The Cost of Paternalism: Sahelian Countries Push Back on the West

The National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland (CNSP), Niger’s ruling military government, announced an immediate suspension to its security cooperation with the United States on March 16, just one day after a high-level visit from the State Department and the U.S. Africa Command to Niamey. Colonel Amadou Abdramane, a CNSP spokesperson, cited warnings from the United States on Niger’s growing ties with Russia and Iran, the lack of proper diplomatic protocol, and condescension from the U.S. delegation as some of the reasons for Niger’s decision to revoke its military accord with the United States. The delegation’s visit aimed to reset its relations with Niger, which have been steadily deteriorating since the July 2023 coup that installed a military government, led by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, in power.

The decision by the CNSP to end its military ties is a blow to the ability of the United States to project power in the region. In the past decade, Niger had emerged as a U.S. foothold for military operations in the Sahel region, with two major U.S. bases and roughly 1,000 military personnel in the country. In central Niger, a drone base referred to as “Nigerien Air Base 201” cost $100 million to install and only completed construction in November 2019, a sign of how quickly U.S.-Niger relations have deteriorated in the past year. It took the United States three months to label the July 2023 ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum by the country’s presidential guard as a coup. By formally designating the military takeover as a coup, it immediately invoked legal limitations for security cooperation and counterterrorism operations with Niger. In the power vacuum left by the United States, Niger’s security relationship with Russia has quickly strengthened over the past year, with high-level visits from Russian officials and a protocol agreement reached earlier this year between Niamey and Moscow to develop military ties.

A wave of coups in the past three years has brought in new military governments to the Sahel, which were followed quickly by a wave of these governments breaking ties with France. However, this is the first instance of the new military governments in the region initiating an end to security ties with the United States. The attempt from the United States to influence Niger’s foreign policy decisionmaking by demanding that the CNSP limit its ties with Russia and Iran has led to a backlash with large consequences for the strategic interests of both countries.

It has been clear to many that the French and U.S. governments require a shift in how they approach their African partners. Shifting Western approaches to the Sahel (and indeed the continent writ large) has to go beyond policy on paper to interrogate a more intangible, constructivist issue: Western governments have a paternalism problem that is costing them partners in Africa.


Paternalism is the use of leverage or coercion by stronger states to influence the decisionmaking of weaker states in alignment with the former’s objectives and goals. The backlash to Western paternalism in the Sahel in recent years has largely played out in the worsening relationship between France and the region.

Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have broken off ties with France for two main reasons. The most crucial driver of the fraying security ties is the limited success of French operations in the Sahel in stemming the rise of insurgent and terrorist groups in the region. Most notable of these is Operation Barkhane, the embattled French-led counterinsurgency operation in the Sahel with support from the United States, came to an unceremonious end in 2022 as a wave of coup leaders in the region cut ties with France.

The second most cited reason for breaking ties with France is its paternalistic practices. Françafrique, a French portmanteau that is used to describe France’s sphere of influence in Africa, was characterized by decades of economic influence, military interventions, and political meddling. Western countries more broadly have a long history of coercing weaker states to partner with them rather than their rivals. This coercion (both from the West and their rivals) famously led to creation of the Non-Alignment Movement during the Cold War that is experiencing a resurgence in this era of great power competition.

Virtue Signaling

The issue of Western paternalism and neocolonial attitudes to Africa is not new, and in recent years, the United States and France have acknowledged years of unfair treatment and vowed to adopt new approaches that value listening, reciprocity, and mutual respect.

The Biden administration’s strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa takes care to acknowledge how U.S. ties with Africa have long been uneven partnerships. In its introduction, the administration notes that “the strategy’s strength lies in its determination to graduate from policies that inadvertently treat sub-Saharan Africa as a world apart and have struggled to keep pace with the profound transformations across the continent and the world.”

President Macron is also attempting to reset France’s fraying relationship with African countries. Françafrique is now widely accepted as a dying project as anti-French sentiments and policies sweep through francophone Africa. In light of this, Macron outlined France’s new approach to relationships in Africa in a 2023 address in the Elysée: “To ensure history does not repeat itself, there is another path that we have now been taking for six years. Another path that does not reduce Africa to a land to compete in or make money from, and means seeing African countries as partners with whom we have shared interests and responsibilities. A path to building a new, balanced, reciprocal and responsible relationship.” The Biden administration’s Africa strategy uses similar language: it “welcomes and affirms African agency, and seeks to include and elevate African voices in the most consequential global conversations.”

The source of this paternalism has also been clear. The structural and cultural issues that the United States and France face with racism, xenophobia, the resurgence of the extreme right, and anti-migrant sentiments are inextricably linked to their approaches in Africa. Unlike France, the United States is not a formal colonial power, but like France, the U.S. policy toward Africa in the post-World War II era has also been marred with coercive paternalism, from political meddling to military interventions.

If the problem of paternalism has been long diagnosed, and some solutions found, why does this continue to plague France and the United States?

The attempt from the U.S. and French governments to shift from paternalism to mutual respect has run into a classic problem: talk without much action. Promises of mutual respect and reciprocity by Western governments are reduced to virtue signaling without concrete changes in how their officials interact with African governments and civilians. Certainly, the language used by U.S. and French officials toward Africa have improved drastically over the decades and the reasons for the deteriorating relationship between Western countries and the Sahel go beyond paternalism. The failures of Operation Barkhane and long existing anti-Western sentiments all play a role.

Niger’s Backlash against U.S. Paternalism

Niger’s decision to cut ties with the United States was spurred in part by warnings from the U.S. delegation against developing closer ties with Russia, to which the CNSP took offense. In a televised statement, Colonel Abdramane described these warnings from the U.S. delegation as an attempt to “deny the sovereign Nigerien people the right to choose their partners and types of partnerships capable of truly helping them fight against terrorism.” Colonel Abdramane added that the delegation failed to follow diplomatic protocol by failing to share the date of arrival of the delegation, its composition, and its agenda. The delegation was received by Nigerien prime minister Ali Lamine Zeine, but failed to meet with General Tchiani as originally planned. Colonel Abdramane also noted in his address that “the government of Niger forcefully denounces the condescending attitude accompanied by the threat of retaliation from the head of the American delegation towards the Nigerien government and people.”

Whether these paternalistic slights are perceived or unintended, their material impact is real: France and now the United States are losing footing in the Sahel, a region that is vital for security in West and North Africa. This loss in traction also comes at a time of intense geopolitical contestation between the United States and China, as well as the United States and Russia, for influence in the Global South. China is growing into Africa’s leading trade partner and Russia’s private military company Wagner (now known as the Africa Corps) continues to make inroads as the security partner of choice for military governments in the Sahel.

Weaponizing French Paternalism in the Sahel

Widespread anti-French sentiments in particular have been successfully leveraged by two groups: coup leaders in the Sahel and Western rivals. Military leaders in the Sahel, unelected and working to appear aligned with their people, have transformed popular anti-French discontent into policy. In Burkina Faso and Niger, Captain Ibrahim Traoré and General Abdourahmane Tchiani ended all military cooperation with France and expelled the French ambassador to each respective country. In Mali, Colonel Assimi Goïta not only cut all military cooperation with France, but also banned NGOs that received funding or support from France.

U.S. rivals have also capitalized on this sense of disdain toward the West. Russia has launched a disinformation campaign using movie productions,troll farms, and social media posts targeting anti-French sentiments. A study released last week by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies found that Russia all in all to be a leading source of disinformation in Africa, responsible for 40 percent of disinformation (a total of 80 documented campaigns) in the continent.

It is important, however, not to overstate the impact of these disinformation campaigns as it pertains to the popularity of anti-French sentiments in the Sahel. The discontent in francophone Africa toward France has long existed before Russia's growing reach in the region.

Lose-Lose Decisions

With the termination of the U.S. security agreement in Niger, the United States has lost its prime foothold in the Sahel, a vital airbase that cost $100 million to construct, and dealt a reputational below to the United States. For all of the limitations of the United States, Niger lost a resourceful security partner after the coup when the United States largely suspended military aid. This comes at a time of deep insecurity in the region. The border region between Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso has been a hotbed for jihadist attacks. The number of political violence incidents in Niger increased in 2022, but the number of deaths has decreased, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). ACLED found that in the first half of 2023, political violence in Niger decreased by roughly 39 per cent compared to the prior six months (July–December of 2022). Whether this positive momentum will be stymied by the end of Niger’s security cooperation with the United States will remain to be seen.

Civilians in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger continue to suffer the consequences of the steady spread of insurgency and terrorism. In 2022, 43 percent of all global terrorism-related deaths occurred in the Sahel, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Burkina Faso and Mali alone accounted for 52 per cent of all terrorism deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa. The need for security assistance in the immediate term is clear. and Russia has seized on this power vacuum to strengthen its military ties with Niger, although the terms of this partnership are unclear. Security partnerships between Russia and military governments in the Sahel also provide regime protection to the latter, by protecting them against internal threats.

Broadly speaking, years of military operations by Sahelian countries and Western partners have failed to make significant inroads in addressing the growing security issues. This speaks to the failure of a military-first approach that cannot address the root causes of insecurity in the Sahel: poor governance, deeply rooted corruption, poverty, scarcity of resources, and local grievances. 

There are efforts by the United States to address these root causes, including $150 million in U.S. humanitarian aid to the Sahel to assist those impacted by insecurity, but the scale of these structural drivers of fragility remains vast.

Shifting Sands

Amid geopolitical contestation by the United States, China, and Russia, African governments are presented with more choices for security partners. The Sahel too is undergoing tremendous change, with younger and connected citizens that are demanding better from their foreign partners. In a multipolar world, options are numerous and the cost of paternalization is high. It is increasingly clear that the United States, France, and others need to drop patronizing attitudes not just as a matter of courtesy, but for their strategic interests in Africa.

Catherine Nzuki is an associate fellow with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.