The Sahel region has been at the heart of African peace and security concerns for over a decade. While the ongoing conflict in Mali is an epicentre of insecurity in the region, no state has been untouched by jihadist insurgencies in that time. Western states have taken a key interest in counterterrorism in the region for almost twenty years. As deaths and displacement grow, most notably in the central Sahel — Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger — the question of how to counter terrorism and insurgency remains at the top of the political agenda.
Earlier this month, Malian president Assimi Goïta announced via tweet that the Alliance des États du Sahel (AES, or ‘Alliance of Sahel States’) had been formed between his country and neighbours Niger and Burkina Faso. The Alliance’s founding document, the Liptako-Gourma Charter, was signed on September 16th in Bamako by the three heads of state and includes clauses for mutual aid and defence. Mali’s foreign minister Abdoulaye Diop heralded the AES as a tool for military and economic cooperation across the three states. The emergence of the AES is part of a broader shake-up of the established practices and relations — notably with France — that had until recently structured politics and security in the Sahel.
Entrenching coup leaders?
The AES should first be seen through the lens of coup leaders’ political strategies. Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are all led by military leaders overseeing prolonged transitional governments after leading coup d’états.
Mali’s president Goïta overthrew the country’s last elected president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2020 and mounted a second ‘coup within a coup’ against the civilian interim president the following year to assume the presidency directly. Mali has undergone a diversification of its security partnerships and relations with Western partners and the UN have been strained. Mali has since embraced a counter-terrorist approach that has boosted reliance on communal militias as well as drawn on the assistance of contractors from the Wagner Group. In Burkina Faso, president Ibrahim Traoré took power in late 2022. As in Mali, concerns over mounting insecurity and frustrations with the political class drove support for the coup. At the time, almost 2 million people were displaced in Burkina Faso due to mounting violence. In Niger, president Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown in July 2023 by the head of the presidential guard, general Abdourahmane Tchiani. The coup in Niger was accompanied by an uncharacteristically strong set of sanctions and threats of military intervention by the regional bloc ECOWAS, which were in turn met with a firm threat from Mali and Burkina Faso that any intervention would be seen as an attack on all three states.
Ideology and opportunity have pushed the three coup leaders towards a common strategic posture: a repudiation of French political and military positions in the region, drawing on real popular frustration with the failures of international intervention and France’s broader colonial legacies. While Russian influence in the Sahel is often overplayed, Mali and Burkina Faso have made clear overtures. The AES charter was signed within a day of closed door meetings between the deputy Russian defence minister and the defence ministers of all three countries. Domestic and regional considerations remain more important, and the AES is the latest move in a struggle over security and politics in the region, especially in its formation of an anti-ECOWAS front.
The future of security politics in the Sahel
The AES charter articles around mutual defence and creating a ‘common space’ across the three member states are potentially significant. They provide a deep commitment in terms of collective security that was never on offer from the G5 Sahel, the regional organization formed in 2014 by Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad to reinforce regional cooperation around counterterrorism. The G5’s joint military force launched in 2017 but never picked up steam, and the G5 Sahel has been largely written off by many observers of the region. The organization has been hampered by inconsistent funding, Mali’s withdrawal in 2022, as well as a lingering perception that it is a Western policy tool (it has been funded to the tune of hundreds of millions of Euros by the EU). It testifies to the fragmentation of peace and security structures in Africa more generally.
There remain several open questions about the Alliance des États du Sahel. How long will the arrangement last? Can its security principles translate into practice?
With the spread of jihadist violence impacting coastal West African states such as Benin, Togo, and Ghana, the Sahel problem is no longer geographically limited to this region. While the Accra Initiative is emerging as the new ad hoc security grouping in West Africa, the AES could be a compelling alternative or parallel structure, especially for states seeking to multiply international partnerships. The AES might even act as a kind of ‘shell’ or ‘brand’ for attracting international security funding from non-Western partners.
There remain several open questions about the Alliance des États du Sahel. How long will the arrangement last? Can its security principles translate into practice? On the latter question, even small deployments of troops overseas place strain on the capacities of armies like Burkina Faso’s, and cause dissidence within the ranks. If the AES cannot attract external funding, its efforts to mutualize defence commitments may not be realizable. On the durability of the alliance itself, much depends on the fate of the military leaders of the central Sahel. Coup attempts are frequent — there was one in Burkina Faso last week — and the AES may be too dependent on the motivations of its heads of state to succeed (this also plagued the G5 Sahel). Beyond security, the AES could generate an alternative regional power bloc in addition to ECOWAS. While the latter facilitates mobility in the region — citizens can travel visa free for 90 days across the zone — the AES could do something similar or go further. The only certainty today is that security architectures in the Sahel are changing fast in response to political exigencies, all while insurgencies and insecurity continue to gain ground.