The intervention in Gambia fits a broader trend: West Africa is becoming increasingly democratic – or at least less tolerant of dictators.

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa experienced a shift in some aspects of their security environment in the year to mid-2017. Funding constraints on several of the region’s main powers led to an increased focus on multilateral responses to democratic failures and security threats such as insurgencies. Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump as US president raised the prospect of a shift in Washington’s engagement with the region. Judging by his rhetoric, the US was likely to prioritise security and stability over development and democracy, a stance that could lead to closer relations with sub-Saharan African states that had poor human-rights records. President Trump looked set to emphasise efforts to tackle Islamist extremism in sub-Saharan Africa, including those targeting Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab (although the difficulty of securing reliable intelligence was likely to continue hampering such operations). Yet in some respects, by June 2017 the US president had yet to develop a coherent policy stance on African issues. Washington’s disengagement from sub-Saharan Africa had the potential to facilitate further expansion by Beijing, whose already substantial network of strategic interests in the region continued to grow further, partly through the promotion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, the role of European states in the region remained uncertain. Although the election of Emmanuel Macron as France’s president suggested at least broad continuity in French relations with sub-Saharan Africa – or even increased French engagement with the region – there was a risk that rising domestic nationalism would lead some other European states to focus inwards.

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