Over the past few weeks, the United States and France have pledged considerable extra funds to strengthening their military presence in Africa’s Sahel region – a narrow, arid band of land stretching across the continent from west to east just south of the Sahara desert. This has been prompted by growing Western fears of destabilisation. There has been concern that Islamist groups were establishing themselves in the vast spaces between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea.
Washington and Paris have promised to help bolster the security of allied governments from Mali in the west to Djibouti in the east. Most of these countries have porous borders and suffer internal security problems or conflicts.
Mali , for example, has endured a long-running civil war fuelled by the return of armed fighters from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. These fighters launched a separatist struggle that was quickly hijacked by Islamist movements like Ansare Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Niger on the other hand has become embroiled, along with Cameroon and Chad, in Nigeria’s war against the Boko Haram terrorist group. Other conflicts continue in the Central African Republic , South Sudan and Darfur in Sudan .
France has had a considerable military role in West and Central Africa, long after it’s colonial role ended in the early 1960s. Its military seeks to protect friendly governments and to defend longstanding French economic interests. These interests include particularly Niger’s uranium.
The US, in a less overt manner, has a surprisingly widespread military presence in Africa. This has increased in recent years with growing instability in the Sahel region. America is now taking a more overt approach with more basing facilities as well as surveillance and training missions. This includes supporting friendly states and establishing a stronger combat-capable presence.
But Western interest in the Sahel region is not merely about security. It has also been linked by some to the West’s desire to protect vital natural resources such as oil, gas and uranium. The geographer and Africa specialist, Padraig Carmody, has called this a new scramble for Africa .
Global chessboard of the 21st century
The arid, desert or semi-desert belt across the Sahel has been described as “a key territory on the global chessboard of the 21st century”. It is not just the security that is at stake but also the natural resource value of the region to the West, China and Japan.
Algeria has major oil and gas resources, Niger supplies uranium for France’s nuclear programmes and Chad is now an oil producer. There are believed to be untapped oil and gas fields in Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Former US Ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and Special Envoy to Sudan, Princeton Lyman, has pointed out that the West and China are competing fiercely for access to Africa’s mineral resources and for both political influence and commercial advantage.
It comes as no surprise that both China and Japan have recently increased their naval presence in the Horn of Africa. The naval facilities being established in Djibouti are ostensibly to combat piracy along the Indian Ocean littoral. But they have clear elements of a scramble for a major presence in Africa, at a time of competition over access to Africa’s mineral resources.
As the Washington Post has pointedly observed, US’s growing presence and role in Niger covering what has previously been seen as mainly a French area of interest and influence is a significant strategic move.
Gaddafi aftershocks still being felt
The US is also spending a considerable sum on developing a military base at Agadez in central Niger. From here drones could be launched for surveillance or combat missions across the Sahel and as far north as Libya.
The base would add to the existing US presence in Niger. It already shares facilities in the capital Niamey with French forces engaged in Operations Barkhane against Islamist insurgent groups in Mali. It also provides intelligence on Boko Haram militants in northern Nigeria, Niger, Chad and northern Cameroon to the governments of those states.
Prof Tony Chafer of Portsmouth University has pointed out that the heightened Western fear for stability and strategic resources in North and West Africa has led to unprecedented US-French cooperation. The two are working together in combating perceived enemies in the region and cooperating to strengthen the military capabilities of countries like Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Mali.
The cooperation has developed gradually since the early 2000s. But the exodus of experienced and well-armed fighters from post-Gaddafi Libya into the region triggered a shock wave.
French deployments have been bolstered with over 3,000 troops spread across the region. They are engaged with Islamist groups in Mali and backing UN efforts to keep the peace between violent factions in the Central African Republic. The French government has said its presence will be reduced to 300 troops by the end of the year.
History of Western intervention
There is a history of Western security interventions in a region where rebel or Islamist groups are still active. The groups, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), pose a serious security threat in a number of countries. The list of active groups also includes Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine and Boko Haram.
Up until now, US military facilities in Africa have always fallen short of being US bases. No country in Africa has been willing to host the US military command for Africa, AFRICOM, and it has had to locate its HQ in Stuttgart in Germany.
But in 2015, the commander of Africom, General David Rodriguez, admitted that in addition to Djibouti, America had 11 “cooperative security locations” in sub-Saharan Africa. These had been upgraded in the years since 9/11. Yet this is not the full story. US forces have access to more than 60 outposts of various sorts from secure warehouses for equipment to surveillance bases, fuel depots, training camps and port facilities in 34 African states.
The pro-Western governments are willing to accept Western assistance. This is largely because of the huge territories they need to police and the small armies they are able to maintain. This is not to mention a paucity of advanced aircraft, drones and other surveillance equipment. Mali, for example, has only 7,500 military personnel, 15 aircraft and nine helicopters but its land area is a massive 1,240,192 square kilometres.