Sahel Sahara, the turning point?

With its huge territory, the Sahel is presently a dense concentration of political, economic, environmental and demographic challenges. Their management, especially in the security field, requires setting priorities. Is the international community on that path?

Overlooked huge challenges.

A few observations. The longer an internal conflict lasts, the more it changes in nature. It becomes a flourishing market including of occult activities even the harmful ones. In fact, its legitimate original claims become less important than the new ones and sometimes contradictory interests fuel the parties’ motivations. As a result, the conflict feeds itself from its own excesses as cross fertilization of internal and external interests deepens further its roots. The crisis becomes a fair open to all deals on weapons, military, security and other more or less useful services. At the same time, the priority of national governance becomes how to control external resources and the search for peace is relegated to a mere slogan.

Becoming a component of the deep political nature of the country, the conflict, even of low intensity, does not however disappear. It remains latent, burning under the ashes.

Throughout the world, examples of these deeply entrenched conflicts are numerous: Afghanistan, Burundi, Democratic Congo Republic, Iraq, Libya, Nicaragua, Somalia, Yemen, etc. Undoubtedly, it is thanks to its break-down in several ethnic republics – Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia – that the former Yugoslavia escaped a long lasting war. The world over, candidates to this unfortunate fate are even more numerous.

On the institutional level, states can regress, back to pre-colonial era. The case of Somalia – a country with an ethnically homogeneous population, speaking the same language and more than 98% of Muslim, is a telling example of this regression / retribalisation of countries to the post-colonial era.

Today, as the crisis is more deeply rooted and, consequently still needing a foreign military presence, the priority in the Sahel is to avoid, to a number of states, the fate of the above broken countries. Is it late?

The more it lasts, the more an external military presence calls for political and financial legitimacy to be accepted in the country where it operates. And in its own country. The longer the conflict goes on, the more it generates the development of « conspiracy theory ‘’ that weakens the national governance due to criminal economies that are associated to it. Social media networks provide them with a wide and rapid dissemination.

The Sahel will not experience peace in the short and medium terms because terrorism is also fueled by fragile governance. The implosion of a number of countries, not necessarily the ones all think about, cannot be ruled out. More and more informal and retribalized states, cannot win a war that is long lasting. Gradually, bilateral and international allies that are on the ground to support are presented as a hidden enemy. The one plotting against the very state it came to help!

All external troops (4,500 for Barkane with in addition the Special Forces), then the United Nations soldiers (over 12,000 ) and those of the  G 5 Sahel do not yet see the end of the combats. Cameroon, Chad and Niger armies deployed around Lake Chad, have no clearer idea of the end of a conflict that confines them to fighting without a frontline. While operating in vast areas, where frustrated populations are angrier at their governments than at terrorists, these troops do win battles but not the war. The fatigue of soldiers and public opinions is the worst enemy.

For all partners, to avoid routine and frustrations,  time has probably come to review their commitments in the Sahel. The combination of these two factors weakens alliances and reinforces rebellions.

Difficult out of the crisis exits.

Visiting Mali, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, told the press on February 23, 2019 « the fight against terrorism in the Sahel requires determination, endurance and humility. We are facing a tough fight and the French army will stay as long as it takes’’. The Prime Minister is right.

Indeed this is a hard fight. It should be resolved before bringing back home the foreign troops. Concerned states should better give priority to the conflict settlement.

Decisive at the eruption of a crisis, always important during times of uncertainties, foreign troops can however be, overtime, a source of risks. First, a risk to their own deterrent capability that diminishes as the enemy, as well as local populations, become more familiar with the fighting. There is also the risk of declining performance and fatigue following criticism of politicians in both the countries of origin and in those where they operate.

Successful exit from an armed conflict implies military success within a reasonable period of time. Otherwise it is the stagnation, always politically dangerous for the allies. A lasting presence of troops in a faraway territory makes it an expeditionary force that constitutes a major political and military handicap. In the age of social networks, its political and financial costs can be devastating.

In the Sahel, the coherence of military effort (G 5 Sahel forces, United Nations, France and others) appears incongruous in the face of the more chaotic political, economic and social national contexts. Development needs, giving priority to education in science, are yet to be seen. The overcrowded and polluted cities, especially the capitals  jam-packed over huge spaces, costly in terms of mobility, call for better management. The Alliance for the Sahel could assist.

To support the military effort, it is important to succeed on the political, economic and social front.

To date, this gap is the weakest point of the strategies advanced by or for the Sahel stability. The formation of vast national political fronts has become unavoidable. A political approach to the conflit, fully embraced by the political elites and civil society should clean up the scene to hasten the resolution of the crisis.

Today, the Sahel public opinions are mobilized, not in support of a modern revolution for education, agriculture or basic infrastructure. As did the ex-colonized Asian countries that have achieved their economic transformation. On the contrary! In the Sahel, the theme of the revolution is the denunciation, ad aeternam, of the colonial past.

As often stated on this page, concomitantly with a strong military presence, the priority in the Sahel should go to the formation of vast domestic political fronts. As it is striking force, political inclusion is a powerful deterrent. Its goal should be to broaden and strengthen the popular foundation of the governments to help strengthen inherently fragile states. In the Sahel, claiming legitimacy only from the outcome of elections, often of tainted credibility, does not facilitate the return to peace. It does not either help the withdrawal of foreign troops. The political legitimacy of a regime at war should be broader and stronger.

The Sahel countries, like their partners, cannot continue to ignore that political path. Unless they want to perpetuate the immense Sahel challenges.


Written by Ahmedou Ould Abdallah