U.S. soldiers stand guard in Hasaka, northeast Syria, Jan. 27, 2022 (AP photo by Baderkhan Ahmad).

At its height half a decade ago, the Islamic State was among the most feared armed organizations in the world. The infamously brutal group had at one point captured and established governance of more than a third of Iraq and large swaths of Syria. But that shocking, sudden rise to infamy was followed by a steep, if slower, downfall. By January 2019, the Islamic State had lost nearly all of its territory in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. declared it defeated and media organizations began to pay only sporadic attention to its isolated attacks. By 2021, Google searches for the Islamic State, a […]

A man holds a portait of Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba who has taken the reins of the country in Ouagadougou, Jan. 25, 2022 (AP photo by Sophie Garcia).

In the latest in a series of military coups in West Africa, a group of army officers in Burkina Faso has overthrown the government of President Roch Kabore. In a televised address on Burkina Faso’s state broadcaster on Monday, the group—which has dubbed itself “the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration,” or MPSR—said that it had deposed Kabore, suspended the constitution, closed the country’s borders and dissolved the government and the legislature. The group affirmed that Kabore remains safe and in good condition.  The announcement came after two days of confusion and pandemonium in the capital, Ouagadougou, amid reports of […]

President Joe Biden listens to a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Washington, Jan. 19, 2022 (AP photo by Susan Walsh).

Assessing the Biden administration’s performance in the Middle East at the one-year mark requires some careful metrics. Should the benchmark be a comparison to the turbulent Trump years, or to earlier times when U.S. diplomacy was defining the regional agenda and, on occasion, making a meaningful contribution to achieving peace? Should it prioritize the possibility that people in the region, who once resented the effects of too much U.S. power, now fear its absence, or the emerging consensus in Washington that the U.S. has more urgent strategic challenges to attend to elsewhere? Biden administration officials talk in pragmatic terms about […]

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony for a French soldier killed in action in Mali, at the Invalides monument in Paris, Sept. 29, 2021 (AP photo by Thibalt Camus).

When historians look back and try to explain how France lost its historical position as the dominant outside actor in West Africa, the oft-repeated line that Ernest Hemingway used to describe how one of his fictional characters went bankrupt will undoubtedly come to mind: gradually, then suddenly. The signs of a gradual deterioration of France's ties in the region have been apparent for some time. But if the past 12 months are any indication, 2022 might very well be the year that process comes to a head suddenly. Since May, military coups in Mali, Guinea and most recently Burkina Faso […]

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana talk as they sit in a limousine at Washington National Airport on March 8, 1961 (AP photo).

Anyone with even a sketchy understanding of the Cold War knows that it was a time not only of intense direct competition between the reigning superpowers, but also of grand schemes by both the U.S. and USSR for integrating their allies and clients into adversarial blocs, as well as for poaching the partners of the rival power—especially in the developing world—into their own camp. Throughout much of this era, the West regarded professions of neutrality among poorer countries with skepticism or even outright hostility. Beginning with the Eisenhower administration, the view took hold in Washington that non-alignment was just a […]

Central African Republic President Faustin-Archange Touadera delivers his speech during his inaugural ceremony in Bangui, March 30, 2021 (AP photo by Adrienne Surprenant).

Once considered a marginal country in regional affairs, the Central African Republic has become a frequent topic of discussion in African security circles. The CAR is frequently cited as the jumping-off point on the continent for the Russian private military contractor the Wagner Group and the touchstone for the group’s involvement in other African countries. But with the group’s activities having now expanded to Mali, Sudan and Libya, the fixation on its flashy entrances into the region’s conflict zones has diverted international attention from a far more alarming development in Bangui: CAR’s increasingly precarious future. For a brief moment in […]

Demonstrators in a government-sponsored rally hold up signs reading, “France Out,” “Mali is proud of its sons” and “Thank you Colonel Assimi Goita,” Bamako, Mali, Jan. 14, 2021 (AP photo by Harandane Dicko).

On Jan. 14, Malians across the country took to the streets en masse, after the country’s interim military government called for protests against tough sanctions imposed the previous weekend by the Economic Community of West African States. Leaders from the West African bloc had acted after the ruling junta reneged on a 2020 agreement to hold national elections by February 2022, with measures that included shutting regional borders with Mali, imposing a trade embargo and freezing Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States. The West African Economic and Monetary Union, or UEMOA, also moved to restrict Mali’s […]

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, left, and Kenyan Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya, Jan. 6, 2022 (AP photo by Gideon Maundu).

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi completed a tour of Eritrea, Kenya and Comoros, continuing a tradition dating back three decades by which Chinese foreign ministers open the diplomatic year with a trip to Africa. The visit—which comes just over a month after the conclusion of the eighth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, or FOCAC, held late last year in Dakar, Senegal—illustrates how China’s engagement with African countries is evolving. Beijing is apparently ready to play a bigger role in mediating some of the region’s conflicts. Whether those efforts will pay off is an open question for both China and […]

United Nations peacekeepers from Rwanda wait to escort members of the U.N. Security Council as they arrive at the airport in Juba, South Sudan, Sept. 2, 2016 (AP photo by Justin Lynch).

The United Nations has no standing army, despite its initial plans to create one. Instead, when it launches a peace operation—the best established tool the international community has to address security threats—it relies on member states to voluntarily contribute personnel and troops. These U.N. deployments have grown in number and size throughout the 21st century, reaching a peak around 2014, when more than 100,000 military peacekeepers were stationed around the world. Today, four of the U.N.’s 12 peace operations—in South Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic—are staffed with more than 10,000 troops each. Along the […]

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana in front of the Soviet U.N. delegation headquarters, New York City, Sept. 22, 1960 (AP photo).

In 1956, then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev executed a sharp but largely forgotten reorientation in his country’s foreign policy. During the long decades under Josef Stalin, with the exception of its support for communist China, Moscow had focused almost all of its energy abroad in buttressing client states in Eastern Europe. But with one major speech, Khrushchev announced that the era of investing only in Russia’s “near abroad” was finished.  Taking his cues from the 1955 Asian-African Bandung Conference in Indonesia that launched the Non-Aligned Movement, and anticipating the huge wave of newly sovereign countries that would commence with Ghana’s independence […]

An old and corroded Soviet tank on the beach of Socotra Island, Yemen, Oct. 22, 2021 (CTK photo by Ondrej Zaruba, via AP Images).

Ravaged by over seven years of war, Yemen continues to witness escalating violence as 2022 begins. Last week, pro-government forces fighting on behalf of Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seized the energy-rich Shabwah province. After successfully pushing out fighters loyal to the Houthi movement from Shabwah, the loose coalition of pro-government forces continues its campaign in neighboring Marib province. Largely overshadowed by these rapid developments on the ground were reports of Houthi fighters seizing a UAE vessel traveling through the Red Sea. The pro-government coalition stated that the vessel […]

Demonstrators gather during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied, in Tunis, Sept. 18, 2021 (AP photo by Riadh Dridi).

On Wednesday, Tunisia announced that it had restored its pandemic-era restrictions, imposing a 10 p.m. curfew and banning all gatherings for two weeks. According to President Kais Saied’s government, the decision was made in order to combat the recent, rapid spread of the coronavirus’s omicron variant. Yet the timing was suspect. It came merely two days before rival political parties were scheduled to lead a massive demonstration against Saied’s concentration of power in his own hands. The main opposition party, Ennahda, immediately promised to defy the ban and called for its supporters to demonstrate anyway.  Tunisia is not an isolated case. Since the beginning […]

A supporter wearing a T-shirt showing Col. Assimi Goita, head of the junta that staged the Aug. 18 coup and now Mali’s interim president, in Bamako, Mali, Sept. 25, 2020 (AP photo).

The Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, has closed regional borders with Mali and slapped a new round of sanctions on Bamako, after the country’s interim military government sought to postpone elections it pledged to hold in February, as part of the country’s return to civilian rule following a 2020 military coup.  Sunday’s announcement followed an extraordinary summit of the bloc’s 15 leaders held in Accra to discuss a proposal by Mali’s provisional government for a five-year transition plan that would culminate with a presidential election scheduled for February 2026. That would be four years after the date Mali’s ruling […]

A supporter of the Polisario Front and Western Sahara waves a flag reading “Free Sahara,” Logrono, Spain, June 8, 2021 (AP photo by Alvaro Barrientos).

Maps have long played a crucial, symbolic role in the dispute over the Western Sahara. For years, because most world maps available elsewhere show the international border that separates Morocco from its coveted territory to the south, those that were sold in Morocco had to be separately manufactured for the domestic market, affecting everything from globes and atlases to toy puzzles and address books. It was no surprise, then, that shortly after the outgoing Trump administration recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory in December 2020, Moroccan newspapers and officials happily praised the United States’ new official map of Morocco when it was […]

A miner at a gold mine in Bouda, Burkina Faso, Feb. 23, 2020 (AP photo by Sam Mednick).

The residents of Solhan, a village in northeastern Burkina Faso, are painfully aware of the connection between artisanal mining and insecurity.  Last June, insurgents invaded the village, targeting the civilian self-defense force in the area as well as an artisanal gold mine located there. They went on to burn down a market and several houses, killing at least 160 civilians in the process. The regional governor directly blamed the incident, which marked one of the deadliest-ever insurgent attacks in Burkina Faso, on artisanal gold mining, and he subsequently banned the practice after the attack. Several hundred miles to the east, […]

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, with leaders of African countries at the Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Oct. 24, 2019 (pool photo by Sergei Chirikov via AP Images).

Over the past several years, international policymakers, primarily in the West, as well as journalists and commentators have frequently called attention to Russia’s renewed interest in expanding its footprint in Africa. These discussions of “Russia’s return” to Africa are usually couched in a fearmongering, manichean framework of competition, ostensibly within what are regarded as Western spheres of influence in Africa. They also frequently feature calls for Western policymakers to “counter” Russia’s activities in Africa, bolstered with references to the malevolent ways Russia exerts influence among governments and publics on the continent, including—but by no means limited to—disinformation campaigns, arms sales, […]

A Senegalese soccer fan holds up a scarf during the African Cup of Nations final match between Algeria and Senegal in Cairo International stadium in Cairo, Egypt, July 19, 2019 (AP Photo by Hassan Ammar).

Fear not, for this isn’t about to be yet another piece forecasting or making “predictions” about the new year. Rather, the intention of this newsletter is to follow up on my final edition of 2021, which took stock not only of lessons learned from having written this newsletter weekly for six months, but also of some of the key developments shaping African affairs last year. Those included the geopolitics of vaccines, military coups on the continent and Africa’s international relations with the world, particularly the great powers.  To that end, here is a rundown of four major trends, developments and events […]

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