“Axis” of Military Regimes Strengthens in West Africa With Support From Russia

“Niger junta leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani announced that his country will allow the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso to send their soldiers into Niger to defend against an attack.”

A new pro-Russia geopolitical bloc is gaining steam in West Africa. Composed of francophone military regimes in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, the new bloc is showing itself to be a cohesive and problematic new alliance in regional military, security, and political affairs with assistance from Russia and the Wagner Group. The first excerpted article, from the French state-sponsored RFI reposted on the pan-African news aggregator AllAfrica.com,includes the first known reference to a so-called “Mali-Russia-Niger Axis.”. To that “Axis,” one should also add Burkina Faso, a close ally of Mali, the Nigerien junta, and Russia. Mali and Russia formed the basis of this “Axis” after its two coups in 2020 and 2021, and Burkina Faso’s own 2022 coup led it to quickly fall in with the other two states.[i] Niger’s own military-led overthrow led its new government to  the newest member of the “Axis.” The four countries increasingly support one another. According to the RFI article, Russia recently vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have kept UN observers in Mali. This veto was both a boon for Mali, which had demanded the end of the UN’s peacekeeping mission, and for Russia, which the UN had, in veiled language, accused of widespread human rights abuses in Mali. The second article from AllAfrica.com states that the Nigerien junta recently signed a pact with Mali and Burkina Faso to allow their troops to enter Niger to defend it against an external attack. This pact was made in reference to discussions of a potential Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) military intervention into Niger to oust that country’s leader, General Abdourahamane Tchiani.[ii] Regarding Russian involvement, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger all have varying degrees of engagement with the Wagner Group.[iii] Moreover, in all three countries, Russian misinformation and disinformation campaigns, particularly decrying French presence, have been rampant. In return, Mali has been a supporter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Increasingly, West Africa is being split into two camps. On one side is the described pro-Russia axis, while on the other side are the France-friendly countries like Senegal,[iv] Cote d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Nigeria, the latter of which chairs ECOWAS.


Melissa Chemam, “West Africa: Niger’s Junta Finds Support in Mali and Russia, But France Stands Firm,” AllAfrica.com (pan-African news aggregator), 11 September 2023. https://allafrica.com/stories/202309120079.html

The leaders of Russia and Mali have agreed the political crisis in Niger should be resolved using diplomacy and not force. Meanwhile, France has rejected accusations by Niger’s coup leaders that it’s planning a military intervention.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin and interim Malian leader Assimi Goita had talked by telephone at Bamako’s request.

The comment came a day after Niger’s military rulers accused former colonial power France of assembling troops, war materials and equipment in several neighboring West African countries with a view to “military intervention” in the Sahel state.

A Mali-Russia-Niger axis

During his telephone exchange with Putin, Goita thanked Russia for vetoing an attempt by the UN Security Council to keep a team of UN experts in Mali.

The experts had accused “foreign forces”, a veiled reference to the Russian mercenary group Wagner, of involvement in widespread abuses in Mali.

Mali shares a long border with Niger, and, immediately after the coup, its junta voiced support for Niger’s new military rulers.

It has on several occasions stated its opposition to a military intervention there.

Mali has shifted sharply to Russia since back-to-back coups in 2020 and 2021, becoming one of the few nations to back Moscow at the United Nations over its invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin added that Putin and Goita also discussed cooperation between Russia and Mail on economic and commercial issues, and on “anti-terror” operations.

Ecowas leaders have threatened to intervene militarily in Niger, the fourth West African nation since 2020 to suffer a coup after Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

“Niger: Junta Leader Signs Order to Allow Help from Burkina Faso, Mali Military,” AllAfrica.com (pan-African news aggregator), 25 August 2023. https://allafrica.com/stories/202308250228.html

Niger junta leader General Abdourahamane Tchiani announced that his country will allow the military governments of Mali and Burkina Faso to send their soldiers into Niger to defend against an attack.

Tchiani had been in a meeting with the foreign ministers of Burkina Faso, Olivia Rouamba, and Mali, Abdoulaye Diop, visited Gen Tchiani in Niamey before signing the order.West African regional bloc Ecowas was threatening to use force if President Mohamed Bassoum is not reinstated, but the regional West African bloc is focusing on diplomacy for now.


[i] For more reading on the relationships between these four countries, see: Jason Warner, “Burkina Faso Claims Disguised Jihadists, Not Military, Responsible for Civilian Killings,” OE Watch 06-2023.https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/burkina-faso-claims-disguised-jihadists-not-military-responsible-for-civilian-killings/; Jason Warner, “Vast Majority of Malians Express Confidence in Russia’s Ability To Address Jihadist Violence,” OE Watch, 06-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/vast-majority-of-malians-express-confidence-in-russias-ability-to-address-jihadist-violence/; Jason Warner, “Russia-Supported Military Rulers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea Continue To Deepen Ties,” OE Watch, 04-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/russia-supported-military-rulers-in-mali-burkina-faso-and-guinea-continue-to-deepen-ties/; Jason Warner, “Mali Defends Reliance on Russian Counterterrorism Assistance,” OE Watch, 03-2023. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/437332; Jason Warner, “West African States Ruled by Military Leaders Seek To Circumvent Future Sanctions” OE Watch, 03-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/west-african-states-ruled-by-military-leaders-seek-to-circumvent-future-sanctions/

[ii] For more on the perspectives of the potential ECOWAS intervention, see: Jason Warner, “West African States Split on Potential ECOWAS Intervention in Niger,” OE Watch 08-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/west-african-states-split-on-potential-intervention-in-niger/

[iii] Mali has a substantial Wagner presence in the country. In Burkina Faso, the government has denied the official presence of Wagner, though many observers, including Ghana’s president, have claimed that the private military company does indeed operate there. In the case of Niger, reports have emerged that the Tichani has requested Wagner’s presence, though it is yet unconfirmed if this call has been answered. For more on Burkina Faso’s relationship with Wagner and Russia, see: Jason Warner, “Burkina Faso Fights Terrorism With Recruits and Russia,” OE Watch, 02-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/burkina-faso-fights-terrorism-with-recruits-and-russia/

[iv] Even within Senegal, members of the political commentariat have decried Senegal’s potential participation in a theoretical ECOWAS intervention into Niger. For instance, an op-ed signed by more than one hundred Senegalese in the news outlet Sud Quotidien called participation in such an intervention “a neocolonial military adventure.”  See: “Afrique de l’Ouest: L’aventure militarie neocoloniale du President Macky Sall (West Africa: The neocolonial military adventure of President Macky Sall),” Sud Quotidien (Senegal-based news outlet), 6 September 2023. https://fr.allafrica.com/stories/202309070398.html

As Sahelian Jihadists Expand South, Côte d’Ivoire Stands as Model of Success

While much of the rest of the Sahel has become engulfed in jihadist violence, Côte d’Ivoire, highlighted here, has had surprising success at avoiding the same violence.

“The goal is to reverse perceptions among border communities that the state has abandoned them. Doing so will reduce the risk that they are exploited by insurgents.”

For the past several years, a primary concern in the Sahelian region of West Africa has been the ability of groups associated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda to push southward as they march to the littoral of the Bight of Benin.[i] While Mali and Burkina Faso continue to be the epicenters of jihadist activity, even historically immune countries like Togo, Benin, and Ghana have seen their northern regions, which border Mali and Burkina Faso, experience violence from these groups.[ii] However, as the accompanying article from the pan-African think tank The Institute for Security Studies articulates, Cote d’Ivoire, which would reasonably experience similar threats, seems to have figured out how to protect itself from this southern push. According to the authors, the country’s success is due to its commitment to strategies of security and development. On the security side, the article notes that its “military and security interventions played a notable role in achieving the prevailing calm.” These included several standard practices: the creation of a nationwide counterterrorism strategy; the addition of new weapons and armored vehicles; and the creation of a new counterterrorism center. Yet from the authors’ perspectives, the real success story has been Côte d’Ivoire’s citizen-centric development efforts, targeting populations living in its rural north, who are most susceptible to violence and radicalization. To discourage their joining the insurgents, the government’s social program seeks to “improve civilians’ living conditions” to “reverse the perception among border communities that the state has abandoned them” so as to “reduce the risk that they are exploited by insurgents.” The development program has focused on improving infrastructure, health, youth employment, and social safety allowances. A recent report by the global think tank International Crisis Group draws similar conclusions,[iii] further underscoring the broader perception of Côte d’Ivoire’s efficacy on this front. As the United States and partner countries seek to stem the tide of jihadist violence, Côte d’Ivoire’s approach might bear attention as a model that could be replicated elsewhere in the region.


William Assanvo, “Has Côte d’Ivoire found the solution to violent extremism?,” Institute for Security Studies (centrist pan-African security studies think tank), 25 July 2023. https://issafrica.org/iss-today/has-cote-divoire-found-the-solution-to-violent-extremism

No significant terror attacks have been reported in northern Côte d’Ivoire over the past two years, suggesting that its approach to addressing the problem has been effective. With many other states in West Africa still facing a growing threat, what is the country doing right?

Côte d’Ivoire’s border area with Burkina Faso was under substantial pressure from violent extremist groups between 2020 and 2021. Almost 20 attacks and incidents attributed to these groups were recorded in that period. These included attacks against positions and convoys of the defence and security forces, incursions into Ivorian territory, propaganda sermons, threats and intimidation of civilians.

In response, the government focused first on military and security operations, and then supplemented these with a social programme…

Following the Grand-Bassam attack, efforts to strengthen the security apparatus continued, including developing a national counter-terrorism strategy in 2018.

From 2019, the growing presence of extremists in Burkina Faso’s forests along the border with Côte d’Ivoire led to increased vigilance and a stronger military presence in the north. In May 2020, a joint military operation was conducted with Burkina Faso.

This saw the creation in July 2020 of an operational zone in the north, the set-up of military camps in some border localities, and significant investments in increasing the defence and security forces’ functional capacity. This included human resources, air assets, armoured transport vehicles and surveillance equipment.

A counter-terrorism intelligence centre, Centre de renseignement opérationnel antiterroriste, was created in August 2021 to improve intelligence gathering. Better regional cooperation between countries, particularly within the framework of the Accra Initiative in which Côte d’Ivoire participates, was another important part of the response.

The military and security interventions played a notable role in achieving the prevailing calm. Land, air and intelligence operations have contributed to reducing armed groups’ ability to carry out incursions, move around, and operate within Ivorian territory. And reinforcing the presence of soldiers along the border has reassured civilians. It is also possible that the lull is due to the extremists withdrawing across the border to continue their violence there or adopt a low profile.

While this period of calm prevailed, the social component of the Ivorian response to the terror threat was started. It is being implemented under the framework of the government’s second social programme (PS Gouv 2), which runs from 2022 to 2024. The programme’s first strategic axis includes addressing the fragility in the northern border areas.

The programme was announced in November 2021 and officially launched in January 2022. It aims to improve civilians’ living conditions by enhancing infrastructure and access to basic social services. The goal is to reverse perceptions among border communities that the state has abandoned them. Doing so will reduce the risk that they are exploited by insurgents. The programme focuses on education, health, access to electricity and drinking water, road maintenance, professional integration and youth employment, and providing social safety allowances.The Ivorian approach of combining a military, security and social response isn’t in itself innovative or fundamentally different from that used by neighbouring countries facing terrorism. Notable examples are in central Mali, the Burkina Faso region of the Sahel, and northern Togo. The difference in Côte d’Ivoire could lie in its implementation of these strategies.


[i] For more on the push of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants towards the West African coast, see: Jason Warner, “UN Warns About Islamic State Surging in Africa and Afghanistan,” OE Watch, 03-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/un-warns-about-islamic-state-surging-in-africa-and-afghanistan/; Jason Warner, “Coastal West African States Brace for Wave of Terrorism From the Sahel,” OE Watch, 10-2022. https://community.apan.org/wg/tradoc-g2/fmso/m/oe-watch-articles-2-singular-format/428040

[ii] West African states have taken various approaches to dealing with jihadist insurgents, especially on the topic of negotiations. For more, see: Jason Warner, “Sahelian Countries Divided on Negotiating With Al-Qaeda, Islamic State Militants,” OE Watch 07-2023. https://fmso.tradoc.army.mil/2023/sahelian-countries-divided-on-negotiating-with-al-qaeda-islamic-state-militants/ 

[iii] The International Crisis Group report largely agrees that the dual security and development approach of Côte d’Ivoire has been important, but also notes that the country’s broader focus on economic development; the northern region’s importance as a base of power for the ruling party; religious tolerance; and an ethnically and regionally balanced military also played their own roles. To read the International Crisis Group study on the topic, see: International Crisis Group, “Keeping Jihadists Out of Northern Cote d’Ivoire,” International Crisis Group, 23 August 2023. https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/west-africa/cote-divoire/b192-keeping-jihadists-out-northern-cote-divoire

Image Information:

Image: While much of the rest of the Sahel has become engulfed in jihadist violence, Côte d’Ivoire, highlighted here, has had surprising success at avoiding the same violence.
Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/Cote_d_Ivoire_in_Africa_%28-mini_map_-rivers%29.svg
Attribution: TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0