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How Securitization Impedes Democracy: The Case of the Sahel

Yousra Hamdaoui


The Sahel is now the largest military laboratory since the launch of the global war on Jihad. This war on terror, which has lasted for more than a decade, has not been able to produce a state of security in the region. The various military interventions supported mainly by France are bogged down in a context marked by the rise of communal violence and the expansion of the dynamics of violence by armed groups. Does this imply the loss of confidence of the populations in their governments and the deterioration of democracy? In general, the goal of a democratic system is a mechanism of legitimate representation such that leaders act on behalf of the people and are chosen through regular elections. In the Sahelian countries, this democratic cycle has been often interrupted by military pushes since the independence. However, the recurrence of coups d’état since 2020 in Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Guinea unfolded in the context of the fight against terrorism and must be understood within that context.


Since 2012, the introduction of prevention and militarization programs in the Sahel has reconfigured its geopolitics and domestic politics alike. The security policy imposed on the Sahel has created a climate of urgency in which terrorism is the dominant threat, the solution to which requires exceptional measures that sometimes break with normal politics, as is often the case in any securitization process. This paper explains that the security choices imposed on Sahelian countries have impacted democracy in the region. The latest coups, while not an exception in the region, have occurred in a context where Sahelian states have failed in the fight against terrorism. Thus, the militarization of the Sahel, as well as geopolitical competition and political interventionism by international powers, have hampered democracy in the Sahel.


In this work, we use qualitative analysis using process tracing. Process tracing is a research method for tracing causal mechanisms through detailed empirical analysis. In effect, the goal is to examine how the independent variable X (the cause) produces effects on the variable Y (the effect). The unique feature of process tracing is that it allows for the study of how the mechanisms that contribute to producing an outcome work. The causal mechanism (CM) is a concept that explains how the independent variable x (explanatory factor) can have an effect on the dependent variable Y that we need to explain.4 Concretely, to study process tracing, we need to decompose it into mechanisms. Figure 1 illustrates the basic framework of process tracing in this work. Indeed, we know both X (the context of the global war on Jihad) and Y (the deterioration of democracy/governance). We then formulate a causal mechanism based on securitization theory.


Figure 1 shows the causal mechanism between X and Y based on securitization theory. If the context of the war on terror is influencing democracy in the Sahel, how is this happening? To identify the mechanisms, we use inductive reasoning by examining field observations, interviews and official documents. The militarization of the Sahel, the political interventionism of international actors, and the geopolitical competition are the causal mecanisms that we want to analyze in this work. The second step (operationalization) consists of translating the theoretical elements into specific predictions through the observable manifestations that each part of the mechanism must have. In figure 1, operationalization of the causal mechanism involves identifying the empirical evidence observed in each stage of the mechanism. Step 3 (evidence collection) proceeds in stages, checking whether the evidence indicates that each part of the mechanism was present. In our case, the observed evidence is the observable manifestations in each part of the causal mechanism. In addition, we also use other types of evidence, such as interviews, grey literature, and ACLED data to fill in the gaps in the causal story.

The militarization of the Sahel

The Sahel entered a phase of securitization characterized by increased militarization with France’s launch of Operation Serval in 2013. This military operation represents a return to a classic form of rapid intervention by France from the era of the Cold War (Goya, 201), allowing for the introduction of a panoply of Sahel strategies and military operations that reconfigured the geopolitics of a transnational area spanning multiple countries. In this sense, these military operations were aimed at reducing the combativeness of armed groups and bringing them down to the levels of Sahelian armies. In addition, their goal was to prevent these groups from creating new sanctuaries.


However, the militarization of the region instead accelerated the movement of terror to the south. The expansion of violence in the Sahel is ongoing despite the significant military presence of various state and institutional actors. At the institutional level, the United Nations has been operating in the Sahel since 2013 under an integrated Sahel strategy. The objectives of the UN’s integrated strategy in the Sahel involve the presence of a multitude of UN agencies that benefit from the advantage of a long presence in the region, particularly through humanitarian and human rights work. but the multiplication of actors on the ground complicates the achievement of the integrated approach advocated by the strategy. In addition, the UN deploys the peacekeeping operation MINISMA (The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali). The persistent discourse on the threat and militarization of the region maintains the effect of the sustainability of securitization and consequently the introduction of various actors into the process of the governance of insecurity.


None of this has prevented the rise in violence and attacks against civilians. In 2021, the Sahel recorded more than 2,000 violent events and 7,052 deaths linked to armed groups. On the ground, MINUSMA collaborates with other institutions that are involved in this securitization process. The European Union is also an actor implicated in the governance of insecurity in the region, relying on military instruments defined in the framework of its Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). It has implemented an integrated strategy similar to that of the United Nations, using development instruments and civil-military missions. In this sense, most of the institutions implicated in the governance of insecurity in the region rely on the security and development nexus. The use of civilian missions such as EUCAP Sahel Niger and EUCAP Sahel Mali were established after the Libyan and Malian crises to focus on strengthening the effectiveness of regional joint command posts to improve crisis response, intelligence gathering, and sharing among the various security actors in the region. In addition to these training missions, military missions have been set up such as EUTM Mali, which intervenes mainly in southern Mali by providing military assistance to the Malian army to restore their military capabilities in order to conduct field operations. Since the launch of the French operation in Mali, other actors have been invited to join the war against Jihad in the Sahel.


At the regional level, the involvement of various pan-African institutions in the resolution of political and security crises in the Sahel has been similarly unable to quell insecurity, violence against civilians, and the advance of armed groups. At the military level, the African Standby Force (ASF), considered the armed arm of the African Union, has also shown its limitations on the ground. During the Malian crisis of 2012, this mechanism faced a problem of operationalization. The divergence of interest between communities as well as political disagreements between certain countries delayed the intervention and conflict resolution processes. Similarly, the establishment of the African Capacity for Immediate Crisis Response (ACIRC) in 2013 in the context of the Malian crisis has not been able to fill the gaps in the ASF. While it is supposed to fill this operational gap, the African Crisis Response Capability appears as a competitor to the African Standby Force and highlights the rivalries between the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and the AU, which wants to assert itself at the regional level. The ASF and ACIRC are essentially “virtual” forces whose difficulty of maneuvering complicates the ownership of security by countries in crisis. The lack of centralized leadership at the level of one country or a small group of countries that would clearly assume the role of coalition leader in terms of troop commitment and military logistics has hindered effective action. Sometimes, the participation of African states in military interventions is primarily motivated by obtaining military equipment or training. In terms of mediation, one of the African Union’s tools for intervention in the security crisis in the Sahel, the results are mixed. Similarly, since the beginning of the political crisis that followed the coup d’état in 2020, the African Union and ECOWAS have not been able to reach an agreement on the duration of the democratic transition in Mali.


Political interventionism and Geopolitical competition

This foreign military and political pressure has prevented the Sahelian countries from making their political and security choices. The option of negotiating with armed jihadist groups has been refused by France, despite a few attempts by religious actors in the Malian civil society, even though the report of the 2017 National Understanding conference highlighted the importance of setting up a negotiation process for the establishment of peace. The multiplication of red lines on the part of France and its allies has stifled Mali’s political autonomy.


This political interventionism manifested itself on several occasions around the choice of a president. After the death of Marshal Idriss Itno, his son, France and its allies supported General Mahamat in taking power in disregard of the rules of succession. In addition, sanctions have been used as a pressure tool to bring about a civilian transition after the series of coups since 2020. For the two coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, a series of sanctions, believed to be supported by France, were applied by ECOWAS involving the closure of land and air borders and the suspension of commercial transactions. Similarly, sanctions have been applied to Guinea and Burkina Faso. France’s president, Emanuel Macron expressed his support for ECOWAS in condemning the military coup against Burkinabe president Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. These sanctions sometimes reflect the regional organization’s lack of autonomy in decision-making.


This political interventionism by France and its allies has led to geopolitical competition with the military involvement of other actors such as Russia to dominate the security market in the Sahel. Relations with Francophone African regimes were based on the policy of the “pré-carré”. French military interventions in the Sahel in the context of the global war on Jihad reflect somehow the continuity of this policy. After more than 9 years of counter-terrorism, the mixed security and military results have fueled anti-French sentiment in the region. This has resulted in sometimes violent demonstrations, such as November 2021 protests against the presence of the military operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Several other blockades of military convoys took place in Kaya in Burkina Faso, in Téra in Niger, and in Ansogo in Mali, in January 2022. On the other hand, the Russian flag is being waved in several demonstrations in support of the juntas. Consequently, Russia used this antiFrench sentiment to play its cards in the region.


The partnership with Mali through the Wagner group, which operates with mercenaries and security services, is the main unofficial tool of Russia’s military influence. According to ACLED, the Wagner group has been involved in many attacks targeting civilians in Segou, Mopti, Koulikoro, and Tombouctou regions which are the main area of the group Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). ACLED confirms that 71% of Wagner’s political violence in Mali has taken the form of violence targeting civilians.6 In addition to the use of mercenaries, Russia has resorted to an aggressive “informational war”. This hybrid war is conducted by non-military and unconventional means through fake news relayed by social networks.


This Franco-Russian competition does not date from today but from the Soviet era when some Sahelian countries got closer to the USSR. In this way, the first president of independent Mali, Modibo Keïta, made his first visit to Moscow in 1962. He declared that he was “following the path of socialism”. Soviet-Malian relations had been established in 1961 through military agreements concluded in Moscow resulting in the provision of military equipment for Mali . So the junta’s rapprochement with the Wagner group is not actually a surprise, since Russia wanted to extend its influence generally in Africa. In this sense, Russian-African relations received a major boost at the first Pan-African Summit in Sochi in 2019. This summit was seen as Russia’s return to Africa. in the face of these geopolitical accelerations, the former French pre-squared is being turned upside down with the involvement of Russia at times with popular support expressing both disappointment with local democracy and in the ongoing efforts to bring peace to the Sahel.


A deterioration of democracy

The multiplication of military coups in Francophone Africa reveals a certain porosity between the civilian and the military. The coups that followed independence were aimed at challenging the orientations of the post-colonial state, often with the support of the international community. Another wave of coups was launched after the fall of the Berlin Wall bringing a wave of democratization. In 1991, for example, Mali became an example of democratization after Amadou Toumani Touré’s coup d’état put an end to the military regime of Moussa Traoré by conducting the country’s first free election. The military has therefore this role of controller and protector of the State itself. In this sense, the return of coups in the Sahel in 2020 for the military makes it possible to make political choices to reclaim lost political space as well as to choose military and technical partners with roadmaps that are not imposed and do not respond to particular geopolitical considerations. These coups d’état also have the particularity of taking place without the approval of France, which often intervenes unofficially in the in the electoral process in the region.


It is necessary to see the coups in the Sahel as part of this broader regional process of securitization and not only as isolated national cases. The 2020 coup in Mali was carried out by Malian armed forces on August 18, 2020. It began at the Soundiata-Keïta military camp in Kati, north of Bamako. It led to the overthrow of the president of the Republic, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who had been in power since 2013. This coup d’état occurred against a backdrop of terrorist and interethnic violence and multiple attacks against the Malian army, notably the Indelimane attack in November 2019 in the Asongo circle, which killed more than 80 Malian soldiers. This attack caused tensions between former President IBK and the Malian army. The putsch also took place against a backdrop of protests and challenges to power since June 2020. These are led by the June 5 Movement - Rally of Patriotic Forces (M5-RFP) against the war and alleged irregularities in the March-April 2020 legislative elections. In less than a year, another coup d’état occurred in Mali in 2021 in a context where the two ministers close to the colonels of the former CNSP were left out of the list of the new government. Suspicions have been raised about France’s involvement in this putsch. The pressure exerted by France and the international community to move to civilian transition is motivated by its military agenda in the region but also by the arrival of a competing actor in the region: Russia. In that respect, President Macron accused the Wagner company of being in Mali to serve “its own economic interests” and to secure the Malian military junta in power in Bamako, referring to the presence of about 800 mercenaries.


Frustrations began to grow in Mali’s neighboring country, Burkina Faso, where the spread of violence emerged in the northeast of the country. Attacks linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were on the rise. According to ACLED, Violence moved to Boucle du Mouhoun and it became the region with the highest number of violent events. The deterioration of security and the government’s inability to curb jihadist violence have angered both the military and the population.. On January 11, 2022, eight soldiers accused of preparing “a project to destabilize the institutions of the Republic” were arrested. On January 24, members of the army, led by Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba, detained President Kaboré of Burkina Faso and seized power. The military putschists have violently criticized the anti-terrorist strategy being implemented in the region. This wave of coups in Sahelian countries comes against a backdrop of insecurity and increasing violence against civilians.

The cross-border areas of Liptako-Gourma and the Lake Chad Basin, which are particularly affected by insecurity, concentrate people in need of food assistance. In the tri-border area (Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger), 2.7 million people were in crisis and beyond in June-August 2021.


In conclusion, the political turmoil in the Sahelian region today underscores deeper problems of governance, which is overshadowed by an ongoing struggle against terrorism that seems to have exhausted the countries of the region. The result of this military focus has been reduced attention to social sectors, major disruptions to the livelihoods of millions of citizens, and regional political failure. The recent political crises and repeated coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea point to the unfinished democratic transition since independence and point to a difficult future for the populations of the Sahel.

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