Sahel Sahara: crises in the crisis.

Over the last ten years, the Sahel crisis has steadily taken root in and spread beyond the region. Having become structural, it is far from having reached its peak, especially in Mali, its epicenter. Its human, material and political damage are aggravated by the continuous disintegration of societies, economies and administrations while social networks, « conspirators » or not, make it a boon for young people dreaming of great adventures.

Through its fallouts, obviously now more diplomatic and unsurprisingly more publicized the crisis is evident far from the Sahel (in the Maghreb and in Moscow), thus fueling other crises and inter states power struggles. Similar to the now uncontrollable Libya situation, partly linked to its origin, but also to those always murderous Lake Chad crises.

Identity crises and differences.

For many years, the Sahel was marginalized, abandoned far from states capital cities. At the periphery of everything, it was then handed over to the various smuggling networks of cigarettes, drugs, migrants and gold (despite being a monopoly of Central Banks). Since Mali 2012 crisis and the security objectives, now also diplomatic, the region has become one focal point of international concerns. In recent months, several issues, not unlike those of the Cold War, have emerged. In the fight against terrorism, it is difficult not to associate a movement supported by a state or a group of countries seeking more political, economic or other spaces: Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and a number of western states in Libya and France, Russia and others in Mali!

Quite appropriately, on October 12, a United Nations Security Council Report dealt with the most unknown or, at least very underestimated, causes of conflicts, including those in the Sahel. These causes are linked to the reality, or to the perception of identity differences – ethnic, racial, religious, socio-economic, national. Identities are « manipulated and mobilized into political instruments for the control of economic resources and political power. Moreover, the marginalization and exclusion, real or perceived, of social groups – from political power and economic activities – have been sources of violence and the origin of the formation of separatist groups. Diversity can then be more and better used to manage political and economic crises and situations such as those caused by Covid 19’’.

Precisely, since this Covid 19 crisis, coincidence or to them an unexpected opportunity, the terrorists have changed their strategy thanks to more modern communication and weaponry. In addition, the economic slowdown and the beginning of general weariness of populations and governments, also linked to the pandemic, have reshuffled the cards in their favor.

Authoritarian political controls, obtained by force under the one-party regimes of the 1960s / 90s, are now less effective. A large part of the ruling elites no longer want to accept them as violence may feed on it to their detriment. It is therefore up to the Sahel governments to develop mechanisms to manage these new situations and prevent serious crises or the perpetuation of current ones. Their various bi or multilateral allies can help. In this context, social networks become strong relays and propagators. With a role that can be negative when these networks exacerbate societies polarization, disinformation and extremism.

Planning in the terrorists’ service.

One of extremists most formidable strategies, though often unrecognized or underestimated, is for them, while remaining active in a territory where they already operate, to prepare for a drive towards border territories not yet affected. More precisely, their armed presence in the Sahel, via North Africa, is intimate to a project of movement towards the countries of the Gulf of Guinea. Their other strategy is, unlike those of the international community, to play politically less on the populations poverty than on the much more visible injustices and abuses attributed to governments. Their denunciation of the elites recurring corruption, invigorates and exalts ordinary citizens.

 As where it is rife the world over, terrorism in the Sahel is changing while recruiting combatants and even personalities. It goes underground to operate with weapons and bombs and any other tool of violence. In this context, it takes advantage of the weaknesses of governance, which is often inoperative and far from local realities.

Counterterrorism, including with the support of military action, is not enough to persuade populations when terrorist groups and movements have social links and the capacity to effect. In this context, undoubtedly the Malian crisis has more national and indigenous roots than international ones. Old fights, including community clashes, but also land occupations and tense relations between pastoralists and sedentary people, often linked to water resources, are at the heart of the problems. For radical groups, a crisis internationalization helps first to secure their prestige at the national level. It also promotes resources mobilization, voluntary and more often forced even though it still carries the risk of a military, regional and international, intervention.

An additional danger in the Sahel, established across the world, is the confirmation of competition between external actors. Without cooperation between these actors, the crisis worsens every day for the affected countries but also for the national interests of foreign states. In this context and, for a conflict lasting settlement, it is expected to seek establishing coherence between national, regional and international means and the weight of terrorists’ threats.

These are multiple, changing and worse, cross-borders, that is to say ‘’de territorialized’’. It is in this context that the Russian actual or future military presence, through the Wagner Group, must be managed with discernment if not with caution. A greater internationalization of the conflict in the Sahel, and moreover based on competition between states, can only be disastrous and in the first place for the countries of the region. Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan are cruel examples.

Ultimately, in this context, the convening at Paris of a new, and additional, high level international conference on Libya, in civil war since 2011, is a reminder of the extreme fragility of the whole region. In a vastly retribalized country, where many external actors are present with different or opposing agendas, a conference, especially at high level, is lubricant to more misunderstandings and thus more infightings. As in Somalia or Yemen and Afghanistan.

Thus, the Centre4s founding wish, « to work so that the Sahel Sahara region remains an actor of its future and not a subject of concern or a new source of instability for the international community, » is still to be fulfilled.

By Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, President