel has fueled instability despite claims of providing security and prosperity. A record 15 officers who benefited from US security assistance have been involved in 12 coups in West Africa and the greater Sahel during the War on Terror. The list includes officers from Burkina Faso (2014, 2015, and twice in 2022); Chad (2021); Gambia (2014); Guinea (2021); Mali (2012, 2020, and 2021); Mauritania (2008); and Niger (2023). At least five leaders of the Nigerien junta, for example, received American assistance, according to a US official. They, in turn, appointed five US-trained members of the Nigerien security forces to serve as that country’s governors.

Since the US launched its counterterrorism measures in Somalia and the Saharan Sahel, there has been an alarming spike in terrorist attacks. Twenty years of the War on Terror has created more and stronger enemies. Violence by jihadist groups in Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger increased by 70 percent in 2021, and Burkina Faso alone appears to be the country where 58 percent of all violent events in the Sahel now take place.

All this begs the question: why is the US on the African continent? Lt. General Dagvin Anderson, who commanded US Special Forces operations in Africa until 2022 before being appointed as director for joint force development of the Joint Staff, laid out Washington’s interests in Africa, rather starkly:

The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has chosen to compete for natural resources, and to extract those resources for their own value. Obviously, there’s lots of oil and natural gas; there’s rare earth minerals that are vital to our technology sector on the continent; there’s precious metals. These are things the other powers—China and Russia—are trying to corner the market on or to gain access [to]. There’s also, if you look at the African continent, no matter which way you go, key passages that are important for our national security to ensure that we have, and that the world has, free access to—whether that’s coming through the Straits of Gibraltar by Morocco, going through the Mediterranean down through the Suez Canal, or through the Red Sea out through the Bab al Mandab straits by Somalia. All of that is key terrain on key waterways. And then to go around the other way, the long way around Africa—obviously, a huge land mass—and being able to have the key ports where you can have your port calls for refueling, refitting, etc., are absolutely vital.
Africa sits on key terrain, and it’s important that we engage. What I’ve seen is that all of these nations, pretty much every nation in Africa, has a concern about violent extremism and terrorism. And we bring great credibility and great value—Special Operations—to help them address that security concern. Being able to partner with them and address that security concern gives us access, gives us engagement opportunity and influence in order to then compete with these other global powers—China and Russia—to ensure we have access and the world has access to these resources as well that are vital to our economies.

It is axiomatic that America is losing the War on Terror, but that no longer seems the point. The misery of Africans has never been a Western geopolitical concern. It is not controversial, either, to state that the West is waging a shadow war in the Sahel in order to exploit the region’s formidable natural resources. The US Department of Defense has looked closely at Africa to supply rare earth strategic minerals, as part of a plan to find diversified reserves outside of China. The push comes as China threatens to curb exports to the United States of rare earths, a group of 17 minerals used in a plethora of military equipment and high-tech consumer electronics (gadolinium, dysprosium, and neodymium are a few of these). France is also interested in these minerals and has made no secret of needing continuous access to Niger’s uranium.

On the African continent, we see a series of networks, reinforcing one another, often operating outside the law, with Western interlopers or facilitators at the centre. African elites and Western interlopers have long benefitted from this old paradigm at the expense of the African people. I use the term interloper because the Westerners who ingratiate themselves into the African economic and political arena are often not invited by the people who have the greatest stake—who have the most to gain or lose.

The facts on the ground show that Western imperialist policies for Africa—if we needed more evidence of this—are inherently violent, have created failed states and are unsustainable. While it is not possible to undo history, it is possible for Africans to make choices that increase their sovereignty instead of undermining it.

Judi Rever is a journalist from Montréal and is the author of In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.


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