Another coup attempt was thwarted in West Africa. Does it matter?

This week, news emerged of gunshots being fired close to the Presidential Palace of Guinea Bissau, a country in West Africa, bordering Guinea, and Senegal. The gunshots were heard while cabinet ministers met at the Presidential Palace. This appears to have been an attempted coup d’état, thwarted by forces loyal to the state, allowing the President of the country to retain control.

This country and its neighbours have experienced their fair share of instability over the course of their tumultuous history since their independence from European powers last century. Had this coup succeeded, it would have been the fourth one in only a matter of months, following successful coups in Mali, Chad and more recently, in Burkina Faso. This begs the question – how long will the prevailing status quo be maintained in Guinea Bissau?

These countries are not in the EU’s immediate neighbourhood, but their importance to European security and stability cannot be discounted either.

Mali, Chad, and Burkina Faso are situated in what is known as the Sahel region, a resource-rich region plagued with instability that has left it a fertile breeding ground for Jihadists who are vying for control over the territory. France, former colonial master of the region, has sent military troops to these countries to assist and support local forces to contain the advance of Jihadists and has also been key in spurring action at EU level, such as the creation of EU missions to support French efforts in the region. The efforts seem to have had some limited success in slowing the advance, however, skirmishes with the army and the local population have exacerbated calls for the governments of these countries to act, primarily by increasing their own military spending and by providing the right training to their armies.

Local leaders now find themselves between a rock and hard place. Further investment in their armies would make their Generals stronger, in theory also making it easier for the armies to intervene in the political process. However, the opposite was the result in Mali and Burkina Faso. Chad so far had a different story, as the President was killed on the battlefield, and France facilitated the takeover by his son.

Following the coup in Burkina Faso, Russian flags were waved by people who supported the coup, while in Mali ‘trainers’, have been authorised to carry out training for Malian forces. These trainers are believed to be from the Wagner Group, a Russia-based unincorporated private military entity. This has coincided with actions by the Malian authorities to constrain the presence of EU Member States on the ground, such as the expelling of Danish forces who were part of the French-led Takuba Taskforce and the ordering of the French Ambassador to leave the country, following declarations made by the French Foreign Minister calling out the actions of Malian authorities.  

In a statement on behalf of the 27 EU Member States, the EU High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, condemned this move and urged the Malian transitional authorities to deescalate the tensions.

The common denominator in this region’s recent developments could be Russia, which has sought to expand its influence over the continent and might have found the opportunity to do so as regional leaders have become increasingly under pressure and frustrated with respect to ongoing efforts by European partners to quell the spread of Jihadists which are largely considered ineffective.

The implications of Russia establishing a line of control from West Africa right to Central Africa remain to be seen.

Should Russia succeed in its objective to quell the Jihadists’ advance, other countries in the region might feel encouraged to ask for Russia’s military assistance, to which it will happily oblige. This would be an embarrassment to Europe, particularly France, as this region is often considered its area of influence.

In theory, Russia could use its control of the Sahel to exert pressure on North Africa, and consequently the EU, on matters of interest.

Russia could use its control of the Sahel to exert pressure on North Africa, and consequently the EU, on matters of interest.

The EU would do well to get its act together and grab the bull by its horns as Russian influence is expanding right under its nose. This could have serious implications for European security, including Malta’s, due to our geographical location.

According to the International Centre for Migration Policy Development, “the conflict in the Sahel has developed into one of the world’s worst humanitarian and displacement crises. Between 2018 and 2020 an estimated 1.8 million people were internally displaced and 845,000 people had to flee across borders, 650,000 people in the last year alone. 13.4 million are believed in need of humanitarian assistance, 5 million of them children”. These figures are a stark reminder of the implications of further destabilisation in the region.

Russia could be well-poised to acquire total control of the Sahel, which could end up becoming another Belarus case for the EU. Control of the Sahel might well provide Russia with the power to control the taps of migration, by possibly instrumentalising the issue. Additionally, the tactics adopted by the Wagner Group, as widely reported, could also exacerbate the situation.  

The Sahel is deliberately but wrongly considered as a remote, arid area in Africa, with little importance to Europe.

However, the EU acknowledges the importance of this region, which, however, might not be on the priorities list of its Member States. The assistance the EU offers is aimed at addressing the root causes of migration. Malta also did its part in 2017, during the Valletta Summit on Migration, where an Action Plan was agreed together with African states, which launched the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

However, the assistance the EU is providing might not be enough in bringing the much-needed change. Yet, approaching the issue through regional bodies such as ECOWAS and the African Union goes in the right direction to sustainably address the issues.

The EU would do well to study what the objectives behind Russia’s greater involvement in the region are, instead of simply throwing millions of Euros in a bid to address the issues. There could be many valid reasons for Russia’s involvement, and therefore the EU must adapt its approach to reflect and counteract any possible destabilising factor in the region.  

Alienating Russia and issuing statements that make matters worse will not be resolving the matter either. Diplomacy and dialogue are important tools that would help in understanding each other’s concerns.

This region, albeit not economically attractive, is of huge importance to European security. Destabilising North Africa and the Mediterranean region would have huge implications on Europe’s security and prosperity, yet no easy solution is in sight.

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