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Commentary: In the Sahel, a convergence of challenges and only a few opportunities
07 June 2020

In this commentary, Noman Ahmed discusses recent developments in the Sahel and why a new European task force may succeed where others have not.

France has just announced that it has killed the leader of al-Qaeda in North Africa, Abdelmalek Droukdel, in an operation in Mali. As head of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Droukdel was in charge of all affiliates in north Africa and also commanded al-Qaeda's Sahel affiliate, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM). The elimination of Droukdel may offer some relief to the people of the Sahel, however overall, the region's future remains bleak. Their hope now rests with a recently announced European initiative that recognises that "a robust integrated approach is needed to reverse current negative trends and address root causes to instability in Mali and the Sahel region." In their statement issued on 27 March 2020 the governments of Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom announced the formation of Task Force Takuba, and said that should have initial operational capability by the summer 2020.

The Sahel region in Africa is a nexus of conflict, climate change, food shortage, and economic hardships. These challenges span across several countries, actors, and ethnic groups that combine to make the region a fertile ground for radicalisation and violent conflict. In the Sahel, memories of brutalities committed by insurgents are still fresh in the minds of locals who nonetheless bear little hope that foreign military interventions can address their many deep-rooted problems, some of which, such as economic and climate hardships, predate the current conflicts.

There are two types conflicts in the Sahel:  political conflicts between national governments and secessionists dating back to the post-French colonial era; and conflicts between governments - with the backing of western military assistance particularly from the US and France - and the various extremist insurgencies gaining ground after the recent rise of radical Islamists groups, such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

The crisis came to the forefront a decade ago when radical Islamist insurgents opportunistically seized on the chaos created by simmering ethnic conflicts to gain a wider influence. The response to the conflicts from the international community has been both on a military and a political level. Nonetheless, the current efforts to mitigate a chain of intertwined crises across the region are too narrowly focused, not adequately resourced, and do not address the overall challenges.  

Background

The Sahel region is an eco-geographic term for the buffer zone between the countries of North Africa that reach down to the Sahara, and the abundant green lush greenery of the countries of West and Central Africa. It spans from the eastern shores of the African continent, starting from Sudan and continuing up to the Atlantic shores of Mauritania and Senegal. However, the term the Sahel is often used to mean the countries lying at the core of the region: Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The Niger River cuts through the Sahel area historically serving as a bridge between the fertile South and the arid North. However, in these times of conflict, its resources are hotly contested. The Sahel faces the prospect of complete desertification, as the Sahara continues to spread downwards due to climate change and subsequently increased temperatures. Human depletion has also exacerbated the crisis, causing Lake Chad to dry, further weakening the habitat for crops and humans alike.

The region has been the historical melting pot between nomadic predominantly Muslim and sub-Saharan tribes that follow Islam, Christianity and animist faiths. It served as the interconnection between the North African and the sub-Saharan ancient trade routes that became defunct after European expeditions identified new routes and started operating alternative paths for trade. The region fell under French colonial rule in the late 19th century as the Paris eyed the natural resources of the region. French colonialism prioritised trade and economic efficiency across an East-West level, moving goods to the western shores for shipping. The commercial practices of the French were efficient considering the new trade routes. However, these practices weakened traditional social bonds across the North-South that had existed for centuries before the emergence of the new routes. The vast area, known in the colonial era as French Sudan, had diverse communities that were challenging to govern, and the economic system began to weaken.

In the aftermath of French rule, many areas in the Sahel were beyond the reach of the newly independent, but fragile states that replaced it. The result was a gap of sovereignty, accentuated by corruption and distrust. This gap enabled the rise of various Islamist factions, as well as ethnically inspired groups, with shifting alliances between elements in both.

One region, Many Actors

Amid poverty, the region witnessed the rise of Islamists. The Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which began in early 2009, gained notoriety globally following the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in 2014. Bako Haram, formally called Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad" have ever since they were founded in 2002 targeted particularly western style education.

However, the reach of the Islamists also encompasses areas across all the four core countries of the region, making the Sahel not only a hub but also a vital link in a growing network of influence which mutated in various groups, amongst which  the Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) and JNIM. These Islamists often share cultural and ethnic identity with nomadic tribes some of who have been for a long time fighting the central governments demanding autonomy. Among the insurgent groups is the Tuareg movement fighting for independence in Northern Mali, a region they call Azawad. The Tuareg people are nomadic tribes inhabiting North of the Niger River and sharing cultural ties with other nomads of the Sahara region. It is these cultural ties that have also allowed Northern African countries to be involved in the broader Sahel crisis. After being marginalised in the aftermath of French rule, the Tuareg led several rebellions with the last and current one being in 2012.  But long before that, they had been in continuous struggle not only with the Southern-based and internationally recognised government of Mali, but often also with the Islamist whom they engage in a constant struggle in the North.

The various Islamist factions and the ethnic insurgencies have distinctly different agendas. The Tuareg rebels fight economic and climate injustice and the Islamists fight to impose Sharia law. However, in recent years they both benefited from the proliferation of weapons from Libya that followed in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Gadhaffi regime. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) gained a massive boost from fighters who were enrolled as mercenaries in support of Gadhaffi's army, and who left Libya in 2011. The fallout of the security situation facilitated the movement of fighters and weapons across borders into Chad, Niger and Mali all bordering each other. Many of these fighters cited financial reasons as a reason why they joined the new movement in Mali. The increased strength of the Tuareg movement was a shock for Malian officials and partly explains why the rebellion is still ongoing. After the withdrawal of government forces from Northern Mali in the summer of 2012, the MNLA clashed with the Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups, including Islamic State and volunteers from Boko Haram.  

Response to the Sahel Crisis

This complexity of actors and conflicts across the Sahel undoubtedly poses challenges for Europe and the entire world. France and the US first led the military response to the Islamist insurgency in Mali during 2013 and in Chad during 2014. The UN, through its MINUSMA mission, has also been involved. On a regional level, an alliance known as the G5 (Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania) also seeks to play a leading role, but so far their role has been modest. France has been carrying most of the burden. Today the international attention has shifted from Northern Nigeria and Chad to Burkina Faso and Mali, where insurgents found a new hub amid the ongoing tribal rebellion in Mali and the political vacuum caused by this conflict. The challenge lies not only in potential re-emergence of a wider extremist influence but also in the weak response to the local economic and environmental needs. The G5 group consists of national armies, but they are underfunded, not adequately equipped, and often corrupt often appearing to function more as militias rather than established national armies. This weak local response against the insurgents is supported internationally, but relief organisations that are addressing the climate change and food crisis state that the problem is in the military intervention itself as it lacks a mechanism to address the regions' needs. The lack of transparency among the G5 besides the explicit focus on counterterrorism has garnered criticism from locals suffering heavily from the conflict. As such, it has also further widened the sociopolitical divide in the region. Meanwhile, insurgents have found creative ways to reinforce their networks and finance their operations through money laundering, hijacking, and kidnapping.

Whilst France has been on the forefront in the military operations it has been adamant that this is an EU-wide issue and not only France's issue. Two months ago, several European and Sahel countries announced  the creation of the Takuba Taskforce, a joint force to be deployed near Lake Chad this summer to fight the insurgents located there. France has already allocated five thousand soldiers to this task force. This initiative brings together the efforts of the UN, the G5, and the EU. However, this combined effort has been subject to criticism for missing the bigger picture. The G5 countries, on their part, feel that they are left at the front line to combat the insurgents. Meanwhile, resentment among the long-suffering local populations towards both their national governments and foreign actors is increasing.

The international effort in the Sahel could lead to unsatisfactory results if it does not address the economic and climate hardships in Mali, and the Sahel region as a whole. The key lies in empowering local communities with tools of financial sustainability. In this way, they can become stakeholders in the process to fend off insurgents and create an antidote against radicalisation. The EU has been actively contributing to humanitarian aid in the region. However, it needs to prioritise a move from short term relief efforts to long term development plans which would allow local communities to be self-sufficient. The EU and the international community spent several years coordinating efforts between international and local forces to fight insurgencies and promoting a dialogue between Tuareg and national governments. Building on these efforts, the EU needs to dismantle the connections between local communities and radical insurgencies to witness tangible security results. In the Sahel, there is still room for a revised EU policy that combines a developmental response with security empowerment while prioritising the needs of the local populations. This window of opportunity may not be there in the future, and therefore, the EU needs to act sooner rather than later.

There is hope that a new approach, announced recently by a number of European countries may start addressing the region's many challenges. In their recent statement, the governments of Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom announced the establishment of the Takuba Task Force, which whilst having a military dimension also engages with the region with a wider remit. In their statement the European governments said that "a robust integrated approach is needed to reverse current negative trends and address root causes to instability in Mali and the Sahel region. Strengthened security enables conditions for the development efforts in Mali, improved governance and respect for the rule of law, which in turn are necessary to achieve sustainable peace."

Significantly, the statement adds:

"Ownership and unity of efforts by the governments, the civil society and the population in the region are crucial. Stopping the influence of organized armed groups conducting terrorist activities on the ground in order to support efficiently the efforts of Sahelian partners is also crucial for Europe. Solidarity and cooperation with regional governments are necessary in order to protect the security and interests of both Europe and the Sahel."

The people of the Sahel can only hope that this new initiative will deliver where others in the past have not.

References

Cooper, B. (2018). The Sahel in West African history. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History. Sahel in West African History - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of African History

Kisangani, E. (2012). THE TUAREGS' REBELLIONS IN MALI AND NIGER AND THE U.S. GLOBAL WAR ON TERROR. International Journal on World Peace, 29(1), 59-97. Retrieved May 31, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23266590

Lebovich, A. (2020, January 10). "More coordination" won't fix the Sahel. European Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_more_coordination_wont_fix_the_sahel

Suleiman, M. D. (February 2017). Sahel region, Africa. The Conversation. Sahel region, Africa

"Sahel". (2019). Sahel. EUROPEAN CIVIL PROTECTION AND HUMANITARIAN AID OPERATIONS. European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/echo/where/africa/sahel_en

Task Force Takuba: political statement by the governments of Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, Niger, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom

https://www.government.se/495ef1/globalassets/government/dokument/forsvarsdepartementet/2020/political-statement-task-force-takuba.pdf

source: This commentary was prepared for commonspace.eu by Noman Ahmed, Research Associate at LINKS Europe focusing on conflicts in Europe's Southern neighbourhood.

photo: French Soldiers in Mali (picture courtesy of the General Staff of the French Armed Forces)

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