by Alice Pistolesi

“The Sahel region is marked by a proliferation of ‘failed States,’ where the culture of militarisation has overshadowed political and democratic processes, and the military has positioned itself as the saviour of the nation,” explains professor Tamburini. The recent Coup in Niger on 27 July is only the latest event in a long period of political, social and environmental turmoil in Africa’s Sahel region. To better understand these developments, especially in light of historical and contemporary international interventions in the region, we asked the University of Pisa Africanist some questions.

The recent Coup in Niger is only the latest in the Sahel. What is the current political situation in the region?

The Sahel region is marked by a proliferation of ‘failed States’ and countries where the culture of militarisation has taken precedence over political and democratic processes. The military presents itself as the ‘saviour’ of the nation, intervening to counter the dangers of misrule and chaos. It positions itself as a mediator between conflicting factions, offering a balancing and temporary intervention. The military’s behaviour, characterised by a ‘praetorian syndrome,’ leads it to establish and embed itself in regimes categorised as ‘guardians’ or ‘caretakers,’ ‘reformers’ or ‘redeemers.’ The ‘caretaker’ military regimes emerge on the premise that they don’t belong to the political sphere but assert that it’s their duty to remove civilian leaders who they perceive as leading the nation to ruin, thus necessitating their intervention.

The ‘reformers’ or ‘redeemers’ refer to military regimes where the military asserts its exclusive ability to steer the nation in the right direction. They assume the role of defenders of democracy, positioning themselves as the rightful leaders to guide the nation indefinitely. They see themselves as redeemers liberating the nation from neo-colonial influences, corrupt leadership, or presidents seen as straying from democratic ideals. Among the countries in the region, Niger was an exception in having a democratically elected Government. This is significant given its history marked by no less than 7 Coups since gaining independence in 1960 (1966-1975-1976-1983-1985-1990-1993) and 7 Constitutions.

What is the origin of the pro-Russian demonstrations that took place outside the French embassy in Niger after the Coup? Do you think these demonstrations reflect a collective anti-French sentiment in the region?

Determining the extent of Russia’s popularity within the country remains challenging. Can the display of two flags in front of a camera serve as substantial evidence? It’s doubtful that Russia has the power to exert significant military and economic influence in Niger, particularly given its current involvement in the Ukraine conflict. Even in the past, such influence was mediated by the ‘private’ company Wagner, which isn’t currently active in Niger. Nonetheless, Moscow has voiced support for the restoration of democratic order in the country. What remains evident is the existence of a robust and longstanding anti-French sentiment, stemming from the colonial and post-colonial history, including the concept of Françafrique, characterised as France’s special relationship and often seen as a form of neo-imperialism post-1960. This sentiment seems to be a recurring phenomenon that emerges in times of crisis. The principle ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ seems to guide many actions.

What message does the threat of military intervention in Niamey by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in conjunction with certain Western nations, send?

Around the 2016-2017 transition, Ecowas played a key role in addressing the Gambian crisis when President Jammeh refused to step down despite electoral defeat. Diplomatic efforts effectively resolved the situation. At present, the scenario in Niger is very different, and both Ecowas and the West lack the economic and military capacity to intervene. I would therefore approach this situation with scepticism, or at least a high degree of caution.

What are your thoughts on the Russian summit in Africa? Is the Kremlin’s impact on the continent really significant, or was it more of a strategic media move?

Undoubtedly, this move serves as a strategic step to reduce Russia’s international isolation, which may not be so severe given the voting patterns in the UN General Assembly on the Ukraine issue.

The speech given by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, President of the Transition in Burkina Faso, at the Russia-Africa Summit, highlights youth activism and a significant yearning for justice on the continent. Is this really the case?

The captain is currently the interim president of Burkina Faso, following a Coup on 30 September 2022, which removed President Damiba from office. So it’s important to be cautious when evaluating figures who may not uphold democratic values. However, his anti-colonial and pan-African speech resonates and echoes Thomas Sankara’s speech at the UN in October 1984. While the desire for justice is there, it is overshadowed by the ambition for power, including personal gain, of individuals who position themselves as ‘saviours’ of the nation.

Do you think that French President Macron’s visit to the Pacific and his statements may mask an underlying sentiment of imperialist retribution?

I find it unlikely that France can aspire to significant influence in the Pacific region given the presence of powerful entities like China and the United States. What’s more, France has not even been included in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), an informal strategic coalition of Australia, Japan, India and the United States set up to contain Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific.

On the cover photo: The leg of the military stands on the step next to the flag of Niger, the concept of military conflict © Millenius/