West Africa is gearing up for a regional war
by Andrew Korybko on 03 Aug 2023 0 Comment

The latest events don’t inspire confidence that a wider war in West Africa can be averted, which is why everyone should brace themselves for one breaking out sometime later this month. If NATO-backed and Nigerian-led ECOWAS doesn’t swiftly defeat the newly formed Sahelian Coalition of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger (with Guinea possibly joining them in some capacity), then Russia is expected to tangibly support the latter, thus leading to a New Cold War proxy conflict in which Chad could be the kingmaker.


Last week’s patriotic military coup in Niger, which was carried out in response to the prior regime’s failure to ensure its citizens’ security in the face of rising terrorist threats, is quickly turning into the catalyst for what could soon become a regional war in West Africa. Countries are taking sides ahead of the Economic Community Of West African States’ (ECOWAS) ultimatum expiring this Sunday [Aug. 6-ed] to reinstall ousted President Mohamed Bazoum or face what’s likely to be a French-backed Nigerian-led invasion.


Background Briefings


Here are some relevant analyses to bring everyone up to speed:


* “The Nigerien Coup Could Be A Game-Changer In The New Cold War”



* “Burkina Faso’s Interim President Told His Peers To Stop Being Imperialist Puppets”



* “The West Wants Nigeria To Invade Its Northern Neighbor”



* “Interpreting Russia’s Official Response To The Nigerien Coup”



* “A Former Nigerian Senator Shared 13 Reasons Why His Country Shouldn’t Invade Niger”



Two new developments make the risk of war a very real scenario.


Unsuccessful Diplomacy led to threats of war & emergency evacuations


Burkina Faso and Mali, whose Interim Presidents were brought to power by patriotic military coups and recently attended the second Russia-Africa Summit last week in St. Petersburg, jointly stated on Monday night that an intervention in Niger would be regarded as a declaration of war against them both. They also pledged to withdraw from ECOWAS if that happens. Hours later on Tuesday morning, France then announced the emergency evacuation of EU citizens from Niger, thus suggesting that it expects war.


Interim Chadian President Mahamat Idriss Deby Itno, who also came to power in similar circumstances as his Sahelian peers, apparently couldn’t broker a compromise like he sought to do during his visit to the Nigerien capital of Niamey. Although his country isn’t part of ECOWAS, it closely cooperates with Niger and Nigeria against shared terrorist threats from Boko Haram. Chad is also a regional military powerhouse that could prove to be the kingmaker in this prospective conflict as will later be explained.


Foreign forces in Niger


Before sharing a few scenario forecasts and related variables that can shape this probable conflict’s trajectory, it’s important to touch on a few other regional details, beginning with the presence of foreign forces in West Africa. Niger presently hosts French, US, German, and Italian troops, and its junta claimed on Monday that Paris is conspiring with the former regime’s loyalists to coordinate airstrikes aimed at freeing the country’s ousted leader who’s been detained in the presidential palace.


The de facto Burkinabe-Malian Federation


The next detail to mention is that Burkina Faso and Mali are seriously considering merging into a federation, which Interim President Ibrahim Traore most recently spoke about during an interview with Sputnik. These plans, which were first floated in February, add crucial context to their joint statement on Monday night that they’ll regard an invasion of Niger as a declaration of war against both of them and will accordingly rush to that neighbouring country’s defense.


Guinea’s stakes in the regional game


On a related note, those two began exploring the potential for trilateral cooperation with nearby Guinea the same month that they floated their federation plans. That country has been under military rule since late 2021 and was thus suspended from ECOWAS just like those two were for the same reason. All are close with Russia too, so Atlantic-bordering Guinea could in theory serve as a conduit for Moscow to supply its landlocked partners, unless of course ECOWAS and / or its Western overlords blockade it.


The Libyan Factor


Regardless of whether or not that happens, Niger’s Libyan neighbour could play a complementary role in supplying the newly formed Sahelian Coalition. Leader of the Presidential Council Mohamed Yunus al-Menfi also attended last week’s second Russia-Africa Summit and met with President Putin while there, during which time the Russian leader pledged to “further promote progress on key tracks of the settlement based on efforts to ensure unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Libyan state.”


These three goals are relevant considering the Burkinabe-Malian joint statement’s warning that an invasion of Niger “could destabilize the entire region, as had the unilateral NATO intervention in Libya, which was at the root of the expansion of the terrorism in the Sahel and West Africa.” Their shared assessment is accurate and can serve as the pretext for Russia to scale up military aid to them and Niger via Libya, the latter of which is extremely fragile and could be destabilized by this coming war too.


Potential Russian Air Bridges


Although there’s no convenient air bridge between Russia and Libya right now, the circuitous Russian-Syrian one via the Caspian, Iran, and Iraq could be expanded across the Eastern Mediterranean after refuelling in the Arab Republic to serve this purpose. If Saudi Arabia and recently multipolar–leaning Chad agree to give Russia air transit rights, then another corridor via Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Chad could be formed to evade possible NATO interference in the Mediterranean.


That last-mentioned route can’t be taken for granted, however, after Sudan once again extended its airspace closure till mid-August. Although the Deputy Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council just led his country’s delegation to Russia, the military junta that he represents is still embroiled in a bloody conflict with the reportedly Wagner-linked Rapid Support Forces, so trust isn’t as strong as it used to be. Furthermore, Chad has been coy about its stance towards Niger, and with good reason.


Chad’s military-strategic calculations


This regional military powerhouse must avoid overextending itself in the face of complex domestic and international threats, the first of which concern anti-government rebels and Colour Revolutionaries while the latter involve foreign-based rebels and terrorists as well as the risk of regional conflict overspills. Chad has also been trying to rebalance its lopsided relationship with the West since the start of this year, which places certain pressures upon it that could limit its range of options in a regional crisis.


The top ten variables


The state of military-strategic affairs described up until this point sets the stage for scenario forecasting, though the reader should remember that the chaotic dynamics of any given conflict mean that even the most compelling predictions might ultimately not come to pass. That said, these sorts of thought exercises are still useful if they’re based on objectively existing relationships between the pertinent parties and their most likely calculations as informed by an understanding of their respective interests.


All scenarios are dependent on variables, the most pertinent of which in this context are as follows:

1. Will Nigeria agree to do the West’s bidding by leading ECOWAS’ invasion of Niger?

2. Would Chad join Nigeria, vow to defend Niger, play kingmaker later, or stay out of the conflict entirely?

3. What role will Western forces in Niger play if Nigeria invades that country?

4. Would they attack intervening Burkinabe-Malian forces or might those two attack them first?

5. How likely is it that other ECOWAS states attack and / or invade Burkina Faso and/or Mali?

6. How militarily, economically, and politically prepared are all regional parties for a prolonged conflict?

7. What logistical corridors could their foreign allies rely on and which obstacles might impede them?

8. Will a wider West African war turn into another New Cold War proxy conflict?

9. How might NATO-Russian tensions in West Africa affect those two’s proxy war in Ukraine?

10. Will other states in Africa feel emboldened by this to militarily resolve their own regional problems?


From the above, the following scenarios can be expected, but none of them are of course guaranteed:


1. Limited Conflict (Swift Scenario)

Nigeria swiftly defeats the Nigerien junta and its Burkinabe-Malian allies inside Niger with / without French-US (air and / or special forces) and / or Chadian (air and / or ground) support while leaving Burkina Faso and Mali untouched with their respective military-led interim governments remaining in place.


2. Expanded Conflict (Swift Scenario)

Directly backed by France and / or the US and possibly with some level of Chadian support, Nigeria leads an ECOWAS invasion force that swiftly deposes the Burkinabe, Malian, and Nigerien military-led interim governments, thus restoring Paris’ newly lost “sphere of influence” in West Africa.


3. Limited Conflict (Prolonged Scenario)

Niger becomes a New Cold War proxy conflict as the NATO-backed Nigerian-led ECOWAS invasion of that country fails to depose its junta due to fierce resistance from Russian-backed Burkinabe-Malian forces, leading to each bloc courting Chad to intervene on their side as the kingmaker.


4. Expanded Conflict (Prolonged Scenario)

The aforesaid blocs remain the same as does the stalemate and Chad’s neutral status but the conflict’s scope expands to include the de facto Burkinabe-Malian Federation, which emboldens Egypt to intervene in Sudan and Rwanda to do the same in Congo, thus sparking an African-wide crisis.



The NATO-Russian “race of logistics” / “war of attrition” in Ukraine will affect the support that they extend to their respective West African allies in the two prolonged scenarios, and it can also influence their decision whether to provoke a standoff in either New Cold War theatre. China, India, and other major neutral countries like Türkiye are expected to diplomatically intervene in those prolonged scenarios too, though it’s impossible at this point to predict how successful they’d be.


Those pairs of scenarios also entail great risks to Nigeria’s stability too since they could lead to cascading economic and security crises that combine to form a very serious political one if labour strikes cripple the country and rebels and / or terrorists exploit the armed forces’ newfound focus on Niger. To be clear, none of this is guaranteed to happen, but it also can’t be ruled out either considering Nigeria’s fragility. A Nigerien quagmire could therefore lead to unpredictable and possibly far-reaching consequences for it.


Concluding Thoughts


The latest events don’t inspire confidence that a wider war in West Africa can be averted, which is why everyone should brace themselves for one breaking out sometime later this month. If NATO-backed and Nigerian-led ECOWAS doesn’t swiftly defeat the newly formed Sahelian Coalition of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger (with Guinea possibly joining them in some capacity), then Russia is expected to tangibly support the latter, thus leading to a New Cold War proxy conflict in which Chad could be the kingmaker.




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