The World Needs to Give the Crisis in the Sahel the Attention it Deserves

With the geopolitical landscape dominated, right now, by two major conflicts — one in Ukraine, the other between the Israelis and Palestinians — it seems there’s little room left to talk about the Sahel. 

That’s unfortunate, because the region’s security crisis, in its current form, dates back a decade and is now both structural and entrenched. It is a problem not only for the Sahel’s African neighbors, but also its external partners, particularly in Europe and North America. 

More than ever before, the Sahel has become synonymous with the wide-scale displacement of people, various types of trafficking — drugs in particular — and money laundering. Trafficking, furthermore, fuels terrorism and bolsters corruption. 

There are several root causes to these serious problems, starting with corruption, which is deep seated in the Sahel and has contributed to a kind of “retribalization” within states to the detriment of national unity. National leaders prioritize their particular tribes or even native regions, which are then targeted by radical opponents. 

Responding to these developments, which are taking root and spreading across the region, requires national consensus within the countries involved and, for the sake of credibility, support from the Sahel’s outside partners.

The wars in Ukraine, between Israelis and Palestinians, and in Libya and Sudan are all having a destabilizing impact on the world. But that doesn’t make addressing the expanding violence in Sahel any less important. The crisis there is a threat to peace and, worse yet, is causing states to crumble. Outside intervention, despite its limitations, is essential as a show of solidarity and a deterrence against armed groups that in many cases are driven more by financial motives than by religion. 

The menace of terrorism

The Sahel is a high-risk region, and has been experiencing a multi-layered crisis for more than decade. Civil wars, coups and various types of trafficking, including trafficking of migrants, have destabilized Libya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Sudan and the countries around Lake Chad. The region’s unraveling now seems irreversible, with Libya and Sudan as particularly discouraging examples.

Terrorism is another major problem. It is firmly rooted and spreading, and having a destructive effect on states while devastating inhabitants. People are losing their lives, and public institutions, including those responsible for development, are losing credibility, in some cases completely. 

What’s more, terrorism is making it harder for different groups to coexist within national borders, and undermining what were already subsistence-level economies.

One thing terrorist groups in the Sahel have in common, besides their use of violence, is their presence — via their affiliations with tribal communities that transcend national borders  — in several neighboring countries at once. And because of tribal solidarity, terrorists enjoy a certain fluidity of movement, allowing them to cross between countries. 

They have an advantage, in that respect, over security forces that are limited to operating in one country or another. Moving between countries also allows them greater access to weapons, vehicles, fuel and food, and makes it easier to indoctrinate young people and neutralize elites. 

What’s more, terrorists use tribal solidarity to emphasize their own, ethnic-based territorial roots, and that, in turn, further weakens national solidarity within countries and national sentiment as a whole. Faced with repeated outbreaks of violence, the states involved risk collapsing entirely, opening the door to even more lawlessness and anarchy.

Contributing factors

Be it collectively or individually, and with or without help from outside the region, the states of the Sahel must stand up and do something. Their survival depends on it. They must eradicate or at least seriously curtail terrorism and its perverse effects.

In the 1970s, countries in Europe and Latin America were able to rid themselves of terrorists such as the Red Army Faction (Germany), the Red Brigades (Italy) and the Tupamaros (Uruguay). Can the Sahel hope to do the same? 

Afghanistan and Somalia have dealt for decades with terrorism that is more tribal, arguably, than religious. What does that mean for the Sahel, which is made up of various independent states where both tribalism and regionalism are on the rise?

Whether the Sahel follows the trajectory of Latin America or Somalia, the biggest concern right now has to be the outright domestic implosions that have already taken place in Libya and Sudan and could soon occur in other countries as well.

This trend toward structural anarchy is reinforced by several factors, not the least of which is the criminal economy. This is where Sahel’s reputation for gold production comes in. Gold is a financial lure for terrorists, their sponsors and local officials alike. And it has spawned a huge black market that, whether intended or not, ends up financing terrorism. 

The region also has its share of raw materials, including certain strategic minerals that are highly coveted by international firms. But there’s no shared strategy for managing those resources, and in the meantime, looming on the horizon is the spectre of what’s happening in Libya and Sudan, along with the kind of political paralysis we see in Sudan.

In addition, the Sahel is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, population growth and unchecked urbanization. These factors further complicate the region’s security situation, and shouldn’t be ignored or downplayed. 

The road ahead

National security forces are in many cases poorly trained and equipped, and divided along ethnic lines. They are also worn down from more than 10 years of fighting. All of that has taken a toll on the quality and effectiveness of their security efforts.

The terrorists, on the other hand, are complex, hybrid, transnational and continually expanding forces. What’s more, they blend in with the civilian population, creating confusion and prompting state security personnel to commit humanitarian abuses.

With that in mind, the governments of the Sahel need to revisit how they’ve managed the conflicts that have taken such a toll on their countries for more than a decade now. 

It is also paramount, given the expansion of social networks and other channels of communication, that national governments take measures to improve their respectability. That means being less tribalistic and more transparent, because for the terrorists, tribalism — and their ability to disparage governments for brazen corruption that goes unpunished — is their best weapon. More government transparency, in that sense, weakens the discourse of radicals and improves national security.

On the international front, regional relations are stuck in a holding pattern right now, held hostage, so to speak, by certain ideological camps. The nations of the Sahel and their North African neighbors need to overcome the impasse and figure out a way to cooperate that’s beneficial for everyone, because in addition to their shared proximity, they do have common interests. The Maghreb, for example, may have produced the first terrorists that descended into the Sahel, but it is also the principal passage for Sahelian migrants (many of whom are fleeing terrorism) trying to reach Europe.

With regards to migration, all three regions — the Maghreb and Sahel, but also Europe — need to work together. If they can’t contain the flow of migrants, they at least need to better manage the movement. But to do that they’ll need to stop ignoring reality. Europe, for all its denials and anti-immigration rhetoric, has a continual need for migrant labor, and the Sahel and Maghreb, though they won’t say it out loud, are involuntary suppliers of those workers.

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah is president of the Center for Strategy and Security in the Sahel-Sahara and a member of ICDI’s board. This article was adapted from a speech delivered at the fifth “Dialogue of the Sahel Sahara” conference organized by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) and held between May 14-15 in Dakar, Senegal.

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