top of page
  • Human Rights Research Center

The West African Coup Belt and its Waning Humanitarian Situation - Part 2

Author: Fahad Mirza

April 16, 2024



Introduction/Updates


Since 2020, there have been nine coup attempts across West Africa, Central Africa, and the Sahel region. Countries such as Mali, Chad, Guinea, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Niger, and most recently Gabon, have witnessed the overthrow of their democratically elected leaders, who have been subsequently replaced with military juntas. These coups have precipitated a dire humanitarian crisis in what is now termed “The Coup Belt.”


In part 1 of this 3 part series, we examined the domestic factors that led to each of these coups, discussed Africa’s history with coups, and highlighted how the humanitarian situation in many of these countries has worsened since the coups.


In part 2, we will delve into the role of resentment towards former colonial powers in fueling these conflicts, analyze the reactions of geopolitical actors in and out of Africa to these coups, and assess what their response means for the future of the region.    


France

A common factor with all nine coup attempts discussed in this series was a growing anti-French sentiment. Six of the seven countries in the Coup Belt are former French colonies and in the modern era France has maintained a military presence throughout Africa. Many in the region still bear the painful memories of French colonialism. Emmanuel Macron, the first French President born after the end of colonial rule, has called France’s colonial past in Africa “a crime against humanity” and says “France established human rights in Algeria. It simply forgot to abide by them.”


Françafrique has long been used as a term to describe France’s informal sphere of influence on its former African colonies. Through a sustained military, economic, and socio-political presence, France has historically maintained a vested interest in the development of its former colonies in West and Central Africa. The term “Francafrique” initially had a positive connotation, at least among the French, to describe a paternal bond France had with its former African colonies. However, many in Africa see Francafrique as a means of neo-colonial rule and point to policies in service of the doctrine as ways France maintains its control over them. 


Throughout recent years and during the coups, the term has been increasingly used as a rallying cry against French influence in Africa. For example, after the coup in Niger, in a protest against French military forces still in the country, protesters slit the throat of a goat dressed in French colors and carried coffins draped in French flags outside a French military base. Such protests proved effective as well, as the last French troops in Niger, who had been deployed to help combat the Islamist terror groups, left the country.


As discussed in part 1, there is a major generational aspect to the coups with the majority of new heads of state in Africa’s coup belt being millennials and Ibrahim Traoré of Burkina Faso being the world’s youngest currently serving head of state. Much of the anti-French sentiment involved in these coups is part of a growing desire to break with the old ways of thinking. The younger generation who are the majority in many of these countries have no attachment or love for France the way their grandparents and parents did. Despite Macron’s desire to reframe France’s relationship with Africa as an equal partnership, decades of anti-French resentment in the region have led to a new generation of leaders looking for new international partners beyond France.


Russia

A number of the military coup leaders throughout the region have found promising partnerships with Russia and Russian-linked private military groups such as the Wagner Group. With France’s influence in Africa receding in recent years, Russia has moved to fill that gap and offer itself as an alternative to the West. This alternative is extremely appealing to recently ascended coup leaders in Africa as they can get similar support they received from the West without the condemnation and conditionality their human rights abuses put on support. The absence of scrutiny from Russia is likely to lead to an escalation of human rights abuses from these coup belt countries.


While Russian involvement in Africa is not new, the Soviet Union supported socialist governments and anti-colonial forces throughout the Cold War, in the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in Russian involvement in African affairs. Since 2018, Russian arms transfers have poured into Africa, providing 40% of arms imported by African countries.


Disinformation campaigns have also boosted Russian influence, through anti-colonialist memes that have turned into action in the streets of Chad, Mali, and elsewhere. These efforts appear to have paid dividends for Russia at the U.N., where in repeated U.N. General Assembly votes several African nations have either voted against or abstained from condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine. Last year, protestors waved Russian flags following a coup in Burkina Faso and again in Niger’s coup.


Russia’s increasing popularity in the coup belt has been due in large part to the work of Russian-backed private military companies, or PMCs, most notably The Wagner Group. Wagner has been most active in the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya, Mali, and Sudan, offering a wide variety of services to the civilian and military leadership in their countries. Combat operations, security training, and disinformation operations are just some of the nefarious activities Wagner has undertaken in the coup belt.


Wagner’s status as a PMC limits the financial costs of Russian intervention and gives the Kremlin plausible deniability, allowing it to hide personnel losses from the Russian public while simultaneously using Russian military infrastructure.


In some cases, Wagner’s involvement in Africa has resulted in alleged human rights violations and exacerbated regional insecurity. The group has been reportedly supplying Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces militia with missiles during its war against the Sudanese army. Wagner troops also operate in the same areas as the UN peacekeeping mission in CAR, threatening the United Nation’s ability to protect civilians.


Wagner’s main role in supporting Russia’s interests in Africa has been to commit atrocities in order to secure precious mineral resources such as diamond and gold mines. Additionally, they have also undertaken their own PR through their disinformation campaigns. Often stoking anti-French and anti-Western sentiment in order to distance the population from the West while pushing them to embrace Russia.


One such effort in CAR involved Wagner starting a rival beer company to displace the very popular French beer brand Castel. Reports also suggest that Wagner fighters were behind an arson attempt of local Castel brewery seemingly in an attempt to further displace the brand from the area. Beer is a very important cultural symbol in CAR and pushing out French beer from the country is part of a larger push to drive out Western brands from Africa as a whole.


Meanwhile, the group has continued to expand its foothold in the Sahel. Recently leaked U.S. intelligence has revealed that Wagner was working with Chadian rebels to oust the country’s transitional president, and some analysts predict that Burkina Faso could soon hire Wagner to help counter a growing jihadi insurgency after France withdrew its troops from the country earlier this year. However, following Wagner’s attempted coup in Russia itself and the death of the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner forces may start to be replaced by Russia’s new paramilitary organization, Africa Corp.



USA

The US response to the numerous coups in the Sahel has been highly inconsistent. In response to the coup in Burkina Faso, the US halted nearly $160 million less than a month after the January 2020 coup. In contrast they did not even recognize the July 26th coup as a coup in Niger until October of 2023. The reason for this is because Niger represented a significant investment the US had made to try to maintain some foothold in the region as part of its counterterrorism efforts. One former US envoy for African affairs said prior to the coup, “Niger is a line in the sand for stopping this trend,” referring to the trend of coups in the region. With the fall of Niger to yet another military coup, the US is at a turning point in their foreign policy towards the region.


As stated previously, Russia has largely superseded the West as an international partner for the Sahel region. The US does not seem inclined to reassert influence in the region anytime soon, instead prioritizing efforts to aid Ukraine, combat China, and address the complex situation in the Middle East following the October 7th attack on Israel.


The withdrawal of Western forces, coupled with the rise of unstable military regimes, has left the region in a vulnerable state. Much of the driving mission for these Western forces in Africa was to combat significant terrorist activity. Much like France, the US had been working with Nigerian security forces to combat the threat of Islamist terror groups.  With the West being driven out, the region has had to largely fend for itself or rely on Russia and its PMCs. In part 3, we will discuss how terrorism has played a role in instigating these coups and has been permitted to thrive under these military juntas.

Comments


bottom of page