Niger’s electoral commission prepares ballot boxes for the presidential election runoff on 21 February. Photo Credit: AFP-ISSOUF SANOGO
The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel underscores an urgent need for an innovative policy to combat terrorism and insecurity. While this failure to ameliorate the security environment has long been evident, a series of elections in Niger, Chad, Mali, and Burkina Faso highlight from where these issues emerge and how the U.S. can find a starting point for a new approach to counterterrorism in the Sahel. In order to get ahead of the unfolding crisis, US policymakers must pursue effective governance-based solutions by identifying where US priorities align with local ambitions. Additionally, the U.S. should limit their support to governments that are committed to democratic values and population-centric approaches.
The US approach to counterterrorism in the Sahel is multifaceted and recognizes the importance of implementing local community and development-focused solutions. Simultaneously, this approach emphasizes military training and assistance programs that build the capacity of local forces to conduct counterterrorism operations.[i] The idea behind these is noteworthy: capacity-building should ensure that partner forces are able to improve security in the region while reducing dependence on international actors. However, this strategy seems to be failing, as security forces constantly lag behind the evolving tactics of terrorist groups. To make things worse, these operations have become counterproductive, as violence against civilians by security forces spiked in early 2020. In 2019 and 2020, human right abuses have been noted more frequently among Burkinabe and Malian security forces, and the number of incidents involving Nigerien forces is growing. Over 100 civilians were reportedly executed by Nigerien security forces in April 2020 near the Malian border.[ii]
As voters go to the polls and protesters take to the streets, discontent among populations with the policies of ruling governments has become clear. Even in those countries where ruling parties have won elections, there is significant opposition and allegations of fraud. Niger was the latest country to hold elections on February 21, and ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum was declared the winner with 55.75% of the vote. His opponent, Mahamane Ousmane, has contested these results and alleged fraud, although the observer mission led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) concluded that the election was generally free of irregularities.[iii] While Ousmane prepares to contest the results in court, protests have erupted in the capital, Niamey, resulting in two deaths, close to 500 arrests of protestors and opposition members, and an ongoing internet shutdown.[iv] Regardless of the outcomes of the fraud allegations, the protests and government response have made clear that the anticipated democratic transition is at serious risk.
Chad is another key partner in US counterterrorism efforts, supplying troops to operations in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso. The U.S.-Chad relationship has been tested before, when it was included in the Trump administration’s travel ban in September 2017, prompting criticism for potentially alienating an ally in the region.[v] Chad did pull troops out of Niger, but it was eventually removed from the travel ban list in April 2018 and the relationship has since been repaired.[vi] Nevertheless, Chad is a curious partner for the U.S., as the Chadian government is regarded as an authoritarian regime,[vii] raising the question of whether continuing this counterterrorism partnership is worth the cost. Chad regularly holds elections and is scheduled to hold the next presidential contest in April, but another victory for five-term President Idriss Déby is a foregone conclusion. On February 28, Chadian forces conducted a raid at the home of opposition candidate Yaya Dillo, allegedly killing five members of his family, although the Chadian government contests that there were two deaths and five injuries.[viii] Shortly after the raid, internet connectivity in Chad dropped by 40%, following a previous pattern of internet shutdowns, including a blackout of social media for over a year in 2018.[ix] In reaction to the raid, the main opposition candidate, Saleh Kezabo, exited the race and referred to the upcoming election as a “masquerade.”[x]
In Mali, a shift in US policy was unavoidable when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta was overthrown in a military coup in August 2020. In accordance with US law, all security assistance was immediately halted, a move made even more pressing by the fact that assistance had been given to security forces that participated in the coup.[xi] But what happens when elections are contested, or governments demonstrate authoritarian tendencies, but fall short of legal accountability measures? The Nigerien and Chadian elections will provide an opportunity for the Biden administration to choose its policy in the Sahel. The U.S. has maintained its strong partnership and significant security assistance to Niger despite the documented human rights abuses in 2020, and has similarly continued close cooperation with the Chadian military despite the government’s poor track record on democracy.[xii] Considering the events surrounding the current elections, the U.S. faces a choice of whether to continue favoring its strong security partnerships with key allies, or to back democratic governments and demonstrate that coveted security assistance is not unconditional.
Despite this volatile period, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of democratic governments in the Sahel. Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou agreed to step down after his constitutional limit of two terms; even as the government remains in the ruling party’s hands, this is an important symbolic gesture as Niger’s first democratic transition.[xiii] Additionally, while concerns of fraud were initially raised after President Roch Marc Christian Kabore’s win was announced in Burkina Faso, the country ultimately saw a peaceful resolution.[xiv] Whether these crucial democratic transitions can hold and provide an opportunity for improved governance initiatives depends on whether states in the Sahel are held accountable to their commitments to democracy.
A long-term US strategy should ensure that partners in the Sahel are held accountable to principles of democracy, even if it means reducing existing security partnerships. This accountability, coupled with a renewed emphasis on locally-driven governance and peacebuilding initiatives, will go farther than existing military efforts. US policy must consider voter grievances that emerged in the Sahel in recent elections, and the ways in which their governments have responded. Post-election protests, internet shutdowns, and arrests of opposition members are all worrying signs, as are the human rights abuses which have been noted during the course of counterterrorism operations. All demonstrate a dangerous potential to not only restrict democratic freedoms, but also to exacerbate issues of violent extremism by further isolating populations. Ultimately, prioritizing relationships with governments just because they have been dependable partners for the U.S., instead of working with states who value free and fair elections, is not a viable strategy to ensure long-term stability in the region.
[i] “2020 Posture Statement to Congress,” United States Africa Command, https://www.africom.mil/about-the-command/2020-posture-statement-to-congress
[ii] Nsaibia, Héni, “State Atrocities in the Sahel: The Impetus for Counterinsurgency Results Is Fueling Government Attacks on Civilians,” ACLED, https://acleddata.com/2020/05/20/state-atrocities-in-the-sahel-the-impetus-for-counter-insurgency-results-is-fueling-government-attacks-on-civilians/
[iii] “Niger Opposition Leader Alleges Election Fraud, Declares Victory,” Al Jazeera, February 24, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/24/niger-opposition-leader-declares-victory-despite-results
[iv] “Wave of Opposition Arrests after Niger’s Post-Election Violence,” RFI, February 26, 2021, https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20210226-wave-of-opposition-arrests-after-niger-s-post-election-violence
[v] Allison, Simon, “Why Is Chad Part of Trump’s Travel Ban?” ISS Africa, October 03, 2017, https://issafrica.org/amp/iss-today/why-is-chad-part-of-trumps-travel-ban
[vi] Persio, Sofia Lotto, “Why Did Trump Remove Chad from the Travel Ban List?” Newsweek, April 11, 2018, https://www.newsweek.com/why-did-trump-remove-chad-travel-ban-counter-terrorism-ally-regains-freedom-880797
[vii] “Chad: Freedom in the World 2020 Country Report,” Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/country/chad/freedom-world/2020
[viii] “Chad: Several Killed during Arrest of Opposition Figure,” Deutsche Welle, February 28, 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/chad-several-killed-during-arrest-of-opposition-figure/a-56730133
[ix] “Internet Disrupted in Chad amid Deadly Standoff at Opposition Candidate’s House,” NetBlocks, February 28, 2021, https://netblocks.org/reports/internet-disrupted-in-chad-amid-deadly-standoff-at-opposition-candidates-house-nAgGPXAp
[x] “Chad Opposition Leader Quits Presidential Race after Shoot-Out,” Al Jazeera, March 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/1/chad-opposition-leader-quits-presidential-race-after-shootout
[xi] “U.S. Maintains Suspension of Military Assistance to Mali, Says Envoy,” Reuters, October 7, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-africa-mali/u-s-maintains-suspension-of-military-assistance-to-mali-says-envoy-idUSKBN26S2NU
[xii] Siegle, Joseph, and Candace Cook, “Elections in Africa in 2021,” Africa Center for Strategic Studies, February 9, 2021, https://africacenter.org/spotlight/2021-elections/
[xiii] Siegle, Joseph, and Candace Cook, “Elections in Africa in 2021”
[xiv] “Burkina Faso President Kabore Secures Re-Election, Preliminary Results Show,” Reuters, November 26, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-burkina-election/burkina-faso-president-kabore-secures-re-election-preliminary-results-show-idUKKBN2861JZ