The international partnerships that have dictated the Sahel’s response to violent extremism in the past decade are crumbling. As France is withdrawing its troops from Burkina Faso, and as the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA) is under a great deal of scrutiny, new local and foreign actors are taking their chances at filling the military vacuum left by Western powers. International news outlets have extensively covered this geopolitical turn, with particular attention to the wrestle between the Western (led by France) and Russian spheres of influence. But the excessive reporting of the interplay between non-African powers in the Sahel—however crucial it may be to understand regional dynamics—betrays a Western-centric bias in international news coverage.
In a commentary for Afrique XXI, Olivier Blamanguin elaborates on the Fachoda Complex, according to which France’s colonial ambitions in Africa were driven by a futile, egotistical, almost childish rivalry with the UK, its long-time arch nemesis. France’s ideological enemy is now Russia, Blamanguin argues, as various African governments and military juntas are eying Moscow for military support. Moreover, vast campaigns of disinformation led by Russia in the Central African Republic speak to Putin’s aim to undermine the already weakening legitimacy of French military presence on the continent. Humiliated in its own “backyard,” France now aches from a “Bangui complex,” the journalist suggests.
Blamanguin is right. Russia’s growing influence in Africa, and notably in the Sahel, is indisputable, and requires careful examination. But amid this diplomatic tumult, which evokes the Cold War to many, the question of Sahelian states’ agency is often brushed over in the news.
The difference in framing of security-related events in the Sahel between Western and African news outlets is appalling. Following Ouagadougou’s announcement of French troops’ departure from Burkina Faso, what was initially framed as an “anti-French” sentiment by Reuters or Le Figaro would later be referred to as “the welcoming of sovereignty” in Africanews. Unfortunately, this calls for a critical assessment of the term “sovereignty,’’ as we lack perspective on Burkina Faso’s military-led democratic transition. But this is besides the point. The use of an “anti-French” rhetoric is evasive, and distracts the audience from the reality on the ground. While the end of French military operations was one of the Burkinabè’s main grievances, it should be understood within the frame of a wider ambition to attain true political and economic autonomy. Western media need to acknowledge Burkina Faso’s agency in tackling violent extremism and strengthening local systems of governance. Hence, an alternative framing of the recent Ouagadougou protests as “pro-Burkina Faso” instead of “anti-French’’ would do justice to that agency.
Besides, mainstream outlets’ coverage of the crisis remains profit-oriented, and catered to a Western audience. Reporting on diplomatic tensions between French and Burkinabe officials, or on violence perpetrated by Russian mercenaries will always be more profitable than covering a small-scale peace agreement between nomad and sedentary communities in northern Mali. By way of illustration, Le Figaro recently published a shock article headlined “Is Russia waging a proxy-war against France in Africa?’’ Eager to comment on the newspaper’s shortsightedness, journalist Rémi Carayol rephrased the question in a tweet: “Why is it that Russia is able to wage a proxy-war against France in Africa?’’ The tweet rightly points to how Western news outlets, through such speculative and superficial coverage, are sidelining African stakeholders from discussions regarding their own security. This, of course, holds true for the Sahel as well. The sterile debate around the alleged misrepresentation of French Barkhane soldiers in the last Black Panther movie speaks to Western media’s distorted sense of priorities.
Again, to overlook Russia’s growing influence would be a mistake, notably in light of potential human rights violations by Wagner, the Kremlin’s private military contractor. Countless articles offer their two cents on the issue, and testify to the widespread concern over Russian military presence in the Sahel. Rightly so. In fact, one could argue that the year-long war in Ukraine continues to feed the West’s anxiety regarding Moscow’s Africa policy. But it seems Western media are missing the point. Addressing the Sahel’s security crisis has grown increasingly complex, and the transition to sociopolitical stability in the region is not to be solely dictated by foreign military powers. There is an urgent need for mainstream outlets to let go of Westerncentric and paternalistic rationales and come to grips with the multidimensional challenges faced by local populations. But more importantly, there is a need for these outlets to acknowledge “Sahelians’ aspirations to reclaim their own history.’’