The vast area of the Sahel is increasingly believed to be the next battlefield in counterterrorism against several terrorist groups operating there, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Boko Haram, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Ansaru-Islam, and two IS affiliates, Greater Sahara (ISGS) and West Africa Province (ISWAP). Particularly Lake Chad Basin, Mali, and Burkina Faso suffer from violent attacks. In trying to stabilize the region and increase the level of security, several measures have been initiated to curtail the threat, such as the Sahel G5, Operation Barkhane, and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). While their purpose and objective are by no means insignificant, a strategy aimed at solving the root of the problems could be more successful than a strategy dealing with the bi-product of the root cause.
Violence in the Sahel
While the groups mentioned representing the Salafist-Jihadist groups in the region, they are not the only ones contributing to bloodshed. In Mali, for instance, you could separate the armed actors into four categories;
- The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) – Coalition of armed groups with aligned interests, mainly territorial control and self-determination. The Tuareg rebellion in 2012 was led by the MNLA which fall under this category.
- Salafist-Jihadist Groups.
- The Platform Coalition – Coalition of armed groups with aligned interests, mainly pro-government and nationalistic.
Similarly, in Niger close to the Malian border, Fulani herders have organized and armed themselves, not because of any resentment against the state or foreigners, but to protect their livestock against Tuareg cattle raiders. The head of ISGS, Chefou, was one of these herders. According to Nigerien officials, Chefou had no interest in Jihadism, but at one point he changed from being a vigilante group member protecting livestock to jihadist carrying out complex attacks. Particularly following the ouster of Ghaddafi, Tuaregs who had served in the Libyan army returned to the Sahel, some of which raided cattle, others pursued territorial control in northern Mali. As such, believing that counterterrorism is the one solution to achieving the stable Sahel is an incorrect assessment as there are tribal, local, and cultural nuances to the violence as well.
Western Reinforcement of Root Causes
Western security presence in the Sahel is largely based on agreements with the Sahelian state leaders. Such as the US drone base and arming of the drones in Agadez comes from the agreement between the two. Similarly, Chad hosts shared military exercises, participates in the war on terror through MNJTF and Sahel G5, and allows US and French troops on the ground. The issue is that these states are violating human rights, depriving people of opportunity and prosperity, failing to provide security, and participating in grave corruption. When the states then receive assistance, funding, and support for their participation in the war on terror and for allowing Western military presence within their territory, they are not incentivized to improve the domestic situation.
While reforms could be the beginning of solving the root causes for violence and for achieving stability, there are no incentive do so as the most rewarding course of action is to fight terror in order to become invaluable to the Western. Once invaluable, Western powers will interfere, as France did in February in Chad, enabling Déby to continue his autocratic regime safely, without reforms. There is a governance vacuum in that security and protection is weak, making armed groups, or taking to arms oneself become a viable option.
Additionally, the corruption fused into the judicial system discredits the state, while unequal distribution or lack of distribution of state resources due to corruption further fuels the discontent. Meanwhile, 65% of the Sahelian population is under 25 years old, many unemployed and somewhat excluded due to a lack of belonging to school, work, or family.
If a truly stable Sahel is the objective, then the first course of action must be to assist in state-building to improve the reasons why people take to arms. Additionally, the West must incentivize reforms and anti-corruption measures, embracing a counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel that focuses just as much on building stability as security.
Image: The North Africa Post (link)