Beyond the Niger crisis: Towards a new Sahelian "great game"? Spécial

The Niger crisis has dominated African news since the coup d'état on July 26. But it is revealing by the day that a tough positioning battle is underway in the Sahel. Beyond the divergent positions within ECOWAS itself and in Africa, and despite the appearance of a certain alignment in the discourse of principle, the foreign powers are in a struggle for influence which, at the end of this crisis, will redraw the contours of a new balance of power in the region. As part of the Timbuktu Institute's weekly column in partnership with Medi1Tv, Dr. Bakary Sambe looks back at what he sees as a new Sahelian "grand game", analyzing what is at stake for the region as a result.

Dr. Bakary Sambe, despite the burning news focused on the current crisis in Niger, you maintain that at the same time a new "great game" is taking shape in the Sahel. What do you think it is?

The United States seems to have taken a firm stance on principle in the current crisis in Niger, and is very cautious about the military option, which seems to have the backing of France, for example. But, given its approach, it seems that Washington would like to avoid its image being forever impacted by an association with France in this crucial phase of the crisis. Another important element in the American preference for the diplomatic approach over the military solution is that it does not put it as the first option. If we look closely, for the United States it's a question of absolutely avoiding being associated with a power increasingly rejected by the West African street and a certain pan-Africanist and sovereignist elite, because of its colonial past and its background of interventionist and "gunboat" diplomacy. However, the USA enjoys a certain "virginity" in the region, which benefits its image and its proactive soft power in West Africa. Moreover, even a successful military intervention - which is still hypothetical - would deal a huge blow to this more or less positive image, which enables the USA to serve as an "alternative" partner to France, with whom it is, after all, in competition in French-speaking Africa, despite appearances and nuances.

Before this crisis, there was already this bitter struggle for influence between Western countries and Russia, which, and I quote you, "is looking for a better foothold in the Sahel despite its geographical distance". Will this struggle for influence take a new turn with the current crisis?

Niger is in an extremely strategic position that the United States will never abandon. Washington is well aware that its departure from the bases set up in this country would mean a stronger Russian foothold in the central Sahel. And it is not certain that France will not suffer the same fate as Mali. Hence the visible caution regarding military intervention, which would have an impact on the acceptance of the presence of its forces and its intelligence and operational facilities in Niger (worth $100 million, with a cumulative investment of $500 million), which, thanks to their low profile, are still the object of benevolent acceptance on the part of the Nigerien street, despite the timid recent demonstrations in Agadez. As we have seen, since the start of the crisis, Russia has maneuvered well to subtly express its disagreement with the military intervention, while strategically taking care not to alienate ECOWAS, an important partner in a region where it is already well established in Mali and even Burkina Faso.

But in reality, Dr Bakary Sambe, is the so-called Western bloc, represented by the countries that are members of NATO, still as compact as you might think? In other words, how will this crisis, with its uncertain outcome, reconfigure the balance of power in the region?

In the context of this crisis, not all players are in the same boat. First and foremost, there's the situation of Europe, which seems to be searching for its place in the Sahel, since the progressive weakening of its French “champion” in the region. It has to be said that Germany is not without interest in a new leadership role in the region after so many years of aligning itself with the major European orientations under the aegis of France. Since the beginning of the crisis, the German press has placed a great deal of emphasis on anti-French sentiment in the Sahel Region. For Americans, considered in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and even in some parts of Europe as the hegemonic power par excellence, the USA still retains in Africa the image of a power with no colonial antecedents like the European powers, but with a certain sympathetic capital cultivated by proactive soft power. For Washington, this represents a comparative diplomatic advantage that it does not want to sacrifice at any cost on the altar of objectives secondary to its global strategy, particularly anti-terrorism, for which Niger remains a key element to be safeguarded, if necessary at all costs.