France, the U.S., and the Way Forward for West Africa

France, the U.S., and the Way Forward for West Africa

There are no easy solutions or obvious paths forward for the worsening security crisis in West Africa.

Suppose one were to plot out on a map the progress of two jihadist insurgencies in Africa: the Islamic insurgency in the Maghreb and the Boko Haram insurgency. The former began in Algeria after the 2002 Algerian Civil War and has since spread east into Libya, northwest into Morocco, southwest into Mauritania, and south into Mali. The latter insurgency began in the extreme northeast of Nigeria and has since spread east into Chad, north into Niger, and west into Benin. If one were to do this, shading in each country along the way, one would see that a single, little-known country stands in the way of both insurgencies, impeding their expansion and separating their fighters in the field. That country is Burkina Faso.

Last weekend, the military government of Burkina Faso demanded that France withdraw its last 400 special forces troops from the country. France had kept the fighters in Burkina Faso after a recent series of troop withdrawals on the continent to assist in the fight against jihadist insurgents. The current Burkinabe military government took power in September 2022 in a coup against the old military government over its failure to handle the nation’s insurgency. Likewise, the previous military government took power in a January 2022 coup against former President Roch Marc Christian Kabore over his failure to handle the nation’s insurgency. The French troops in Burkina Faso had been sent by French president François Hollande in 2013 at Mali’s request after jihadist groups overran the northern half of the country. Moreover, the French troops proved effective. In 2014, France launched Operation Barkhane and, within a year, rolled back jihadist gains and confined the insurgents to a few remote pockets deep in the country’s interior. If the last French troops leave within a month, as the new Burkinabe government demanded, jihadist groups operating in Africa may be encouraged to redouble their efforts against the governments of the Maghreb and the Sahel.

It is no exaggeration to say that the fate of all of Africa might hang in the balance. As Burkina Faso goes, so will the continent.

The southern half of Burkina Faso lies in the lush Sudanian savannah. This savannah is the type of landscape that most Americans associate with Africa—a luxuriant, tropical grassland broken by trees and shrubs. Burkina Faso’s northern half, however, lies in the Sahel, which stretches across the African continent, from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The Sahel abuts the Sahara Desert and often features in global news cycles because of the many famines and droughts brought about by its harsh, semi-arid climate. It is important to recall that most African countries have only a wet and a dry season. In the savannah, the dry season means the trees lose their leaves, the shrubs shrink back, and the grasses dry out, only to bounce back in greater abundance when the rains arrive. In the Sahel, however, the wet season means that pastoralists hurry to graze their herds on the region’s sparse grasses before the dry season reduces the area to a desert.

Just as the Sudanian savannah teems with exotic wildlife, the Sahel brims with people; indeed, the region contains countries with some of the world’s highest birth rates. This vitality has also led to a troubling trend from which the Sahel gains most of its notoriety. Jihadist insurgent groups prowl about the region’s isolated settlements, terrorizing civilians and seeking recruits. The Sahel’s climatic volatility aids the jihadists in this latter endeavor, as desperate young men with no other source of employment can easily see in these jihadi groups a solution to their economic insecurity. When jihadism is the only show in town, an AK-47 becomes a meal ticket.

Traditionally, the Burkinabe government has handled the vast difference between its two main biogeographic regions and its peoples by applying a simple policy: in the wet season, maximize the country’s agricultural and pastoral productivity, especially in the fertile south, and use the taxes and other proceeds to employ workers in the north during the dry season, lest they become targets for jihadi groups. Under President Blaise Compaore, who took power in 1987 and resigned during a constitutional crisis in 2014, this policy smoothed over the seasonal transitions and ensured peace and stability. Compaore also enjoyed productive relations with regional Islamic organizations, managing to peacefully free many hostages. However, Compaore’s administration suffered from a failure in succession planning: he sought to cling to power with a constitutional amendment and made no provision for how to peacefully contain protests in the event of a public uprising. Within weeks of the proposed changes, Compaore had no choice but to step down and allow a military government to take power.

After Compaore stepped down, Burkina Faso went through six short-lived administrations. During that period, rival claimants to the presidency obstructed the smooth collection and spending of government funds to mitigate climatic concerns and their political repercussions. The exact chronology of what happened next is complicated due to the number of insurgent groups involved and their tendency to merge, split, and reconfigure themselves, but the upshot is that insurgents moved into northern Burkina Faso from Mali, adding a theater to the Islamist insurgency in the Maghreb and exposing a previously stable country to the ravages of opportunistic militant groups. Meanwhile, Nigeria—which had faced a devastating civil conflict since 2009, when Boko Haram launched its rebellion against the Nigerian government with the intent of establishing an Islamic state—saw an escalation in its conflict with Boko Haram when the jihadist group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, kidnapped 276 schoolgirls, and embarked on a campaign of daily attacks against Christians and government officials. During that time, the French-led Operation Barkhane employed thousands of French and allied African troops to push back against militant groups. It proved successful until the 2021 Malian coup caused France to wind down and finally end operations in Mali.

Now that the Burkinabe government has announced its desire for a full French withdrawal, the security situation seems poised to deteriorate further. The worst case scenario is that jihadi fighters from the Maghreb insurgency could establish a foothold in Burkina Faso, swarm across the narrow territory of Togo, link up with Boko Haram insurgents in Benin, and from there flood into southern Nigeria. The best case scenario is that these jihadi groups resume their old rivalries instead of joining forces and devote more time to fighting each other than securing areas of the Sahel and Sudanian savannah to prepare for attacks, including against Europe and the United States.

There are no easy solutions or obvious paths forward for the worsening security crisis in West Africa. The situation is made even more complicated by Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo’s allegations that the Burkinabe government hired the Wagner Group to help combat jihadists.  If true, such a deal could precipitate further escalation between the West and Russia. Furthermore, the United States and its allies ought to have been humbled by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and should approach any long-term military entanglement with caution.

However, the United States and its allies might do well to employ a strategy that seems obvious but wouldn’t attract the same attention as a military response: economic incentives. So far, the French and their West African partners have sought to reduce the number of jihadist fighters in the most traditional way: killing them. By way of historical analogy, the current French war on jihadism in West Africa seems to resemble the French campaign in Egypt and Syria from 1798 to 1801. Despite a string of early successes under Napoleon, the French ultimately had no choice but to withdraw their Armee d’Orient for lack of military and material support. Operation Barkhane sought to build on the success of Operation Serval but failed for the same reasons.

Instead, the French should recall another episode: the Viking siege of Paris in the ninth century. After the Frankish successors of Charlemagne proved incapable of deterring Viking attacks, the Vikings grew bold and, for the first time, settled in for a long siege instead of launching one of their usual raids. The Frankish king, Charles the Fat, ultimately opted to pay the Vikings 700 pounds in silver to abandon their siege and attack a rebellious region of the Frankish empire instead. Though fighting and raiding played a key role in Viking religion and culture, Viking raids also had clear economic motives. In the Sahel, where an AK-47 is like a meal ticket for desperate young African men in the way a battle axe might have once been a meal ticket for desperate young Scandinavian men, perhaps it is not necessary to kill insurgents if it is possible to disincentivize insurgency itself. Direct cash payments for public service or other projects could have a deterrent effect, as might grants to establish small businesses for aspiring entrepreneurs or feed depots for herders.

Jihadist insurgency in West Africa seems like both an intractable long-term threat and a present danger. Still, the United States ought to help France formulate alternative approaches to the problem to avoid repeating the same mistake and expecting a different result. One of the key consequences of the Viking siege of Paris was the Franks’ acknowledgment of the strategic importance of Paris. Perhaps the present crisis will at least alert the United States and its allies to the strategic importance of Burkina Faso, the linchpin of security in the Sahel and West Africa.