In December 2020 UK armed forces began a three-year deployment with UN peacekeeping forces in Mali, with the intention of helping to “address the increasing stability” in the region. The Government described West Africa as being of “strategic importance” to the UK. At the time, the Commons library published a paper looking ahead to the British deployment to Mali.
However, the political and security situation on the ground has changed considerably since then.
On 14 November 2022 the Government announced it was withdrawing its forces from MINUSMA.
Political developments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger
Mali, Burkina Faso and to a lesser extent Niger have experienced considerable political upheaval in the last two years, including two coups apiece in Mali and Burkina Faso since 2020.
In Mali, Colonel Assimi Goïta now heads the transitional authorities. In May 2021 he removed in the civilian-led administration appointed after August 2020 coup that he had himself led. After pressure from West African leaders, he announced an electoral timetable that will end with presidential elections in February 2024.
Burkina Faso experienced its second coup of 2022 on 30 September, when army Captain Ibrahim Traoré forcibly removed Lt Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba. Damiba had seized power only a few months earlier in January 2022, removing President Kaboré, who had been re-elected in 2020. Traoré gave the same reason as Damiba for his actions: the failure of the government to address the Islamist insurgency.
In early 2021, Niger held its first democratic transfer of power since independence in 1960, with the election of former interior minister Mohamed Bazoum to the Presidency.
Increasing instability across the Sahel
The Sahel faces a myriad of challenges. The impacts of climate change, political instability, poor governance, high unemployment levels and endemic poverty, combined with a jihadist insurgency and the presence of numerous armed groups and the after-effects of the pandemic, are some of the factors contributing to a lack of security and stability across the region.
While the three countries are affected in different ways and to different degrees, they are all struggling to bring security and prosperity to their populations.
The Sahel is “home to the world’s fastest growing and most deadly terrorist groups”, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2022, compiled by Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP). According to the index, the Sahel has become the “new epicentre of terrorism“.
Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso are among the least developed countries in the world. All three countries are ranked at the bottom of the UN Development Programme’s human development index in 2021 (PDF).
The UNHCR estimates 2.5 million people are internally displaced across Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the majority (1.9 million) are in Burkina Faso, which the UNHCR describes as “one of the fastest-growing displacement and protection crises globally”.
The international military presence
In the last decade the activities of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups has drawn a considerable international and regional presence in an effort to stabilise the Sahel. However, there has been much debate over whether the international community has overly focused on the security aspect.
MINUSMA, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, was established in 2013. However, personnel have been targeted repeatedly by a wide range of armed groups, making it “one of the most dangerous peacekeeping missions in Africa”. 174 personnel have been killed in hostile attacks.
There are also tensions with the Malian transitional authorities, which has sought to restrict MINUSMA’s freedom of movement in the country.
In July 2019 the Government announced plans to expand its support to MINUSMA by deploying a long-range reconnaissance task group. The three-year deployment began in December 2020, with a planned review half-way through.
During 2022 the Ministry of Defence confirmed it was reviewing the deployment, particularly in light of the French decision to withdraw its military forces (see below).
On 14 November 2022, James Heappey, the Armed Forces Minister, announced in Parliament that the “UK contingent will be leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned.” The Minister said “responsibility for all of this sits in Bamako“, citing the coups, the Malian Government’s partnership with the Wagner Group (see below) and the restrictions placed on the multinational forces presence.
France ends its decades-long counter-terrorism operation in Mali
France, as the former colonial power, has maintained close relations with all three countries. However, tensions with the Malian transitional authorities prompted President Macron to end the counter-terrorism operation in Mali in 2022. France has moved its military forces to Niger.
Is Russia gaining a foothold via the Wagner Group?
Although denied by the Malian transitional authorities, the Russian private military company has reportedly been in Mali since late 2021. Reportedly run by a Russian businessman, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group has been sanctioned by both the UK and the EU for human rights abuses in Ukraine and elsewhere. UK Ministers have described the organisation as a driver of conflict and responsible for human rights abuses.
The shifting international military presence in the Sahel is also raising questions among some European countries of Russia’s intentions. Theodore Murphy, Africa Programme director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues Russia is exploiting weaknesses in Europe’s relationships with states across Africa, including Mali.
Responding to the September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso, a senior EU official said the challenge now is to convince the new junta to not align with the Wagner Group.
In March 2022 the Foreign Affairs Committee opened an inquiry into the Wagner Group and private military companies. This includes examining its presence in Mali and the Sahel.
About this paper
This paper describes briefly the UK Government’s approach to West Africa. It then identifies some of the major political and security developments in 2022 before discussing some of the common drivers of conflict. It ends with an outline of the international military presence, including UK forces.
Separate Library papers examine prospects for the transition in Mali and the implications of the September 2022 coup in Burkina Faso.