The map above illustrates the area covered by West Africa which extends from the Mediterranean in the north, to the states bordering the Gulf of Guinea in the south. Large areas of the inland states, for example, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are arid deserts, as are large parts of Mauritania and Algeria. It can also be seen that the most populated areas in the coastal states lie in a strip along the coast, hence the locations of capital cities such as Dakar [Senegal], Freetown [Sierra Leone], Monrovia [Liberia] and Accra [Ghana].

Since independence, many of the countries have over the years experienced unstable governments, with uprisings and military coups becoming commonplace. The threat of terrorism in one form or another became more likely from the early 90s onwards, and many commentators recognised that if governments lost control of the sparsely populated interiors to rebel groups, the entire region might end up with effective control of these nations only running in narrow strips close to the coast. It is worth bearing in mind that this was well before the rise of radical Islam, with all the problems associated with it. This was starkly illustrated by the eleven-year civil war in Sierra Leone, which had its beginning in 1991, and will be used as an illustration. It is worth considering that at the time of independence from the United Kingdom in 1961, The country was one of the wealthiest on the African continent.


In the spring of 1991, a group of young SL army officers returned from up-country where fighting with the Revolutionary United Front [RUF] had been ongoing for some months. On their return to Freetown, they discovered they had not been paid, and went to Government House to confront the President. Joseph Saidu Momoh had been installed years earlier when Saika Stevens relinquished the presidency and was both corrupt, inept and a coward, his nickname in Freetown being “Josephine Talker”, saying it all. The result was he fled to neighbouring Guinea and this in turn led to Lt Valentine Strasser and colleagues establishing a military regime under the title of the National Provisional Ruling Council [NPRC]. The aim was to defeat the RUF, which by the end of 1991 controlled circa two-thirds of Sierra Leone, and return the country to civil rule when this was achieved. Despite some initial success [the SL army pushed Foday Sankoh’s RUF back to the Liberian border in 1993], this was short-lived. The RUF were assisted with both arms and money by Liberian rebel Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia [NPFL], and both organisations were supported in the usual manner by Muamar Ghaddafi, who never lost an opportunity to foment uprisings in West Africa.  Taylor’s assistance was not altruistic, however, as he had designs on alluvial diamonds, rutile [Sierra Leone has one of the largest deposits of this titanium mineral] and bauxite, all of which should have been contributing to the nation’s wealth.


It’s not the purpose of this paper to deal in depth with the civil war, which formally ended in January 2002 with the British Operation Palliser securing Freetown and restoring President Ahamad Tejan Kabbah to head a civilian administration. In the interim, the RUF occupied parts of Freetown from time to time, and in 1997 a group of army officers led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew the government. President Kabbah and the British High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, decamped to Conakry and set up a de facto administration in Guinea. Months of continuing war and atrocities continued until the ludicrous Lome Peace Accord was signed in March 1999, which gave Foday Sankoh the vice-presidency. The patience of the international community ran out, and the UN voted for a peacekeeping force, UNAMSIL, to be formed. This numbered circa 17,500 personnel, who arrived in December 1999. Irrespective of the planning and logistics such a force requires, its success depends on the quality of the force make-up, and the leadership and strategy involved. One of the inherent problems faced by UN peace-keepers is, that unlike regular armies, they, by virtue of their mandate, have no perceived enemies. Having said that, in the Sierra Leone situation the leadership and resolve required to control the situation was sorely lacking, resulting in 500 personnel, plus APCs and weapons being held hostage in May 2000, and the RUF taking the town of Lunsar, and once again threatening Freetown. It is no exaggeration to state that at that time, Freetown risked being razed to the ground. As Sierra Leone is a Commonwealth nation, the Blair government lost patience as UNAMSIL lost control of the situation. UK forces came by air via Dakar [Para troops] and from a small RN force off-shore [Royal Marines]. Lungi International airport, which is on the western side of Freetown harbour [one of the largest natural harbours in the world] and its environs were secured first, and after a number of fierce fights, Freetown itself was taken by the British. [Operation Palliser]. President Kabbah was reinstated, and the war was declared over on 18th January 2002. Over 50,000 people were killed during the conflict, and many, many more were injured and disfigured in some of the most appalling atrocities to have occurred in recent times.




The discourse on Sierra Leone clearly illustrates what a determined rebel force can achieve when faced with a weak civilian government, corruption, and poorly trained and badly equipped armed forces. The British army and a contingent of senior UK police officers spent a number of years restoring both the Sierra Leone army and the SL police force; it is amazing what discipline, training, proper food, and the knowledge that people will be paid on time can achieve.


The problem facing many of the states in West Africa is that large portions of these places have sparse populations away from the coast. Even small countries, for example, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau have large areas where there are very few settlements or towns of any size away from the coast. This is even more so the case in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Nigeria. Radical Islam has also opened up enmities that simply did not exist at the turn of the century. Muslims and Christians existed side by side, and inter-marriage was commonplace within the communities. There are a number of theories about this, however, one of the most plausible is that like many tribal societies, Africans at heart are animists, hence the powerful belief in juju, even within the most educated and sophisticated societies. Peoples became Christians in places where they came in contact with missionaries, or Muslims where they came in contact with Arab traders, as in Zanzibar and Central Africa. Sadly, this peaceful co-existence is now being rapidly eroded as we have seen in Nigeria [Boko Harram], and more recently Mali and Burkina Faso. One only has to look at Libya as a prime example of lawlessness, resulting from the ill though-out campaign by the West to overthrow Ghaddafi and install, as the French and British naïvely believed, democracy. A more sensible approach might have been to sound out what local people actually wanted, and then to examine whether there were sufficient moderate and responsible groups to whom support might be given.




The problem directly relates to the situation in Libya in 2012. Jihadists had ample supplies of weapons and equipment from that conflict, and infiltrated the north of Mali via the empty areas of Algeria, culminating in the Tuareg rebellion against the government, a situation which was exploited by Islamist factions. France was quick to recognise the risk posed to the former French colonies in the Sahel and launched Operation Serval to counteract the threat, and to ensure the government in Mali was not overthrown. Serval was successful, and by the summer of 2014, all territory held by the jihadists had been retaken.


The French recognised that a continuing threat to the nations of the inner Sahel, most of which were former French colonies, existed and that these nations would require French help to maintain stability, protect legitimate administrations and provide security against terrorism. This decision resulted in the setting up of Operation Barkhane, designed by France to counter-terrorism in the Sahel. The United Kingdom has supported this operation since the spring of 2016 by providing strategic airlift support, and since the summer of 2018, three Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters and support personnel have been deployed to Mali to give vital logistic support to the French forces.


From 2016 through 2017 insurgents have become increasingly active, with violence increasing up to the present time throughout the Sahel region, including Chad, Niger and Burkina Faso, with attacks now being claimed by the Islamic State in Greater Sahara. Operating in Mali at the same time is the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali, known by the acronym MINUSMA, to which the United Kingdom has committed some 300 soldiers. Presently, these UK forces have no aerial casualty evacuation facility, thus restricting their radius of operation. Amazingly, the UK MoD will not deploy additional rotary wing assets on the grounds of cost, and are therefore considering transferring the Chinooks from their current role with the French forces to that of supporting the UN Mission. Given the amount of money wasted by the present British administration during the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the way money is being thrown around like confetti, this must surely rank as the most pathetic of responses. One has to ask why, given the waste of overseas aid funds, why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot fund the necessary deployment of rotary-wing assets to help the UN Mission, thereby not letting down the French forces, to whom the UK is already committed.




Of Western nations, only the French seem to be truly aware of the potential threat of Islamic fundamentalism to the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa. Only too easily could the scenario of government writs running in coastal strips become a reality. As a result of the pandemic, European nations have become focussed on a single issue, and are suffering from what might be best described as “rabbits in the headlights” syndrome.  Europe has already experienced an influx of unwanted immigration from war-torn Syria and Libya, the latter being the final destination for those Africans fleeing war zones or simply looking for a better life for themselves and their families. The disaster in Libya is the direct result of ill-advised intervention by the British and French, who believed that in overthrowing Col Ghaddafi, democracy would suddenly flower. This was of course done without examining how things worked in a North African Arabic state. Similarly, naïve politicians, during the early days of what was termed the “Arab spring”, supported the election of a government supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis that it had, allegedly, been democratically elected. Hopefully, we now have more worldly-wise leadership. If we do not, and we continue to ignore the West African situation, Europe could end up with a radical Islamic “state” in the Sahel, in similar form to ISIL in Syria and Iraq, with all that entails. It is therefore high time that in the UK, the FCO and the MoD remove the blinkers, and arrive at a sensible strategy to support our French ally and the UN Mission. Bear in mind that the war in Sierra Leone commenced with a small number of disaffected people, and ended up lasting eleven years, reduced the country to bankruptcy, and resulted in the death of over 50,000 souls.

If nothing else, that should act as a warning of events that could happen in a much wider context in West Africa.



12 02 2021.