The most immediate change we are seeing in the Sahel is a military and political shift in the centre of gravity from Mali to Niger with the latter’s new President, Mohamed Bazoum, beginning to emerge as the Sahel’s new strongman.
With Chad’s Idriss Déby now dead, and Mali’s Colonel Assimi Goïta being side-lined by France and held in grave suspicion by most of the rest of the international community — especially the Sahel’s international development agencies and aid donors — Bazoum is taking full advantage of the opportunity to make Niger the central pillar in France’s new internationalised approach to the region.
He cemented Niger’s emerging position with three highly successful meetings: with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on 8 July; then with President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée the next day; before leading a major government delegation on a working and friendship visit to Algiers on 12 July.
Visiting Paris for a virtual summit with the G5S leaders, he stood beside Macron at a press conference at which the latter announced details of France’s withdrawal from the Sahel. Bazoum used the occasion to put the knife about as deeply as it would go into Mali’s Assimi Goïta. Without mentioning him by name, Bazoum said that ‘the military should not be allowed to take power simply because they have setbacks on the military front where they should be, with colonels then becoming ministers and heads of state. Who is then going to wage war for them?’ He then added, ‘It would be easy if every time an army in our countries has failures on the ground, it comes to take power. This is what happened twice in Mali … These are not acceptable things and we have taken the sanctions measures provided for in the ECOWAS treaties.’
Bazoum’s news conference was not only a virulent attack on Mali and its new authorities but was also just what Macron wanted to hear. No doubt as he had anticipated and almost certainly intended, Bazoum’s attack on his neighbour generated widespread criticism and anger in Bamako. Under fire from the international community, Goïta made no official statement. Similarly, Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop — who had summoned Niger’s ambassador to Bamako, Mamoudou Moumouni, to issue him with a strong protest — realised that Mali was not in a position to express its full anger because it was in danger of facing diplomatic and security isolation.
This was not the first confrontation between Niamey and Bamako. Bazoum was following in the footsteps of his predecessor, President Mahamadou Issoufou, who made incendiary remarks in a 2019 interview with Jeune Afrique in which he said that Mali’s Kidal region was a problem for Niger because it was a sanctuary for terrorists. Issoufou said that those who attacked Niger retreated into the Kidal region and that the Malian state should put a stop to this. The fact that Mali was incapable of doing so merely deepened the insult and anger felt in Bamako.
The border between the two countries has long been a bone of contention between the two capitals. Issoufou and now his successor have made the point that, whatever the many failures of the Nigerien army, the Malian army has deserted the border region, which has allowed the terrorists to effectively take control of it.
The role of regional leader has been vacant since Déby death and Bazoum is doing an excellent job of taking over that position. By speaking alongside Macron, he was showing him that he has what is necessary to take on the pivotal role in the Sahel, with Niamey quickly preparing itself to play an even more central role in both the region’s security and developmental strategies.
Note: On 21 July we held a fascinating webinar on Will the Sahel become Africa’s Afghanistan? in which Sahara Focus’ editor Prof Jeremy Keenan provided expert analysis on the deteriorating security situation and the various likely scenarios. The slides and hour-long podcast are available here.
The July 2021 issue of Sahara Focus provides detailed comprehensive analysis. It can be bought as a single issue or as a part of an annual subscription which is available at a discount for the next month. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.This excerpt is taken from Sahara Focus, our monthly intelligence report on the Sahara region. Click here to receive a free sample copy.