Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 2  /  

How France’s Lack of a Strategy in West Africa Indirectly Led to the Coups D’états

How France's Lack of a Strategy in West Africa Indirectly Led to the Coups D’états How France's Lack of a Strategy in West Africa Indirectly Led to the Coups D’états
Author: own work. Source: own work. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
To cite this article: Beloff, Jonathan R., “How France's Lack of a Strategy in West Africa Indirectly Led to the Coups D’états,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2, winter 2024, pages 20-26.

The loosely termed War on Terror and the 2021 Ukraine-Russia war have increased Western concern about losing its influence in Africa. Akin to the post-colonial scramble for Africa between the Marxist Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China versus the Capitalistic West of the United States, United Kingdom and France, there is a growing concern about a new division between the West and the former East. Within Western Africa and the broader Sahel, military coup-d’états appear to sprout again despite some initial hopes of democratic norms taking hold that favoured Western interests. The current wave of coups is nothing new, as they are a historical mechanism of political power transitions within the region and much of the African continent.[i] However, the recent increase in the removal of governments by military leaders has raised new concerns by Western leaders. While not the only reason, a perhaps overlooked one is France’s failed use of military forces to attempt to solve short-term instability in the Sahel from Islamic jihadists, which fostered long-term political instability and havoc in its regional relations.

History provides important context to the instability in the Sahel. However, France’s recent failures in stabilising the region was its lack of a clear, defining public policy, which led to a muddled strategy when fighting the irregular Islamic jihadist forces. Unlike the Russian Wagner Group, which has a clear focus on attacking jihadists to gain control over resources, France’s lack of clarity was its downfall in the region. Without the appropriate understanding of elements within Strategic Theory, France and other Western nations will likely commit similar errors in the future within the region, Africa, and the non-Western world. This research argues that the French’s inability to have a clear policy and strategy led to its ineffectiveness in the region to establish peace. It first examines the historical context of the Sahel and West Africa to provide a picture of what has led to the coups. The underlying instability from Islamic jihadists led to French attempts in Operation Barkhane to quell the short-term instability. France fell victim to a strategy against tactics against terrorism, which is problematic and, as seen during the Vietnam War and the War on Terrorism, is doomed to fail and helped initiate the multiple coups and long-term instability in its sphere of influence.[ii] While the research does not argue this single-handedly is the cause for the rise of coup d’états in the region, it nevertheless played an important role.

A Brief Modern Historical Context of the Sahel:

France’s initial colonisation of West Africa began during the reign of Napoleon III in present-day Senegal.[iii] By the second half of the 19th century, specifically the 1880s-1900s, a spur of colonisation within the region grew with trading posts and military camps scattered throughout the vast territory. The French secured these territories during the 1884 Berlin Conference, with Dakar being the region’s capital. Unlike Algeria[iv], these territories were never intended to be absorbed adequately within France proper but remain a vital centre for French trade and prestige. Decolonisation in the late 1950s and early 1960s saw France’s regional territories gain independence. France publicly established a neo-colonial system to keep the region under its sphere of influence. Paris would carefully control the region’s economies, regional cooperation, and security.

Most notable in these forced cooperation agreements was the creation of the West African and Central African CFA franc, which would be used in either West or Central Africa but controlled by France. The currency was pegged to the French franc until it was connected to the Euro after France adopted the new currency. Monetary control over the currency was strictly done in Paris, with West African nations having little control over the valuation of the currency.[v] Additionally, West African nations were required to store their foreign cash reserves in France, which benefited the French franc. By 2019, regional nations gained monetary control over the West African CFA franc from France.[vi] France’s control over the region’s finances impacted West African nations’ public policy in terms of military and security spending. The ability to influence these nations’ finances also impacted their ability to craft public policy and, thus, the ability to conduct warfare.[vii] For much of the capitalist West, the system allowed the prevention of Marxist revolutions with military leaders often paid by the French to remain loyal within the socio-political and economic system. Throughout the post-colonial period, the region experienced multiple coup d’états, often with French intervention, as thousands of French soldiers were stationed there.

Despite the region’s instability predating the September 11, 2001, attacks by Al Qaeda against the United States, the creation of the US-led War on Terrorism led to greater Western interest in combatting Islamic extremist groups within West Africa. Since 2013, multiple security missions have been deployed in the region. French forces under the overarching Operation Barkhane, operated between 2014 and 2022 attempted to dislodge Islamic jihadists and to train local military officials with new technologies and resources.[viii] Over 3000 French soldiers, trained in counter-terrorism tactics, were intended to help establish stability in many of these countries.[ix] Despite France’s operation, the security situation within the region has not improved.

Within Mali, the establishment of the International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) came after the 2012 Salafist jihadist groups joined with the Tuareg political organisation. These groups held the policy interest of gaining political, economic and military control over the northern Azawad region.[x] Under Operation Barkhane, France committed its forces to Operation Serval in 2013 to help halt the irregular forces with only minor success by the time it concluded in November 2022.[xi] The European Union and the regional partner bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), helped create the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) to help defeat the Islamic jihadist groups and regain national security. However, the success of MINUSMA is questioned as it did not have the military mass and resources to secure the northern part of Mali properly, let alone the rest of the nation and was terminated by June 2023.[xii] One of the primary justifications for the 2021 coup was in response to the failures of the military intervention, especially of the French, to secure stability. Other regional countries experience similar issues.

One of the long-term consequences of France’s inability to quell the short-term instability of the Islamic jihadist groups is the rise of coups. The most recent of these coups at the time of writing is the July 2023 Nigerien coup.[xiii] Other regional neighbours also experienced recent coups, such as Mali in May 2021, Burkina Faso in January and later September 2022, and Guinea in September 2021.[xiv] Beyond West Africa, Chad, Gabon and Sudan have also witnessed military overthrows of governments.[xv] With the recent coups in Gabon, Niger and Mali, questions arise about what led to these political shifts. Numerous explanations, such as the disentrancement of democracy, corruption, family dynasties, as in the example of Gabon, and security, are to blame for the coups.[xvi] This last explanation is significant as France has contributed its military to fight against Islamic jihadists and irregular forces that have operated within much of the Sahel. It asks how France could not secure short or long-term stability despite its military prowess.

Niger is another example of how the 1500 French forces, along with US military advisors, trained local military actors to combat groups connected to ISIS and Al Qaeda.[xvii] Even with this military might, it was ineffective in stopping Islamic jihadists within their region of the Sahel.[xviii] Additionally, France withdrew its ambassador from the nation.[xix] The failures of the Niger government to provide security, even with the French and US military support, resulted in the July 2023 coup. Some initial indications were that ECOWAS would militarily intervene, but the Nigerian-backed plan never materialised.[xx] The north-eastern province of Sahel in Burkina Faso has also experienced Islamic fighters creating instability.[xxi] France’s Army Special Forces Command deployed soldiers to Burkina Faso in January 2015 after the Ouagadougou terrorist attack that killed thirty people.[xxii] Beyond West Africa, French soldiers have also operated in Chad with similarly poor results.[xxiii] French failure to secure the Sahel, along with other issues, such as corruption and disenchantment with democracy, led to the military overthrow of many of these West African governments.

These coups led to the removal of French soldiers and, in some cases, foreign officials. These diplomatic losses are perceived as a humiliating withdrawal for France, which had colonised much of the region.[xxiv] Anti-French sentiment within Africa is nothing new, as seen through the writings of Frantz Fanon of French Algeria.[xxv] For current French interests, the failures have led to increased anti-French sentiment and the rise of military mercenary groups such as the Wagner Group.[xxvi] The Wagner Group has become an option for governments who view the mercenaries as having a clear strategy to impose their will on rebels and Islamic jihadists without consideration of Western constructs of wartime morals and ethics.[xxvii] For example, Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyelem de Tembela believed the Russian mercenary group would be the ideal actors to help provide security against jihadists.[xxviii] The increase in anti-French sentiments stems from a relatively unexplored subject: despite France’s superior military might, it failed to stop insurgent forces in asymmetric wars throughout the Sahel.

Strategic Theory, Policy and War:

Prime Minister Tembela’s reference to the Wagner Group introduces perhaps an underexamined element of France’s failed counter-terrorism policies. At its core, this loose confederation of Islamic jihadist groups fought an asymmetric war against the superior French forces. M.L.R. Smith questions any definition of asymmetric warfare because of its vagueness in application but defines it as, “war between grossly unequal combatants.”[xxix] This is important as it introduces the reality that the French misstep was how it underestimated its opponent and did not develop a proper strategy to combat these forces. Despite the best efforts of Operation Barkhane, its lack of a central policy of the goals led to confusion about how to count success. This is problematic as Jeffrey Hughes, and et al. describe its importance, “policy must ultimately determine the direction of war but must also adjust itself to what is possible with the means available.”[xxx] Without the appropriate policy, a clear strategy is absent. As George Dimitriu notes, effective strategy stems from policy, which can be viewed as successful or not within the eyes of not just policymakers but also the public.[xxxi] The lack of a clear policy, and thus strategy, might result from the French perception of how the Islamic jihadists did not pose a serious threat to its state interests. As M.L.R. Smith suggests, “It possesses the capacity to insulate politicians, military planners and the wider public from the implications of certain military challenges because they are deemed low intensity and therefore of low importance, and thus not worth confronting with serious intent.”[xxxii]

As witnessed in the anti-French protests, many of the public within the Sahel disapproved of the effectiveness of the French military in providing security. They questioned not the French forces’ capabilities but their goals. The public rallies within much of the Sahel illustrated the population’s disapproval as they saw a clouded discourse of a problem, the Islamic jihadists, and the proposed ‘solution’, which was ineffective.[xxxiii] Thus, the population began to speculate why the French forces were stationed in the Sahel, as there were no clearly defined French goals. The assumptions ranged from securing uranium deposits for French power plants to sustaining neo-colonialism.[xxxiv] This eventually led to Operation Barkhane’s termination[xxxv] in November 2022. The need for a central policy for strategy is even more important for counterinsurgency as tactical success, as seen in the case study of Vietnam and Alegria, does not necessarily lead to overall victory.[xxxvi]

While the French military force contains greater firepower and capabilities[xxxvii], the engagement with the population or, as Svendsen describes, ‘people engagement’ is essential for long-term success in combating the “mopping and rounding up terrorists/insurgents.”[xxxviii] Instead, the French focused on the tactics of terrorism while ignoring the localised population’s expressed concerns and insecurities. The French, akin to the United States during the ongoing War on Terrorism, dismiss how guerrilla or other non-conventional tactics do not constitute a category of war but rather a tactic.[xxxix] The French were relatively successful in combating these Islamic jihadist actors on the battlefield, but they could not string together these victories to achieve a larger strategic goal. There are also questions about how much the French forces were aware of local dynamics that instigated the rise of Islamic fighters. This follows M.L.R. Smith’s notion of American ignorance of the Vietnamese environment, which led to greater support for the North Vietnamese communists over the US-allied South Vietnam government.[xl] The seemingly surprised French response to the coups and their troops’ dismissal from the region indicates how they were not fully aware of how the population had become frustrated. It also explains the relatively popular coups in the region, with civilians hoping the coup d’états will result in greater security.[xli]

The Islamic jihadists did have a clear strategic goal which was to take much of the Sahel in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Sudan and create an Islamic state similar to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the early to mid-2010s. Their tactics of hit-and-run attacks and ambushes might be seen as horrific by Western commentators and human rights activists. However, this fosters two problems. The first is the notion of morality in war, which Colin Gray[xlii] and M.L.R. Smith[xliii] quite collectively dismiss. Morality is based on perceptions which are driven by cultural and situational factors. Thus, what is considered moral is purely a judgement by the observer.[xliv] Secondly, conventional militaries also utilise guerrilla tactics within irregular warfare.[xlv] Overall, if one accepts Clausewitz’s famous “war is an instrument of policy”[xlvi], the loosely connected Islamic jihadist groups in the Sahel used irregular tactics in the hope of establishing an Islamic government. Their use of terrorism did produce significant fear within the population, which temporarily benefited in achieving their strategic goals.[xlvii] The Wagner Group and the military coup leaders dampened some of their successes as they had a more apparent strategic goal to focus on security issues, which had greater public support.

The Primary Lessons to be Learned:

Since the beginning of Operation Barkhane in August 2014, France’s overall strategy to handle Islamic jihadists in the Sahel has been unclear. Its attempt to foster short-term peace at the expense of long-term stability failed to produce anything tangible for French interest and was a cause of the rise of coups in West Africa and the Sahel. The former French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drain proclaimed in 2014 how the operation would “prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffics to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean can rebuild themselves, which would lead to serious consequences for our security.”[xlviii] The intended goal of providing security to the vast region of West Africa from Islamic jihadists is not only vague but impossible without requiring a considerable number of troops[xlix] that the French could not viably provide. As Clausewitz writes, militaries must be aware of their supply capabilities to achieve their intended goals.[l] With roughly 3000 troops, France could never secure such a large region of Africa, especially when it was unclear what defines operational success. Nevertheless, the pressing issue rests on French perceptions of the conflict akin to past military interventions within the region. Based on the lack of a clear policy and strategy, it could be argued that the French fell victim to underestimating their opponent and not perceiving them as a serious military actor threatening their interests. M.L.R. Smith warns about this false sense of belief, “As Clausewitz above all recognised, the elemental truth is that, call it what you will – new war, ethnic war, guerrilla war, low-intensity war, terrorism, or the war on terrorism – in the end, there is really only one meaningful category of war, and that is war itself.”[li]

The Wagner Group and the coup d’état governments appear not to be making the same mistake at the moment. While we might, through the context of the current Ukraine-Russia war, have negative opinions about the Russian private mercenary group, they are seen more positively within the Sahel. This primarily results from their ability to fight and assist government forces in combating Islamic jihadist groups. There is no doubt that their participation is mainly due to favourable financial contracts and access to natural resource deposits, but this should be seen as largely irrelevant as militaries are products of policies that benefit certain actors.[lii] While it is more traditional for these actors to be, as Clausewitz argues, the state is not limited to this political organisation but can also include rebel groups, revolutionaries and paramilitaries.[liii]

As regional history has shown, France will be back. While they have ceremonially left much of their military bases and operations in the Sahel, there is no doubt these nations will try to re-establish some sort of security relationship with their former colonial power. France still holds economic and military resources, which few governments would turn away from. Even nations such as Rwanda, which has a very troubled relationship with France, re-established diplomatic and security relations.[liv] The major takeaway for France and other nations fighting in the War on Terrorism is to have a clear policy and strategy. France’s lack of a clear strategy to combat Islamic jihadists resulted in neither short nor long-term stability or the furthering of French interests in the region. The failure to foster a military strategy is nothing new as seen in the Vietnam War or the current War on Terrorism. Greater attention to Strategic Theory is needed to understand and orchestrate African security policies.


[i] McGowan, Patrick J. "African military coups d'état, 1956–2001: frequency, trends and distribution." The Journal of Modern African Studies 41, no. 3 (2003): 339-370.
[ii] Neumann, Peter R., and Michael LR Smith. "Strategic terrorism: The framework and its fallacies." Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 4 (2005): 571-595.
[iii] Smith, M.L.R. "Guerrillas in the mist: reassessing strategy and low intensity warfare." Review of International Studies 29, no. 1 (2003): 19-37.
[iv] Pickles, Dorothy. Algeria and France: from colonialism to cooperation. (Oxon: Routledge, 2015).
[v] Sylla, Ndongo Samba. “The CFA Franc: French Monetary Imperialism in Africa:” Africa at LSE, July 12, 2017.
[vi] AFP. “Eight West African Countries Agree to Sever Common Currency from France.” France24, December 22, 2019.
[vii] Cordesman, Anthony H., “Strategy, Resources, and Reality.” Infinity Journal 2, no. 1, (Winter 2011): 4-8.
[viii] Tervé, Claire. “Au Mali, Qu’est-Ce Que l’opération Barkhane Dans Laquelle La France Est Engagée?” Huffington Post, November 26, 2019.
[ix] AFP. “Barkhane: 3,000 French Troops Deployed in the Sahel, after Mali.” Africa News, August 8, 2022.
[x] Al Raffie, Dina. "Whose hearts and minds? Narratives and counter-narratives of Salafi Jihadism." Journal of Terrorism Research (2012); Look, Anne. “Uncertainty Reigns in Mali.” VOA, March 22, 2012.
[xi] Boeke, Sergei, and Bart Schuurman. "Operation ‘Serval’: A strategic analysis of the French intervention in Mali, 2013–2014." Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 6 (2015): 801-825.
[xii] United Nations Peacekeeping. “MINUSMA Peacekeeping.” United Nations, 2013.
[xiii] Ajala, Olayinka. “What Caused the Coup in Niger? An Expert Outlines Three Driving Factors.” The Conversation, October 9, 2023.
[xiv] Engels, Bettina. "Transition now? Another coup d’état in Burkina Faso." Review of African Political Economy 49, no. 172 (2022): 315-326; Korotayev, Andrey, and Alina Khokhlova. "Revolutionary events in Mali, 2020–2021." In New Wave of Revolutions in the MENA Region: A Comparative Perspective, pp. 191-218. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2022; Samb, Saliou. “Elite Guinea Army Unit Says It Has Toppled President.” Reuters, September 6, 2021.
[xv] Nodjimbadem, Katie. “Chad’s Coup Leader Stops Democracy in Its Tracks.” Foreign Policy, December 6, 2022.; Obangome, Gerauds W. “Gabon Officers Declare Military Coup, President Ali Bongo Detained.” Reuters, August 31, 2023.; Salih, Zeinab M, and Peter Beaumont. “Sudan’s Army Seizes Power in Coup and Detains Prime Minister.” The Guardian, October 25, 2021.
[xvi] Adetayo, Ope. “Season of Putsch: Why Have Coups Become Popular in Africa?” Al Jazeera, September 1, 2023.
[xvii] Al Jazeera. “French Forces Depart Niger, US Declares Military Rulers Conducted Coup.” Al Jazeera, October 11, 2023.
[xviii] Agence France-Presse in Paris. “France to Withdraw Ambassador and Troops from Niger.” The Guardian, September 24, 2023.
[xix] Ibid.
[xx] Al Jazeera. “ECOWAS Defence Chiefs Agree ‘D-Day’ for Niger Military Intervention.” Al Jazeera, August 18, 2023.
[xxi] News Wires. “French Army Officially Ends Operations in Burkina Faso.” France24, February 20, 2023.; Reuters. “Burkina Faso Junta Orders French Embassy’s Defence Attaché to Leave.” Reuters, September 15, 2023.
[xxii] News Wires. “French Army Officially Ends,” February 20, 2023.
[xxiii] AFP. “Barkhane: 3,000 French,” August 8, 2022.
[xxiv] Beardsley, Eleanor. “France Is Pulling Its Ambassador — and 1,500 Troops — out of Niger.” NPR, September 25, 2023.
[xxv] Hilton, Blake T. "Frantz Fanon and colonialism: A psychology of oppression." Journal of Scientific Psychology 12, no. 1 (2011): 45-59.
[xxvi] Rampe, William. “What Is Russia’s Wagner Group Doing in Africa?” Council on Foreign Relations, May 23, 2023.
[xxvii] Pokalova, Elena. "The Wagner group in Africa: Russia’s quasi-state agent of influence." Studies in Conflict & Terrorism (2023): 1-23.
[xxviii] News Wires. “French Army Officially Ends,” February 20, 2023.
[xxix] Smith, M.L.R. "Escalation in irregular war: Using strategic theory to examine from first principles." Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 5 (2012): 613-637., 619.
[xxx] Hughes, Jeffrey, Martin Kornberger, Brad MacKay, Phillips O’Brien, and Sneha Reddy. "Organizational strategy and its implications for strategic studies: A review essay." Journal of Strategic Studies (2021): 1-24., 17.
[xxxi] Dimitriu, George. "Clausewitz and the politics of war: A contemporary theory." Journal of Strategic Studies 43, no. 5 (2020): 645-685. 657.
[xxxii] Smith, "Guerrillas in the mist,” 24.
[xxxiii] Ibid; Duyvesteyn, Isabelle. "The concept of conventional war and armed conflict in collapsed states." In Rethinking the nature of war, pp. 65-87. Routledge, 2005., 77.
[xxxiv] Maad, Assma. “How Dependent Is France on Niger’s Uranium?” Le Monde, August 4, 2023.
[xxxv] Duyvesteyn, “The concept of conventional war,” 77.
[xxxvi] Smith, "Guerrillas in the mist,” 26.
[xxxvii] Friedman, Ben. On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017).
[xxxviii] Svendsen, Adam DM. "Strategy and disproportionality in contemporary conflicts." The Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 3 (2010): 367-399., 390.
[xxxix] Smith, "Guerrillas in the mist,” 37.
[xl] Smith, M.L.R., “On Efficacy: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Theory,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, fall 2022, pages 10-17.
[xli] Adetayo, Ope. “Season of Putsch: Why Have Coups Become Popular in Africa?” Al Jazeera, September 1, 2023.
[xlii] Gray, Colin S. "Moral Advantage, Strategic Advantage?" The Journal of Strategic Studies 33, no. 3 (2010): 333-365.
[xliii] Smith, M.L.R., “On Efficacy: A Beginner’s Guide to Strategic Theory,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, fall 2022, pages 10-17.
[xliv] Ibid.
[xlv] Salmoni, Barak. "The Fallacy of ‘Irregular’ Warfare." The RUSI journal 152, no. 4 (2007): 18-24.
[xlvi] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 2nd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 605.
[xlvii] Smith, "Escalation in irregular war,” 622.
[xlviii] Bacchi, Umberto. “France Launches New Sahel Counter-Terrorism Operation Barkhane.” International Business Times, July 14, 2014.; Larivé, Maxine H.A. “Welcome to France’s New War on Terror in Africa: Operation Barkhane.” The National Interest, August 7, 2014.
[xlix] Duyvesteyn, "The concept of conventional war,” 78.
[l] Clausewitz, On War, 131
[li] Smith, "Guerrillas in the mist,” 34.
[lii] Joyner, Tom. “In Niger, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group Is Exploiting a Rising Anti-France Sentiment.” ABC News, August 8, 2023.
[liii] Clausewitz, On War, 94-95; Smith, "Guerrillas in the mist,” 27-30.
[liv] Beloff, Jonathan R. "French-Rwandan Foreign Relations: Depth and Rebirth of Diplomatic Relations." The African Review 1, no. aop (2023): 1-26.