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Political instability in Africa's Sahel region is tied to rising extremism

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Another international story we're following is the coup in Burkina Faso. A mutiny of soldiers in the West African nation ousted the democratically elected president and said that the Constitution has been suspended. It's the fifth country in Africa's Sahel region, which stretches along the northern part of the continent, to experience a coup within a year. This raises questions about why and why now and whether this political instability foretells other problems in a region which has also seen a rise in Islamic extremism. We called Andrew Lebovich for this. He is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, specializing in the Sahel region of Africa. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

ANDREW LEBOVICH: Thank you for having me.

M MARTIN: So Burkina Faso has had a complicated political history, as many do. But until recently, it did have a democratically elected president. You study the region, so what was your reaction to hearing about the coup? What do you think were the factors that led to it?

LEBOVICH: Well, I think many people were not particularly surprised when the coup happened. There's been tension within the armed forces and between the armed forces and the government for some time. There was a very deadly attack on the gendarmerie posts last November that revealed the - really the extent to which many of these forces were isolated, were not being taken care of by the government. There was a significant shake-up of the military leadership in December.

And then, of course, about two weeks ago, a little bit more earlier this month, eight people, including a lieutenant colonel, were arrested and allegedly involved with plotting a coup. So I think, given Burkina Faso's political history, given the history of the military, many close observers were sort of waiting for something like this to happen or wondering when it would happen.

M MARTIN: And as we mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, neighboring countries Mali and Guinea have both seen similar things in the last year. Obviously, no two, three countries are the same, but do you see trends across the region that's leading to this?

LEBOVICH: With each of these coups, we've seen the emergence of sort of midlevel officers - lieutenant colonels, colonels and particularly officers involved with special units and special forces units. And this is where - some of this is the product of attempts at professionalization of regional armed forces but also particularly the rise of these special units who are involved in combat operations so who see very up close, at least in the case of Mali and Burkina Faso, what's happening, what the failures of security policy are and the impact that it has on the troops on the ground but also the sort of separate identity and, for lack of a better way to describe it, a special identity, a sense of separateness, oftentimes better equipped, better trained, better connected with foreign militaries. And so I think also part of this is the formation of somewhat of a separate identity among some soldiers and officers.

M MARTIN: You know, over the years, countries like Mali have seen horrendous attacks on civilians and on important historical sites that are of importance, you know, to our - the world's understanding of how civilizations have developed. Is there concern that these coups will lead to more violence, both against civilians and also against important sites?

LEBOVICH: The focus now really does need to be on the impact that this has on civilians, as you pointed out. And this has been a very troubling, a very serious issue in the region for several years. And it's something that has, in some cases, fueled the rise or at least helped the expansion of jihadist groups. But what we've seen recently in Mali, for instance, but also in Burkina Faso is the increasing role of civilian or communal militias, self-defense groups, things like that that, in Mali, in Burkina Faso, have forged closer working relationships, in some cases, with the government. And so what's very dangerous about this is that it often results in targeting of civilians, attacks on civilians, particularly civilians from communities that sometimes people popularly associate with jihadist groups.

M MARTIN: A number of these countries are former French colonies. What do we know about how France is responding to these events?

LEBOVICH: Well, France is very concerned about this. And, of course, France has a military presence in the region. But France has been drawing down its forces recently and has really struggled in the face of an increasingly difficult relationship with the Malian government, for instance, a rise in overt anti-French sentiment and protests in Mali, in Burkina Faso, in parts of Niger. And it's really putting France and France's position in the region in a difficult spot. And so, of course, the French political leaders also have struggled to find the right way to approach, for instance, the transitional government in Mali and now are concerned, of course, about what impact the coup in Burkina Faso might have on their regional position and on ongoing counterterrorism operations.

M MARTIN: So before I let you go, President Biden has said defending democracy is, quote, "the defining challenge of our time," unquote. Is there something that you think the Biden administration should be doing in the way of diplomacy with Africa that it is not now doing?

LEBOVICH: I think one of the challenges for the American government has been really not just defining a strategy for Africa that also encompasses the particularities of different countries but really putting that into practice and having a sustained, high-level diplomatic commitment that's also matched by actions on the ground. And this doesn't mean that American officials and American diplomats aren't trying very hard and aren't doing sometimes very good work on the continent, but there's often a perception of a lack of that high-level commitment and a lack of strategy to really having an enduring relationship and a relationship that is beneficial both to the United States and to African countries. And that's something that I think is often lacking.

M MARTIN: That was Andrew Lebovich. He's a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who studies Africa's Sahel region. Andrew Lebovich, thanks so much for sharing this expertise with us.

LEBOVICH: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "BEACH DR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.