SAHELIAN AFRICA IS BACK again in full reckoning, following major political decisions taken within and outside the region. Those decisions are likely to have far-reaching effects on the region in the immediate aftermath and in the long term. Mali was the epicentre of these recent remarkable events that prompted those decisions, which were triggered by the removal of the leaders of the transitional government installed eight months ago after a coup d’etat. Assimi Goita, a prominent figure in the events that led to that change of government, has launched another coup d’etat, this time, declaring himself as the leader of another transitional government. For once, the political leaders and heads of governments in the countries that make up the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) proved that they had the spine to stand and could act decisively on issues. They swiftly condemned the overthrow of the eight months old government by Colonel Assimi Goita and rejected his self-proclamation as the new head of the country’s government.
ECOWAS leaders rose in unison to condemn the imposition of a military leader in a country that was already practising democratic governance, albeit with some notable flaws. Despite spirited attempts by Goita to legalise his coup by a court’s pronouncement and his efforts to officially attend the ECOWAS meeting that came up subsequently, the ECOWAS leaders refused to extend to him the courtesies, protocols and privileges given to heads of governments, thus portraying him as an outcast in that club. Whether all of those who made the decision to reject Goita as leader were morally qualified to do so, however, is another subject altogether. Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé, presidents of Ivory Coast and Guinea Conakry respectively, took office for the third term through the backdoor, subverting the will of the people and betraying their trust by tinkering with the Constitutions of their respective countries to allow them run beyond approved term limits. Whether these are fundamentally different from Goita’s coup in Mali remains an interesting topic as both took decisions to grab power or keep unconstitutionally, using force and intimidation of opposition candidates and their followers.
In every political dispensation, political leaders have detractors and defenders alike; just as Ouattara and Condé have, so does Goita. But the sign languages and symbols displayed by those who made public demonstrations in support of Goita’s government takeover speak volume, provide easy clues to the powers at work behind the scenes as they give real cause for unease – not just about Mali, but also about the Sahelian zone and the Sub-Saharan Africa on a wider note. One man was sighted with a placard that read “à bas la France,” meaning “down with France.” Another person was seen holding the Russian flag aloft. Juxtaposition of these two symbols has diplomatic implications. For Mali that has been under the control of France – even if loosely – since Mali’s independence to be so derided, disparaged and disdained publicly while Russian flag was so openly and conspicuously displayed by Goita’s supporters without any hindrance or reprimand by security agents was not an oversight or an error. It should be better taken as an official acknowledgment and communication of strategic diplomatic shift of emphasis, allegiance and alliance. No one should make any mistake about this. What is a loss to France might well become a gain to Russia.
It should not be surprising therefore to hear last week of the decision of France to change its approach on military intervention in Mali from that of collaboration with Malian authorities to that of independent operations as well as a decision to downsize French forces within the Sahel. The implications of these are clear. The g5 Sahelian countries will take a hit, just as the impacts will spread through Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, and it will be extended to Nigeria. Meanwhile, the northern Nigeria has been the hotbed of fugitive miscreants and terrorists that have been operating across national borders of Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria. The safety and security of lives, social life, economic activities and food security across the Sahel will be impaired in ways beyond expectations. The effort towards greening the Sahelian belt through the much-touted Great Green Wall will suffer further setback as this same Sahelian zone is the area hosting the camps of many terrorist organisations, some of which are at opposed to each other. Such an ambition will therefore be jeopardised by terrorism.
Although the interventions of France in the Sahel belt, particularly in West Africa was not borne out of sheer altruism, France has nonetheless tried to play a stabilising role within the region. Its role has not necessarily been that of a neutral arbiter as it could be inferred from the acquiescence and tacit support given to the 27 year old soldier son of Idriss Deby who was recently allowed to succeed his own father in a country that was supposedly under democratic governance – no doubt his father transmuted from military to civilian rule. France didn’t lift a voice in opposition, nor did it officially decry such a decision, and did not suggest that an election be held to find a democratic successor to the fallen Deby, even though it needed not meddle in the internal affairs of Chad as a sovereign state. The notoriety of France in lopsided diplomatic relationship with its former African colonies was tacitly agreed to during a recent visit of President Emmanuel Macron to Rwanda where he apologised to the country for taking sides in the 1994 genocide. It is not a hidden issue that Paul Kagame, another African despot steered Rwanda away from a francophone to an Anglophone country shortly after taking over power. That was no doubt in protest against the role of France in the genocide. Realising the rising international profile of Rwanda, France strategists must have seen the folly of letting Rwanda go Anglophone, a decision that is not limited to lingual franca but also extends to diplomatic relations. The subtle efforts to win back Rwanda into its fold are therefore understandable.
To understand the disposition of France towards its African outposts, observe that the leaders of the aforementioned countries – Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry and Rwanda, with links to France – are despots, with Rwanda’s Kagame already setting term limits for himself that could well make him life president. It is hoped that Ouattara and Condé will not go the same length. These trends call to question the commitment of France to democratic governance in Africa. In what sounded like an admonition or a note of warning by The Economist magazine in a March 2019 edition, it was pointed out that “Africans should take what some of their new friends tell them with a pinch of salt.” The magazine noted that although “China argues that democracy is a Western idea” and “development requires a firm hand, this message, no doubt, appeals to African strongmen, but it is bunk.” Power vacuum can have in many consequences. The coming of Russian into the fray in Mali is unsettling, but not altogether strange. It is recognised that Russia is one of the newcomers to the new type of ‘scramble for Africa’ in contemporary times. Its hands in Goita’s ascendancy may not be hidden, just as the decision of France to decouple its military from Mali’s in the Sahelian security is a telltale sign of its frustrations. Now that China is trying to sell its own brand of governance system to African countries and Russia is trying to fortify Mali’s Goita, it is time to be vigilant and wary of any act of benevolence coming from outside as this may not be in the recipient countries’ overall and long term best interest. Does Mali need external military support?.That the answer should be in the affirmative is obvious. But it also has urgent need for help in environmental services, for the survival of the resource-poor.
Undoubtedly, the natural resources of agricultural and extracted mineral commodities are the veritable motivations for these countries scrambling for Africa. They see further into the future on scientific advancement and technological development than do Africans, and they want to make the most of this to their own advantage, even when it hurts Africa. France knows what it gets from these countries as Cameroonian bananas are sold in French supermarkets, and uranium from Niger Republic provides nearly three quarters of electricity for France and two-thirds of WAEMU countries’ foreign reserves are warehoused in by France, a boost to its own economy. Why would France sit back and let these slip through its fingers like sand grains through the fingers of a toddler?
The rising level of poverty in the Sub-Saharan Africa in general and the threats to food security in the Sahel are further compounded by the climate change and the security complications within the zone. Just as the ECOWAS heads swiftly rose up against Goita and treated his government as repugnant, the same set of leaders – many of which signed up to Paris Climate Accord during the COP 21 – need to rise up against the deteriorating climatic conditions of the countries with the largest and vast landmass within the region. The challenge should be extended continent-wide through the African Union (AU). The link between environmental degradation, human activities in quest of livelihoods and survival, policies, institutions and various processes is already well established, although the manifestations may take many different forms depending on location. What is common to many African countries is the negative trend in environment events, the most recent of which was Goma in the DR Congo. Satellite imagery of vegetation in Africa does not present a cause for cheers. As the population growth and urban expansion become the norm, deliberate policy decisions and actions are urgently needed to put the continent of Africa in a safe mode. The vast land in the Sahel could serve as sanctuary for solar and wind farms that can help promote green energy and whatever good reasons support its adoption. But the region needs to be safe and secure in the first place. Only then can the ideals of green economy and mitigation against climate change and global warming be effective within the continent. But the romance with the various countries trooping into Africa must be done based on sound discretion, not on expediency.
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