Even in the best of circumstances, the central Sahelian countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are structurally some of the world’s most vulnerable states, suffering from endemic poverty, food insecurity, economic exploitation and the compounding effects of decades of mostly misrule. But since 2012, a rebellion in northern Mali has metastasized into a widening crisis that has engulfed the region and now threatens the security and stability of other West African countries as well. Now each week brings a new illustration of the Sahel’s intertwined political and security crises, as military juntas postpone elections, old rebellions re-erupt, jihadists ambush soldiers, cities reel from jihadist blockades, and bandits and militias prey upon ordinary people.
Amid this multifaceted conflict, there has been a long, haphazard and increasingly desperate search for solutions to the jihadist insurgency, which local governments and Western powers see—understandably, but somewhat simplistically—as the region’s top challenge. A French counterterrorism force that was deployed first to Mali in 2012 and subsequently across the region failed—both militarily, in its efforts to curb jihadist insurgency; and politically, in its attempts to maintain buy-in from local populations and militaries. Since 2020, the region’s militaries have presented themselves as the solution, seizing power from civilian governments in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger; in Burkina Faso, a second “coup within a coup” seized power from the previous military junta. As a replacement for the French forces it expelled from the country, Mali’s junta even hired the infamous Wagner Group, which has propped up the regime but only enflamed the insurgency.
In short, none of the military solutions that have been attempted have worked. Now a new long-shot idea is making the rounds: bringing in Rwandan security forces, which have seemingly achieved some success in rolling back insurgencies in Mozambique and, to a lesser extent, the Central African Republic.