Continuing Insecurity in the Sahel

Continuing Insecurity in the Sahel

Continuing Insecurity in the Sahel


4 min read

Posted on: 8th July 2015

The past four years have seen dramatic and destabilising developments in the Sahel. There has been regime change and ongoing conflict in Libya; the occupation of large swathes of northern Mali by separatist and Islamist groups, and the subsequent political and military implosion of the country; and the expansion of the Islamist-jihadi group Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, and its encroachment across national borders in the Lake Chad Basin. These ongoing crises, and their fallout, have effected two other countries in the region that have so far managed to remain predominantly stable: Niger and Chad. A recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), finds deeply embedded, destabilising trends in both countries and across the region, which create an environment conducive to the development of extremism.

The report The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm, discusses the area of the Sahel from southern Libya to northern Nigeria, including Niger and Chad. It highlights three main issues that have developed into what it calls, "a perfect sandstorm." These are a chronic lack of effective education, which exacerbates a pervasive lack of socio-economic opportunity, especially in peripheral regions, both of which are perpetuated by corruption and clientelistic networks that concentrate influence and resources at the centre and is maintained by government predation of the national periphery.

People form their identity at the community, ethnic or religious level. 

The report notes that some 80 per cent of teachers in Niger have no educational training. This deprives communities in the periphery of a skilled workforce, perpetuating their poverty and reliance on the central government for aid, or forces them to turn to alternative – illicit – means of earning a living. According to surveys and interviews conducted by ICG, this has deeply eroded the legitimacy of the state in peripheral communities. People claimed to feel almost no loyalty to the state, instead forming their identity solely at the community, ethnic, and local religious level. This, ICG found, leaves communities vulnerable to the mobilisation of grievances along religious lines, which is often the strongest identity marker.

Since the 1990s, modern Islamic movements have encroached on traditional Sufi Sahelian territories. Often funded by Gulf states, these organisations found fertile ground in the central Sahel due to the absence of effective state institutions, including in education. Traditional, unregulated Islamic education was increasingly coopted by more conservative teachings. These undermined traditional rulers, arguing that their failure to hold elites to account for corruption and greed delegitimised them, while offering an alternative to alienation and powerlessness via a new identity and purpose in Islamism.

The report also found a dual trend in the proliferation of arms (stemming particularly from conflicts in Libya and northeast Nigeria) and growth in smuggling groups, which formed in the absence of access to licit employment and development opportunities. This has in turn led to the increasingly militarised nature of smuggling and trafficking across the Sahel and the Sahara. Trade and smuggling are ancient occupations for the – mostly semi-nomadic – communities but the report records a marked increase in violence along trade routes. Many trade routes previously traversed Mali's vast desert and semi-arid areas, but since the deployment of foreign troops there following the Islamist occupation in 2013, many of these routes have shifted east and now travel through Niger, adding another level of insecurity in that country.

Smuggling in the Sahel is incresingly militarised. 

One of the main themes that runs throughout the ICG report is that the concentration of power and resources at the centre of nations drives the periphery from the political space. Governing parties and personalities also repress or coopt any opposition to their rule. The report found that this closing off of the political space has led to a pulling away from the state, especially among the younger generation, which feels little loyalty to a system perceived as predatory and unable or unwilling to provide services or security to its citizens. Violence and revolt are increasingly seen as the only avenues through which to express opposition.

Many of the interviews recorded in the report also indicated dependence on Islamic, and frequently Islamist or extremist groups as alternatives to central governments perceived as out of touch and tainted. Islam has a deeply embedded history in the region and remains one of the few institutions seen as legitimate. In the face of this growing bifurcation, regional governments have an incentive to exaggerate the extremist leanings of local Islamic groups that could rival the government, thus connecting global narratives of anti-terrorism to local groups that are not always extremist.

The report also cautions against uncritical acceptance of the narrative of 'ungoverned spaces,' instead suggesting that such regions are rather unconventionally governed spaces peripheral to centralised governance structures. Cut off from state institutions, communities on the periphery develop alternative governance and community structures. These groups are not necessarily extremist, though they are outside the control of the state, making them a potential threat to government control even if they do not necessarily pose a broader threat.

The report ends with a number of recommendations to foreign governments engaged in the Sahel region. These are focus on the need for in-depth and complex understanding of the regional dynamics. It recommends that they move away from a foreign policy focused on security responses. Local suspicions of the motives of foreign governments are already rampant and easy for non-government groups to exploit. Governments should also avoid reinforcing governments seen as predatory against citizens. As part of that, the report also suggests de-linking development aid from anti-terrorism security assistance, tying it instead to anti-corruption and governance campaigns that could build the legitimacy of the government to the people, make it more accountable, and open up the political space for a wider spectrum of citizens.

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