Africa’s Efforts at Regionalism and Global Order:  The Challenge of the Alliance of Sahelian States


Bola A. Akinterinwa 

L’Alliance des États du Sahel (AES), known in English as the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS), is the newest effort at regional integration in Africa. It is a defence pact established on September 16, 2023 by the Republic of Mali, Republic of Burkina Faso, and Republic of Niger. The declared objective is collective security in which ‘any attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of one or more contracted parties will be considered an aggression against the other parties,’ and therefore prompting the need for collective self-defence. 

This Alliance may not be confused with the Sahel Alliance comprising 26 bilateral and multilateral development partners of which 17 are full members and 9 are observers and which has the responsibility for coordinating all development cooperation initiatives in the Sahel. The Sahel Alliance was established in 2017. It not only held its Third Sahel Alliance General Assembly in Madrid, Spain on 4th April, 2022, but also recognised ‘the need to strengthen the overall partnership framework within which … actions are carried out to adapt them to the evolving contexts of intervention. It also recognised strengthening ‘collective action in prevention zones, while maintaining (its) support in the most vulnerable areas.’ 

Thus, this Sahel Alliance is completely different from the Alliance of Sahel States of only three members whose governments came to power in people’s-backed coups because of heightened anti-French sentiments and deepening terrorism-driven insecurity. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger already started to operate as a Federation with effect from 16 September, 2023, following the Liptako-Gourma Charter, a name taken from the tri-border region shared by the three countries. Its declared objective is to ‘prevent, manage, and resolve any armed rebellion or threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty… privileging peaceful and diplomatic channels, and, if necessary, to use force to deal with situations that breach peace and stability.’

This type of alliance is common with various defence pacts and organisations. For example, Article 5 of the Treaty of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) done on April 4, 1949, stipulates that whenever any Member State of the NATO is victim of an armed attack that attack is considered an attack on all other NATO Members and therefore requires all other members to assist the attacked Member in its self-defence. An armed attack, as further explained in Article 6, can be an attack on the territory, forces, vessels or aircraft of any party. The Alliance of the Sahel States is not in any way different. The Alliance should therefore be specially understood as an element of a new Federation in the Sahel that is in making. 

Africa’s Regionalism  

Indeed, Africa’s efforts at regionalisation are not simply about enhancing economic cooperation and development. It is also to bring about a change in the global order so as to stop inequality of representation suffered by Africa at various international fora. International communications is one area that the developed world has taken advantage of to feed the world with its own version of the truth. Information about Africa is always tainted and presented with bias. This prompted the reactive calls by the developing world for a new information order. 

For instance, the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO), which is always shortened to New World Information Order (NWIO) or simply to Information Order (IO), was a major objective in the 1970s. Inequality in media representations at the UNESCO, economic inequality and the need to control imperialism prompted the agitation for a NWICO in the 1970s. Nigeria played active parts in the struggle for a NWICO when Prince Tony Momoh was Information Minister under military Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari. And true enough, the UNESCO set up a commission chaired by Séan MacBride, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to look at the calls for a NWICO and challenges of global media representations and make recommendations on how to make media representation equitable. The MacBride report, entitled, ‘Many Voices, One World,’ provided the principles of a new World Information Communication Order. The extent to which this inequality of media representation has been meaningfully addressed is another problem entirely.

There was also the agitation for a New International Economic Order (NIEO). As explained by the Wikipedia, the NIEO ‘is a series of measures supported by developing countries to abolish economic colonialism and dependency through a new interdependent economy. Its primary goal was to change the global economic order and promote the integration of recently decolonised countries.’ The cardinal objective of the NIEO was to promote economic self-help and south-south cooperation, by particularly dealing with balance of payments disequilibrium, debt crisis, exchange scarcity, etc.

In the context of regionalism in Africa, it started to be an instrument of togetherness and unity of purpose, economic cooperation and development. The genesis of the development of Africa’s regionalism can be traced to the 1980 Lagos Plan of Action and particularly to the 1991 Abuja Treaty Establishing an African Economic Community. In this regard, African leaders fostered the idea of Regional Economic Communities (RECs) as basic units for continental integration. In fact, the 1991 Abuja Treaty divided Africa into five regions in its Article 1(d) for the purposes of fast tracking continental integration.

Regionalism, which is a coinage from ‘region,’ is basically an expression of political ideology and commitment to a given region with some geo-political affinities, with the ultimate objectives of enhancing politico-economic power. It is a process for self-promotion and development. And more importantly, it is a major pillar for the conduct and management of global order, shared challenges, and promoting the cultural, political, and economic interests of a given region.

Today, while the foregoing observations of regionalism are still valid, the main objective of the Alliance of Sahel States is more about reaffirmation of self-identity and not stricto sensu, to simply integrate. The Alliance is more of an anti-France protest. The anti-France dimension is better appreciated when the Burkinabe government officially announced last week that the French language would no longer be taken as the country’s lingua franca and that it would only be simply used as a working language. The immediate implication is that one of the indigenous languages will replace French language. During official meetings, any language adopted as the new official language while French and others can be used but not for official documentation of records.

Thus, this is the message that has been communicated with the formation of an Alliance of Sahel States and its global implications. The AES is designed to be a combination of military and economic cooperation as told by the Malian Defence Minister, Mr. Abdoulaye Diop. True, the Alliance is currently embarking on integration at some levels and this is being done outside of the ECOWAS regional framework.

The July 26 coup in Niger Republic has served as an opportunity and platform to sustain national unity and to ignore ECOWAS regional policies. It has also enabled self-reaffirmation and to call the bluff of France which is reported to be currently planning aggressive attacks on Niger. As a result of the coup, Niger’s ties with France have been at its lowest ebb. 

On August 3, 2023 the Niamey military junta annulled the military cooperation agreements it signed with France and which also govern the presence of the 1,500 French troops in Niger. France was given a one-month ultimatum within which to repatriate all her troops. Again, on September 12, Niger Republic similarly cancelled the military cooperation agreement signed with Benin Republic in July 2022. As noted earlier, French language has ceased to be the official language in Burkina Faso.

Additi0nally, the Abdourahamane Tchiani junta in Niamey accused Benin Republic of having authorised the stationing of ‘soldiers, mercenaries, and war materials’ on its territory in view of an aggression desired by France in collaboration with certain countries of ECOWAS against our country,’ the Niger new leader said. Thus, the new and special rapprochement among Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger is a true manifestation of sub-regional integration but which the ECOWAS does not appear to be showing any readiness to accept because it is perceived to have the potential to destabilise rather than uniting the region.

The AES and Global Order 

Three main factors serve as dynamics of the Alliance of Sahel States (AES): the recidivist character of Tuareg insurrection and terrorism, France’s inability to contain the deep-seated terrorism in spite of more than ten years of France’s Operation Serval and Operation Barkhane, and Western and ECOWAS harassment of many former French colonies under the canopy of non-acceptance of any unconstitutional change of Government in Africa. In other words, the signing of the AES is not only a response to the recidivist Tuareg insurrection in the region but also to both France’s and ECOWAS policy attitudes. Recall here that the Tuareg insurrection first began in Mali before it was extended to Burkina Faso and Niger Republic. 

In this regard, the main purpose of France’s Operation Serval and later Operation Barkhane, was to help contain the insurrection and restore peace and orderliness. However, the more effort France made to engage the insurrectionists and the longer the French tried to stay in the three Francophone West African States, the harder came the terrorist attacks. This gave an impression, rightly or wrongly, that the French have not been effective. In fact, at a point in time, the French were accused of consciously aiding and abetting the insurrectionists. Again, rightly or wrongly, it is against this background that the implications of the establishment of an AES should first be seen in the context of the Global Order.

On the issue of non-acceptance of unconstitutional changes of government, the Global Order partly preaches the sermons of human rights, liberalism, freedom of the high seas, and regionalism as a mechanism for economic growth and development. Politically, it preaches democratisation and zero tolerance for dictatorship, the genesis of which can be dated back to the La Baule Declaration by the late President François Mitterrand of France. On June 20, 1990 during the 16th Franco-African Summit in which 37 African countries participated, democratisation was made a conditionality for development aid from France. But why such a conditionality? Why did France and other Western allies support the conditionality? 

Without doubt, the Western world was seriously challenged by the then Cold War politics. There was the need to combat communism by all means possible. The conditionality of democratisation was therefore made a desideratum. In the words of President Mitterrand in his speech to the La Baule Conference, ‘it is not for France to dictate some constitutional law that would then be de facto imposed on people who have their own consciousness and their own history, and who must know how to lead towards the universal principle that is democracy. And there are no thirty-six paths to democracy.’ 

And more importantly in the same speech, President Mitterrand also repeated that ‘France does not intend to intervene in the interior affairs of friendly African nations. It has its say, it intends to pursue its work with aid, friendship, and solidarity. It does not intend to be questioned, it does not intend to abandon any African country.’ After giving some lessons on democracy to the African leaders, by particularly explaining that it is not only States that can provide liberty and that it is not only public powers that can act, President Mitterrand again reiterated that ‘we (France) do not want to intervene in interior affairs. For us, this subtle form of colonialism, which consists of permanently teaching and giving advice to African States and those who lead them, is as perverse as all other forms of colonialism. To do this would be to believe that there are superior people, who hold the truth, and others, who would not be capable of it …’

Beautiful policy declaration of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of Francophone Africa as it is, there is no disputing the fact that President Mitterrand also dictated, contrarily to the foregoing declaration of non-intention to intervene, as distinct from the notion of non-interference, what the political direction should be for all the participating African leaders in the summit. President Mitterrand put it to the African leaders that, there would no longer be development aid for countries that do not democratise. This statement is another way of intervening in the domestic questions of Francophone Africa. And true, virtually all the developed countries of the West gave active support to the French policy of no development aid for dictators. This was how the struggle against what is known today as unconstitutional changes of government or change of government by coups d’état began to be underscored. Most unfortunately however, most of the governments that came to power through alleged democratic elections have also generally ended up becoming democratic dictators, engaging in constitutional coups by tampering with their presidential tenure and by so doing becoming sit-tight presidents. 

Corruption galore, nepotism, oppression of the opposition elements, and in short, very bad governance, have become the hallmark of political governance in many parts of Africa. And perhaps most disturbingly in this case, France and her other allies that were preaching against dictatorship and bad governance could no longer make haste slowly in condemning the assaults against national constitutions. They have always kept silent in the face of very bad governance. They condone democratic, but fraudulent, constitutional manoeuvres which are another expression of non-violent coup-making and sit-tightism in power. 

For example, France and even the African Union, were silent in the case of military change of government in Chad whose Constitution clearly provides for the appropriate conditions for presidential succession when the President of the Republic is dead or unavailable. The constitution, which required the President of the Parliament to assume power and organise election within ninety days, was simply set aside and France only gave rationalisations that enabled General Mahamat Déby, the son of the late president, Déby Itno, considered the most reliable and capable of protecting French and Western interests in the Sahel, to succeed his father. Chadians protested against dynastic succession. The policy of non-acceptance of unconstitutional change of government therefore meant nothing or little to the African Union in the case of Chad.

What is perhaps more challenging for the African Union is the current controversy surrounding the constitutional referendum scheduled for today, December 17, 2023. The opposition parties have called for a ‘No’ vote or a boycott of the referendum. Daniel Eizenga and Katie Nodjimbadem noted in their report Spotlight of November 28, 2023 and entitled ‘Chad’s Constitutional Referendum  Promises a Transition without Change – Stability’ that ‘the highly controlled constitutional referendum organised by Mahamat Déby’s military junta appears intended to provide a degree of credibility to the military’s plans to hold power indefinitely.’ Chadians are vehemently opposed to the Déby dynastic succession. What will the African Union do again in this case? 

As noted by Alan Riding, of the New York Times, on June 22, 1990, France presented herself as Africa’s best friend in the industrial world. ‘Aid to the Third World cannot rely only on the French contribution…. France alone is not in a position to stop the current decline. What is needed is a worldwide effort.’ President Mitterrand promised to donate rather than lend money to the world’s 35 poorest countries, including 22 in sub-Sahara Africa, as well as reduce from 10% to 5% the interest rate paid on French loans by four African countries. ‘We must talk about democracy. You should not consider freedom to be a hidden enemy. It will be, believe me, your best friend’ President Mitterrand reportedly said.

As beautiful as this speech of Mitterrand is, ‘critics of the Government, including some African political exiles, have asserted that France is not only sustaining a series of African dictators with political support and at times military detachments, but that it has also chosen to overlook large-scale embezzlement of development resources by friendly governments that are corrupt.’ This criticism might also explain why France has always explained that she does not intend to intervene in the internal or domestic affairs of friendly countries.

While Malians, Burkinabé, and Nigériens are happy with France’s non-preparedness to intervene in their domestic affairs, they are not happy that they still pay colonial tax amounting to about $500 billion under various names to the French Central Bank. Sikhumbuzo Thobo of the Mail & Guardian noted on August 20, 2023 that colonial tax ‘allows France to appropriate about 85% of the former colonies annual income. As a result, African countries face financial difficulties, and have to borrow back their own money from the French central bank as debts. To reclaim their funds, African countries are limited to applying for no more than 20% of the transferred amount. If they seek a larger sum, it can be vetoed. France argues that it is the money it spent on buildings and infrastructure constructed more than a century ago.’ And most uninterestingly. Sikhumbuzo also said ‘any refusal by an African ruler to pay the colonial tax often leads to a coup.’

This is what largely explains the frustration of the people of Niger and the development of anti-French sentiments in recent times. This is why Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali turned to Russia as an alternative to France for possible help in containing the insurrectional terror in the Sahel. Again, this fact is in addition to Russia being a major friendly enemy of France and the other Western powers in general. 

As noted by a Switzerland-based research group, ‘All Eyes on Wagner,’ which carried out a research on the military presence of Russia in Burkina Faso since the military putsch in September 2022, and published on December 7, 2023, the number of soldiers arriving from Russia to Burkina Faso has always been on the increase. But most unfortunately, the Burkinabe have received them with much delight. The Burkinabe, like Malians and Nigériens are hostile to France because the purported development aid given to them is actually given to their elite who eventually take the money out of their countries to invest in the same donor-countries. This is just like a return to sender.

True, France is very hostile to any Russian military presence in any of the Francophone countries, primarily because of the strategic character of Niger Republic in France’s foreign policy calculations. First, Niger is the major source of uranium for France. Secondly. France is much interested in the oil and gas pipeline projects. The Niger-Benin oil pipeline, Trans-Saharan gas pipeline, the Niger-Chad oil pipeline that is connected to the Chad-Cameroon pipeline, etc., cross the Nigerien territory. If Niger now turns to Russia, France cannot have the opportunity of influencing the projects. Consequently, there is no way France can feel comfortable by losing her place of influence to Russia. The French have some significant investments in Niger. What then happens with the replacement of France with Russia?

The Alliance of States of Sahel has the great potential to be a defining factor in the foreign policy calculations of Russia and China vis-à-vis Africa in the foreseeable future for various reasons. First, the United States and France do not want to do away with Niger’s uranium resources. This is one major reason that France is determined to fight tooth and nail to restore the government of Mohammed Bazoum seen by Nigeriens as a stooge of the West. Secondly, neither France nor the United States has been able to nip in the bud the Tuareg insurrection and al-Qaeda terrorism. With the increasing arrival of Russians to the States of the Alliance, and with the Wagner Group already on the ground, the French agenda of destabilisation of Niger cannot but precipitate a regional war. Thirdly, the three countries have the potential to opt out of the ECOWAS in the same way Mauritania withdrew its membership. This may not be helpful to continental integration, especially that there will be many competing regional currencies. Fourthly, it is not only the ECOWAS that will be divided against itself, it is particularly the Francophone states that will be more divided against themselves. For instance, Benin Republic is being used as an access territory to attack Niger. As a result, Niger strained its military cooperation with Benin. In the same vein, the pro-France countries cannot but be at loggerhead with those countries not in favour of France. Consequently, the global order in the making cannot but have the AES as an issue to contend with. Fifthly, the Alliance may eventually become a theatre for a proxy war, even though the AES falls squarely under a sub-regional integration framework. 

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