15.01.2024 Author: Aleksei Bolshakov

The Big Game in the Sahel Style: Geopolitical Ambitions of Russia, the US and France in the Sahel Region


During the last several years, the situation in the Sahel region has undergone significant changes. Coups d’Etat have consistently taken place in Mali, Burkina-Faso, Niger and Gabon. Realizing their own significance in the multipolar world, African countries are more and more drifting away from the former colonial powers, which had used them for centuries as a cheap source of natural resources. Such perturbations in the region are giving way to a new span of the geopolitical confrontation between key players on the international political arena. The reluctance to lose such a hefty pie has countries bumping heads in the Sahel region.

The Sahel in Africa is not a region, where borders are set by law, like those between states. Nature has set its own borders here, by creating a unique landscape. A more precise definition can be found in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia: the Sahel (from Arabic ‘coast, shore’) is a narrow strip (320-480 km) of semideserts and deserted savannas in Africa and a transition zone between the Sahara desert and the typical Sudanese landscapes. It stretches from Mauritania and Senegal over Mali, the Upper Volta and Niger to Chad and Sudan in the East.

Despite the fact that the Sahel is considered one of the poorest and most unstable regions in the world today, trade relations have existed here since the 11th and 12th centuries. The region used to be a real connecting link between North Africa and the West African coast. Several kingdoms and empires were established here, such as Songhai, Kanem-Bornu, Mossi, Bambara, etc.

Nowadays, speaking about the Sahel means drawing focus on six central states: Senegal, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina-Faso and Mauritania. From these six states, five have formed the G5 Sahel (Senegal is not a G5S member).

The G5 Sahel seeks to fight terrorism in the region, developing education and supplying the population in the region with electricity and water. According to the data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), nearly 40% of the population in the region do not have access to drinking water, and 70% live in poor sanitary conditions.

The Sahel region is extremely exposed to climate changes like draught, which affects food safety.

Speaking about the increased interest of international players to the Sahel region, several factors should be taken into consideration: First, natural resources, such as uranium, oil, gas and gold. In the context of global energy deficit, the value of the Sahelian reserves is increasing. Second, fight with terrorism. A number of terrorist groups are present in the region, such as “The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad” (banned in the Russian Federation), “Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb countries” (banned in the Russian Federation) as well as many other movements and groups, considered terrorist and extremist organizations.

A number of states, including France, the United States, Russia, and China, fear the spread of the Islamist terrorist threat not only to the Sahel region and the neighboring areas, but also to the rest of the world, which could undermine the international security system.

The West and the Sahel: Abusive Relations Can Never Be Stable

The military coups in the Sahel over the past three years indicate a significant decline in the external influence of the United States in Africa. The Biden administration seems to be paralyzed and remains focused on an ideological agenda, torn away from Africa’s economic needs. What has been called the “charm offensive” of the White House on Africa, has failed, and Joe Biden is apparently unable to change his own strategy.

The “peace through force” approach of the previous US administration made it clear to the players wishing to put pressure on the United States that they risked harming the US national security interests. However, it is clear that today the White House has lost its former significance in the region.

The US’s desire to influence the life in the Sahel region is questionable because it has no leadership role and has not shown any desire to be involved in the process. Most likely, at this point, the Biden administration is unable to define the national interests of the United States in the region and what results it aims to achieve.

We should also not forget large-scale and protracted American and French military activities in the region. Such military interventions, like the “Operation Barkhane,” have helped to strengthen anti-Western sentiments in the region and also enabled Russia and China, viewed by the West as geopolitical rivals, to expand their influence.

The examples of “protracted wars” for the US leadership are Vietnam and Afghanistan, and they will not want to repeat them in the regions that are not on top agenda of the US foreign policy. In this respect, Washington might think that the costs of positioning itself as a domineering force in the region outweigh the benefits, at least in the short or middle terms.

When speaking about geopolitical and geostrategic ambitions of France, the Sahel region is viewed by the French leadership as a geographic bridge between the Mediterranean and the Global South. Apart from the United States, the French presence in the region is due to more concrete reasons. Safe access to the uranium resources of Niger or Gabon for covering French energy needs is the main economic interest of Paris. The other factor is preserving political hegemony, based on the former colonial rule.

The wave of Pan-Africanism, with the idea of “anti-Westernism” in its center, mobilized most of the military and political elites in the Sahel countries and was the most legitimate tool for the transition of power from one force to another. The new military elites excluded France and those African leaders who had close relations with Paris, from the regional political system.

One of the main reasons is the incompetence of France in fighting terrorism in the region. Their efforts to fight with armed groups in the Sahel countries are focused primarily on the military potential of these movements. The French leadership has ignored ethnic bases and social and economic connections that ensure “success” of terrorist groups. Are the French and US leaderships ready to bear expenses necessary for the military intervention in the region? Or will they prefer to cut their losses and withdraw from the Sahel?

It becomes more and more difficult for the French leadership to assert its diplomatic, economic and cultural influence on the African continent on the whole and in the Sahel region in particular. Shiny slogans about financing only mask the desire to retain access to the African resources, including the sponsoring of pro-French dictatorships. This situation has a negative impact on the image of France that become a “mid-level country,” losing its political influence not only in developing countries, but also in its former colonies.

Russia and the Sahel: Love at First Sight

We can find plenty of photos on the Internet, showing young people in West African countries waving flags during protests or riding motorcycles, decorated with the Russian tricolor across towns. Tailors, sitting in narrow streets, sew dozens of them every day, and taxi drivers decorate their dashboards with them.

In Western and Central Africa, the Russian flag together with Russian arms and mercenaries is becoming a more noticeable sign of a wider geopolitical shift in the region.

The interests of Russia are not only connected with expanding its influence on yet another country or with natural resources, but also with Pan-African projects in the region. And the trans-Saharan gas pipeline is an example of it.

Russia is not interested in establishing a “Russafrica” (like Franceafrique), as Moscow wants to create conditions for mutually beneficial economic partnerships and uses the Sahel as a show window for demonstrating the effectiveness of its security services. The Russian presence in the region caused the transformation of the regional order from the West dominance to a more flexible and competitive order.

The security system in the region deserves special attention. Russian private military companies play a special role in it. PMC Wagner is the most well-known brand. Wagner has a vast experience in fighting terrorist groups in Mali and the Central African Republic and is viewed as a key source of stability and peace in the region.

The statistics from the Global Terrorism Database are quite representative: there has been a significant decline in the terrorist activity of Islamist groups in the region since the arrival of Russian career officers and Wagner.

The Sahel region is a relatively new geopolitical phenomenon. It features weak states and strong transnational non-governmental actors: terrorist organizations and criminal network that are often closely interlocked with each other.

Still, the order in the region remained largely unipolar. France was a dominant superpower in the Saharan-Sahel region. The French approach towards the fight without security turned out to be ineffective, and Russia has partially filled the formed vacuum.

It is still too early to speak about the end of this regional “Big Game,” although its mere existence proves the comeback of a long-forgotten rivalry between the superpowers and can definitely become the first shot in the upcoming second fight for Africa.


Alexey Bolshakov, international journalist, exclusively for the internet journal “New Eastern Outlook

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