Analysis: Neocolonialism, competition; What's happening in West Africa? - M5 Dergi
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Analysis: Neocolonialism, competition; What’s happening in West Africa?

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One must consider the impact of competition among external powers grappling with neocolonial policies, which can influence the regional security landscape.

For the last decades, West African countries have been boldly expressing dissatisfaction with their relations with former colonial states, with which they have had deep cooperation in political, economic and military fields since the colonial period. Particularly, regional states were reviewing their relations with Western countries such as France and the U.S., which they claimed had left them alone in the fight against terrorism and radicalism and even sometimes caused trouble for these threats.

The ropes of the bridges between France and Africa have been broken off, especially under the administration of Emmanuel Macron, who said that he abandoned the “françafrique” policy and aimed to establish equal and fair relations with the continental states. Because Macron, who had different actions than rhetoric, continued the French interventionism in Africa, continued to exploit the economies of the former colonies on the continent with neocolonial practices and did not achieve the expected success in the field of security. African states, which have to fight against greater threats day by day, have started to search for new partners that will combat security threats and strengthen political and economic structures. This has allowed the influence of major and middle powers such as China, the U.S., Russia, Japan, India, Brazil and Türkiye to increase in Africa. The fact that these actors competed among themselves while trying to increase their effectiveness in the continent had positive and negative consequences for the continental states.

Competition outcomes

The heightened competition among international actors in Africa has resulted in a complex array of both positive and negative outcomes. On the positive side, increased foreign investment and aid have often led to infrastructure development, economic growth and job creation in many African countries. Various international organizations, including nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), have been crucial in addressing humanitarian crises, promoting healthcare and supporting education initiatives. Additionally, the influx of foreign capital has facilitated technology transfer and knowledge sharing, contributing to advancements in agriculture, health care and renewable energy sectors.

However, the intense competition has also brought about negative consequences. Resource-driven conflicts and geopolitical rivalries have exacerbated existing tensions within African nations, leading to instability and violence in some regions. The influence of external actors in shaping national policies may sometimes undermine local governance structures and hinder the ability of African nations to make sovereign decisions that best serve their populations. Furthermore, economic competition can create dependencies and debt burdens, as some countries may struggle to repay loans or face challenges in negotiating favorable terms. Striking a balance between the positive and negative impacts of international competition in Africa remains a critical challenge to ensure sustainable development and safeguard the autonomy of African nations.

On the other hand, it is possible to say that some of the actors competing in Africa come to the fore from time to time. In previous years, we discussed that the continental states were under the great influence of the competition between the U.S. and China. However, during the Donald Trump era, the Washington administration’s foreign policy focused on Asia-Pacific. On the other side, many African leaders expressed dissatisfaction with China. Because China did not fulfill the commitments of its agreements with these states, it also caused economic difficulties with the “debt trap.” Although China is still the continent’s largest commercial partner, it is no longer an actor with whom the continent’s states seek to develop relations with great enthusiasm.

After the relative calm of the Washington-Beijing rivalry in Africa, the winds of rivalry between Paris and Moscow began to blow in the continental states. These winds turned into a storm in a very short time. As is known, after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, it was subjected to major sanctions by the international community, especially Western actors, and was virtually isolated in the global arena. Moscow tried to strengthen its relations with African states to escape from this loneliness, strengthen its increasingly deteriorating economy, and gain material and political support in its war against Ukraine. The Moscow government has done this by developing cooperation, especially in the military field, with African countries that are struggling with intense security issues such as terrorism, civil war and coups. As it is remembered, these African states (especially the former francophone colonies in West Africa) suffered from their cooperation with France in the field of security, and especially the young people demanded that their countries get rid of the French influence and develop new cooperations. Thus, Russian influence began to rise in the power vacuum created by France, which was gradually losing power in West Africa. The old French colonial structures and the political elites who shared interests with Paris were eliminated by successive military coups. The new junta administrations that came to power in these countries established close relations with Russia. On the other hand, France has expressed dissatisfaction with the rising Russian influence at every opportunity and has occasionally attempted anti-Moscow propaganda in the region.

Especially after the coup in Niger, the tense competition between Russia and France began to have much more obvious effects. Faced with the threat of losing one of its last strongholds in the Sahel region after the coup in Niamey/Niger on July 26, France, together with Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) leader Nigeria, threatened a military intervention if the coup plotters did not release deposed leader Mohamed Bazoum and return the country to constitutional order. However, Mali and Burkina Faso reacted very harshly to this threat and even sent military and financial support, including Super Tucano warplanes, to Niamey against a possible ECOWAS intervention.

However, in the end, an ECOWAS military intervention supported by France and Nigeria against the junta in Niger did not take place. The junta members in Niamey took a firm and determined stance, demanding that the French ambassador and French military leave the country. The country even closed its airspace to French planes. Afterward, Macron announced that the ambassador would leave Niger as soon as possible and that the departure of the French soldier would be completed by the end of the year. However, this was not enough to reduce the tension in the region.

On Sept. 16, junta leaders in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger signed a mutual defense agreement, as revealed by ministerial delegations in Mali’s capital Bamako. The agreement, known as the “Liptako-Gourma Regulation,” officially established the Alliance of Sahel States (ASS). Mali’s junta leader, Assimi Goita, on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, explained the primary goal of the alliance as follows: “to create a framework for collective defense and mutual support that will ultimately benefit our respective peoples.”

On Jan. 28, 2024, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, members of the ASS, announced that they would leave ECOWAS, which imposed inhumane sanctions on them. ECOWAS memberships were already suspended due to military coups in these countries. In addition, the union imposed major political and economic sanctions on the junta regimes. Arguing that there was the influence of foreign powers behind these decisions, ASS junta leaders claimed in their statement that ECOWAS moved away from the ideologies of the founding fathers and Pan-Africanism and served the interests of foreign powers.

The separation and political tension between ECOWAS and ASS increases security threats in the region. As it is known, there are intense violent actions by separatist groups, terrorists and criminal organizations in the region. For example, according to the “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project” report, from 2020, when the junta members came to power in Mali, to mid-2023, violence in the country increased by almost three times. In the first half of 2023, 16 terrorist attacks occurred within 150 kilometers of the capital Bamako. In the north, Tuaregs again started armed conflicts against the Malian army. There are similar developments in Burkina Faso. At the beginning of August, 20 people, mostly traders, were murdered by terrorists near the Togolese border. As documented by NGOs, the toll of terrorist attacks is devastating. According to the information provided, there were more than 16,000 casualties, including civilians, soldiers and police. In addition to this tragedy, the crisis displaced more than 2 million people within their own countries, making it one of the most serious examples of “internal displacement” in Africa.

Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger ended their cooperation with France in resolving these security issues. MINUSMA, the U.N. mission in Mali, also left the country. However, it is very difficult for them to overcome these problems with their own potential and Russian support. The security cooperation that Mali entered into with the Russian private military company Wagner in return for $11 million a month and various mining privileges did not produce the expected results. On the contrary, security problems have become more complicated with allegations of human rights violations, mass murder, rape and plunder against the civilian population by the Mali Army and Wagner militia. Similar situations exist in other countries in West Africa that cooperate with Russia. There are deep doubts about whether the ASS formation that Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso have formed among themselves due to their structural and financial problems will be successful in solving these profound problems.

What to do?

At this point, compatible national and international strategies must be established urgently to ensure peace and stability in West Africa. People in this region need strong international cooperation to deal with cross-border threats such as terrorism, civil wars, climate change, and natural disasters. Regional bodies such as the African Union (AU) and ECOWAS can play a key role in tackling these challenges. These organizations can be effective by formulating policy, responding to crises, and developing projects supporting regional peace and security.

However, besides these positive possible effects, the effects of competition between external powers struggling with neocolonial policies affecting the security situation in the region should also be taken into account. Regional entities may be under the influence of external interventions and their ability to cope with internal problems may be limited. This may make it difficult for regional states to strengthen their sovereignty and manage their own security. This competitive environment, also felt between ECOWAs and ASS, may also reveal various security threats for the entire African continent and make the international community more concerned about the potential effects of regional instability.

Source: Daily Sabah / TASAM

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