Crises and Future Prospects in the Sahel Region 🇬🇧

Insecurity has grown extensively over the last decade in the Sahel, a region with many countries facing serious problems, something that brings further concerns and fears about the future. The stability of the Sahel region remains a priority for many Western, European, and African countries, but national fragmentation and/or instability seem to be taking the lead in an increasing number of countries. 

To better understand the ongoing situation and its possible evolutions, the OCC spoke to Dagauh Komenan, an expert of the Sahel region and PhD candidate at the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria University in Spain. 

From your standpoint, how has security evolved in the Sahel region over the last decade? 

When it comes to security, the situation in the Sahel region has deteriorated considerably over the last two decades or more. First, the end of the Algerian Civil War around 2002 and lingering effects in North Africa, directly affected the region’s situation. Then, the Libya crisis that started in 2011 accentuated the problem. 

There are three main points that make the Libya crisis an important part of the current security crisis in the Sahel region. Firstly, the Libya crisis increased weapons proliferation in the whole subregion. Secondly, it added further destabilization to a preexisting precarious situation, since it gave new life to the independentists of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad, MNLA). Thirdly, another indirect factor was the loss of the regional economic and political poles of stability that, though not perfect, used to prevail. 

Indeed, the subregion had proven before its capacity for resilience. In the 1970s, despite the humanitarian and the hunger crisis generated by drought, and in the 1990s, with the civil war in Mali that followed the Tuareg rebellion. 

But, between 2012 and today, we transitioned from a localized crisis in the northern part of Mali, to a more generalized crisis that spread all throughout the Sahel region, and even reached Western coastal countries such as the Ivory Coast and Benin. 

Which Sahel countries are the most fragile and why? 

The situation is particularly complicated today in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. In the three countries, there is violence generated by several factors. Violence does not emanate from jihadist groups only: it is also exerted by a part of the state’s security forces, by the militias that work together with the latter, and by volunteer self-defense groups.  Violence also prevails in the relations between some communities: look for example at the nature of the relations between agricultural workers and nomad ranchers, especially those of them that belong to the ethnic communities, the Peulh and the Fulani. There are also armed groups, made of thugs and criminals, that exert violence on the population. This is particularly true in Nigeria, where hostages have been kidnapped on a regular basis, following a practice that was used by jihadist groups in the 2000s. The more jihadism expands, the more it ends up affecting stability and security. 

Mauritania and Niger are the most successful countries in terms of containing the expansion of jihadism. Political stability in those countries is what makes it difficult for jihadist groups to expand. 

That said, there are countries that break these patterns, such as Burkina Faso and Chad, where jihadism started at a moment when the countries were opening democratically. Thanks to a strong military mobilization, Chad was able to efficiently contain the progression of these groups, but only by relying on authoritarianism. In Burkina Faso, the situation deteriorated quickly starting in 2016. Recently, around 50 soldiers were killed. Precise figures and circumstances for this massacre have yet to be determined, while killings and death still are spreading  through the country. 

Where do we stand today from the terrorist threats that prevail in the Sahel? 

There are three main levels of jihadist threats in the subregion. 

First, jihadism has spread, from the northern part of Mali to other Sahel countries and, though in a more limited way, down to the southern coasts. At the same time, this threat is radically changing. Since 2017, the groups or katibas that are active in the region have entered a phase of restructuration, associating themselves with one of two major international terrorist organizations: al Qaeda and ISIS. Previously, radical groups used to review their orientations and change their names often. Now, from 2017 onwards, radical groups have tended to stabilize their identities more. This translates into a major threat: these groups are not only engaged in a fight against the governments of the region, but also between themselves, increasing further levels of violence. Another thing to note is in the region of the Three Borders (Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger), where groups affiliated to al Qaeda are seeking affirmation. And in the region of Lake Chad (common to Cameroun, Niger and Chad), ISIS was able to overpower Boko Haram. 

Second, this same threat has become established in  indigenous communities. In the beginning, jihadists tended to be mainly from Algerian origins: then, Tuaregs from Mali increasingly participated in jihad. The importance of this phenomenon is best symbolized by the example of Iyad Ag Ghali: he was the leader of a modest katiba, Ansar Dine, before he ended up heading the Sahel’s most important katiba currently, the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (Jama’a Nusrat ul-islam wal-muslimin, JNIM). Apart from the Tuaregs, Peuhls also joined this phenomenon. In 2015, the Macina Katiba, also known as the Liberation Front of Macina, was formed by Peuhl  preacher Amadou Koufa. 

Third, we need to bear in mind that the Peuhls are one of the most widespread communities in Western Africa. Their geographical presence extends from Senegal to the Republic of Central Africa. At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, this community was the origin of great Muslim theocracies of the Sahel, such as the Toucouleur and the Massina Empires. 

France left Mali in 2022. Was it a game changer? 

The departure of France has generated ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, there ongoing disagreement between those in favor of the French withdrawal, and those against. While some consider that the departure of France has worsened the situation, others talk about an improvement of security conditions. What is sure is that the Malian army became more offensive after France left. The Malian National army is leading attacks on three different fronts: from the Southern part of the country to the North; from the Centre to the North; and in the Western part, in the region of the Three Borders, where it carries operations together with the local militias of self-defense. In the beginning, there were positive results, then the situation escalated. In any case, military operations and the way they were carried out witnessed the most radical changes. For instance, the Malian military  better coordinates its efforts with local militias issued from specific communities; and everything indicates that there are ongoing secret negotiations between the government and some Islamist leaders, something that France had never allowed when it was in Mali. 

How do you see the situation evolving over the coming months and/or years? 

It is difficult to make any kind of prognostic predictions because there are many factors that enter into play. Nonetheless, the fears of an Afghan scenario proved excessive so far. The withdrawal of the French has not been followed by an immediate collapse of the Malian State. Of course, it remains too early to claim victory. Mercenaries of the Wagner Russian paramilitary group are getting more and more involved in Mali, similarly to situations in the Republic of Central Africa, and possibly – though in a more limited way – in Burkina Faso. This  can foster further and better coordination and cooperation between Mali and Burkina Faso, which would give in return a serious blow to the G5-Sahel, a structure that had been created to foster common fight against jihadism in the Sahel region. 

Current evolutions threaten a scenario similar to Syria. We can compare the River border between Mali and Niger to the Euphrates River in Syria. The river separates two main sets of international actors: the Russians with the Wagner group in Mali and Burkina Faso on one side, and the West with its forces and Private Military Companies deployed in Niger on the other. Despite a different context, the same situation can be said about the Chad river. 

Regarding the security situation, I doubt that the Sahel and its different countries will stabilize in the short run.  

To quote this article or video, please use the following reference: OCC (2023), “Crises and Future Prospects in the Sahel Region”

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