First Mali, then Burkina Faso, now Niger: one military coup after another. And not only the military but also large sections of the politicized youth in the Sahel obviously sympathize with Russia and are positioning themselves against the West and France in particular.

Photo by Hamed Alshabibi

It must be said, however, that the recent coup in Gabon does not fit into the above pattern. In Gabon, the aim is to replace an autocratic regime that has held on to power for decades by rigging elections. It also looks like the military wants to hand power in Gabon back to a democratically elected government. No pro-Russian or anti-French sentiments were reported during or after the coup.

It’s different in the Sahel. Democratically elected governments were overthrown there, so we have to ask: what went wrong in the decades of Western and German international cooperation with the Sahel countries?

Although I have personally traveled a lot in the Sahel and especially in Burkina Faso, I honestly don’t have a conclusive answer to this question either. At best, I can contribute a few explanatory fragments to the debate.

First of all, I don’t think much of the explanations now being offered everywhere that French politics, with its colonial past, is largely to blame for this development. The claim that German cooperation focused too much on military aspects and was also too state-centric and relied too little on decentralized structures is also inconclusive for me. In recent decades, German and European development cooperation has invested billions of euros in civil cooperation projects in the Sahel. A very large proportion of this went to decentralized projects in rural areas. The fact that the UN and EU missions have also invested in the military fight against Islamic terrorist militias in the last 3-4 years does not change the great preponderance of civilian cooperation,

As far as France’s role is concerned, you have to take a closer look. As recently as 2014, the French military operation “Barkhane” in Mali, which prevented the whole of Mali from being overrun by Islamists, was applauded by the entire Malian and international public. This positive attitude towards the French then changes in the following years. Olaf Bernau explores the question of why this was the case in a very informative essay in Blättern für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/23. Using the example of Mali, he argues that the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA, in which Germany was also involved, did not do such a bad job. It has made a significant contribution to the pacification of the country. However, the Malians would have seen this mission in close connection with the French military mission Barkhane, which was explicitly dedicated to fighting Islamist terrorists.

And Barkhane would have been viewed very critically by the Malian public recently. The French were accused of being too close to the Tuareg – the French had always advocated negotiated solutions with the Tuareg, who were striving for independence – as well as the lack of involvement of the Malian military in anti-terror operations. In addition, there was once a large number of civilian casualties during a French military operation. In my view, the French cannot be blamed for Malian nationalism with its pronounced aversion to the Tuareg. And in view of the fact that several well-trained Malian military units have defected to the Islamic terrorists, it seems understandable that the French military has been reluctant to cooperate. It is even more incomprehensible that many Malians blame the French for civilian casualties during military operations, while a large part of the public in the Sahel allows the Russian Wagner mercenaries to get away with any crime, no matter how serious.

It is also remarkable that this pronounced anti-French resentment does not exist in other francophone African countries such as Cote d’Ivoire or Benin, even though they share the same colonial history. Even in Anglophone Cameroon, these anti-French sentiments are not so pronounced. French military assistance in the installation of the elected President Ouattara in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010 ended a long civil war and is widely perceived as positive.

The major pan-African film festival in Ouagadougou, which takes place every two years in Burkina Faso, would not have been able to take place at all without the intensive cultural cooperation with France in the past.

It is also worth asking why the fight against the Islamist terrorist militias in the Sahel is failing, which is one of the reasons why the military think they have to seize power. In Cameroon, on the other hand, Boko Haram appears to have been successfully “defeated”. At least that is what my friends from the Cameroonian cotton company Sodecoton, which is also active in the areas temporarily controlled by Boko Haram, report. Why is the fight against Islamism succeeding in Cameroon under the leadership of the decrepit autocrat Paul Biya, but not in the Sahel? Here too, more questions than answers.

A very banal reason for the economic and political instability in the Sahel, which the Islamists are exploiting, is the widespread lack of “good governance”. An example from my professional life: Years ago, a large South African company wanted to set up a large sugar cane plantation with subsequent processing into sugar and ethanol in part of the “Office de Niger” irrigation area in Mali, which had been built largely with German and KfW support. The trial cultivation had shown that the soil and climatic conditions there would have allowed the highest productivity in the whole of Africa. The KfW experts were in favor of the project because sugar cane generates the highest added value per liter of water used compared to other crops. But of course there was also opposition. Other, predominantly Arab investors also had their eyes on the land, while cattle breeders feared for their grazing grounds, etc. As is often the case in Germany, there were different lobby groups with a view to the project, many of which influenced the Malian government with completely opposing interests. So far so normal: but what characterized Mal was that the government did not find the strength to make a decision for or against in 4 or 5 years. Everyone involved was put off until the South Africans – who had already invested over 10 million dollars – gave up completely exasperated. As far as I know, this did not lead to other projects being realized in the irrigation area in question in subsequent years.

In contrast, you hear completely different stories from international investors when it comes to heads of government from Ghana, Ouattara and his team in Cote d’Ivoire or Patrice Talon in Benin. They are usually very well prepared in discussions with international investors and then make a clear decision relatively quickly after the talks, not always in favor of the investors, or they impose clear conditions on them. Of course, this is not the case in the entire government apparatus of these countries, but positive examples are set at the top level.

The central question remains: how can “good governance” be brought about? There is no secret formula here either. The answers must be found on a case-by-case basis, and often the only thing that helps is to wait and see (e.g. until sympathy for the Russians has given way to disillusionment). On the other hand, in the case of Cote d’Ivoire, it was a good decision for the French to intervene in favor of the election winner Ouattara.

Wait and see, intervene, engage in institution building? In this blog, we try to provide insights into these persistently difficult questions using very different examples.


  • Roger Peltzer

    70 years old, married, 3 children and soon 4 grandchildren. I studied economics at the University of Münster and then completed a postgraduate course at the German Institute for Development Policy (now IDOS).

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What's going on in the Sahel: Decades of development cooperation facing a shambles?

Roger Peltzer

[wpml-string context="pb-bioinfo" name="info-1"]70 Jahre alt, verheiratet, 3 Kinder und bald 4 Enkel. Ich habe an der Universität Münster Volkswirtschaft studiert und anschließend den postgraduierten Kurs am deutschen Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (heute IDOS) absolviert.[/wpml-string]

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