The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm
Africa Report N°227
25 Jun 2015
The huge, sparsely populated, impoverished Sahel is affected by growing numbers of jihadi extremists and illicit activities, including arms, drugs and human trafficking, estimated to generate $3.8 billion annually. Borders are porous, government reach limited. Populations and unemployment are soaring. Within this perfect storm of actual and potential instability, criminal networks increasingly overrun Central Sahel – the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin. State authority is weak in relatively stable Niger. To the south, the radical Islamist, primarily Nigerian, Boko Haram insurgency is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and more than a million displaced. Western and regional counter-terrorism efforts are insufficient, but neither have more integrated approaches proposed by the EU and UN borne fruit. Without holistic, sustained action against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, instability is likely to spread and exacerbate radicalisation and migration.
The Sahel, a vast region stretching from Mauritania to Sudan bordering the Sahara Desert, has always had porous borders and thinly populated areas only loosely controlled by national governments. (For example, Niger is bigger than Nigeria, but its seventeen million population is a tenth the size and concentrated in its southern quarter). But as Libya imploded and Boko Haram expanded across borders in the Lake Chad Basin, criminal networks trafficking illicit goods and humans grew by corrupting officials, forming alliances with local communities and sometimes working with jihadi groups. The region has become a key source of, and transit point for, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe. By mid-June 2015, more than 106,000 were estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Nearly 57,ooo had reached Italy, almost exclusively from Libya and after transiting countries to its south. UN officials project that between 80,000 and 120,000 migrants will pass through Niger during the year.
Western governments have primarily taken a security-oriented approach to the criminal and jihadi threats, upping their military presence and counter-terrorism operations and increasing efforts to secure Europe’s southern borders. Initiatives such as the Rabat (2006) and Khartoum (2014) processes to curb illegal immigration, as well as the latest European Union (EU) plan – including refugee resettlement, but also a military operation to disrupt smugglers’ networks and destroy their boats – tackle only symptoms of the Sahel’s problems.
There is little prospect of stabilising the region without recognising that current policies do not address the deep sources of its instability: entrenched poverty; underdevelopment, particularly in the peripheries; and a booming youth population with little access to education or jobs and no real loyalty to the state. Many youths see migration – illegal if necessary – as their only future. Others lash out at their corrupt “secular” and “Westernised” states in hope of imposing a more morally pure, Islamist government. A huge proportion of the men, women and children crossing the Mediterranean are not coming to Europe simply to escape poverty, but also to flee deadly conflicts and repressive governments.
Heavy-handed military action and closure of political space by co-option or criminalisation of the opposition aggravate tensions. Labelling non-violent Islamists potential jihadis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Government neglect of the peripheries, unwillingness to address local conflicts and tendency to rely on personal, at times criminal, clientelistic alliances rather than develop democratic institutions feed a growing sense of marginalisation, particularly in rural areas.
Remote, weak or even repressive central governments across the region have been supplanted by alternative forms of organisation, including traditional authorities; community-based structures; Islamist movements; and criminal networks. Outside forces, both criminal and jihadi, have particular success exploiting these ad hoc governance systems, aligning with the concerns of local powerbrokers to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, battles, sometimes very violent, for control of the lucrative smuggling routes are becoming more numerous and visible.
To counter the growing jihadi threat, international actors have deployed troops and aircraft and supported national security forces that pursue a militarised approach. Local populations, however, often view the Western military presence as driven by a desire to protect interests in the area’s hydrocarbon and mineral deposits. Prioritisation of counter-terrorism and conflation of violent jihadism with other forms of political Islam are creating a backlash against regional and Western governments alike.
To reverse the Sahel’s deepening instability – in particular deterioration in already precarious Niger – national governments and external actors need not only to manage the short term, but also to take a long view. This would involve committing to sustained efforts to shore-up fragile states by consistently and transparently promoting good governance and durable development, as well as to resolve existing conflicts and address their humanitarian consequences. To do so:
- Western policies should be reoriented to concentrate on building more inclusive and accountable governments and countering structural factors that drive marginalisation and alienation, and thus criminalisation and radicalisation.
- While Western governments and the EU are likely to continue their security-first approach, efforts to tackle radicalisation and criminalisation should focus on promoting accountable public administration, particularly in Niger and Nigeria. These could include encouraging creation of civilian oversight mechanisms for public institutions and supporting construction of robust, inclusive coalitions against corruption and mismanagement.
- Development aid should be tied not to military counter-terrorism efforts, but to measures that improve governance, limit state corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.
- Addressing youth unemployment through training and labour intensive infrastructure projects to link the peripheries to markets and services could significantly contribute to tackling migration.
Finally, efforts to deter migration need to be accompanied by longer-term strategies to curb unsustainable population growth, particularly in Niger, through support for women’s rights to education and reproductive health.
Dakar/Brussels, 25 June 2015