Shifting Sands: The Sahel's perfect storm

The Sahel is one of the most under-reported regions on the planet. This semi-arid, narrow belt of land stretches across the breadth of the African continent from the Atlantic coast of Mauritania & Senegal to the Red Sea coast of Sudan, and whilst largely absent from many a western conscience, forms an important frontier in terms of physical geography, climate and culture. Sitting at the crossroads of the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa, it represents the meeting point of faiths, languages and cultures, including Islamic, Christian, nomadic, and traditional tribal peoples. The region is inherently complex, facing a multitude of grave geopolitical challenges, from extremism, conflict & ethnic tensions, to food shortages, climate change and mass migration. The future of the Sahel is an uncertain one.

When the Sahel does make our headlines, it is rarely good news. Violence has steadily increased here since 2012, when the French government was forced to intervene to quell a coalition of separatist Islamist militants that had forcefully taken control of a large area of northern Mali. Since then, there has been a long, bloody deterioration in the regional security situation. Recent years have seen the continued rise of violent jihadist groups, including Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin; a coalition of various regional Islamist groups operating as an affiliate of al-Qaeda, as well as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which has established itself as a regional franchise of ISIS after pledging allegiance to the groups late caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. 

The level of violence meted out by the militants has increased in both frequency and ferocity, with reports suggesting the number of incidents has doubled year on year since 2015. The ever-growing number of casualties, both military and civilian, is part of a disturbing trend that has shown no sign of abating, with over 700 incidents attributed to extremist groups in 2019 alone. Sadly, whilst extremism presents a serious security challenge, tensions are not confined to differing ideologies. Various ethnic and economic divisions exist here, and these are often exploited by extremist groups as a recruitment strategy, serving only to worsen a conflict already spiralling out of control. One of the bloodiest feuds is that of the long-standing conflict between the Dogon ethnic group, whose livelihoods centre on traditional hunting and farming, and the Fulani, a semi-nomadic, mostly Muslim herder people. The conflict between the two groups over land use and alleged encroachments has only been made worse by growing levels of food demand and the scarcity of arable land, leading to a horrendous cycle of violence in which both sides accuse the other of being the aggressor.

A macabre timeline of violence across the region can be traced back well over the past decade, with recent events representing a marked escalation in the conflict. The past 10 months alone has seen civilians slaughtered in multiple attacks, particularly in the northern and eastern regions of Burkina Faso, where targets have included churches, mosques, infrastructure and transport. After a particularly bloody 2019, the new decade began with a depressing predictability and further bloodshed. On January 21st, 36 civilians were killed in two attacks in the province of Sanmatanga, this less than a month after 35 civilians, mostly women, were killed in an attack on Christmas Eve in the Soum province. 

Military losses have also been significant. Just two weeks into the new year, 89 soldiers from Niger were killed in a devastating attack on the Chinagodrar base on the country’s western border with Mali. Indeed, at the time of writing, the Chadian government in N’Djamena was reeling from what President Idriss Deby described as "the deadliest attack ever" on the country’s military after a sustained several hour attack by Boko Haram militants killed 98 soldiers on the Boma Peninsula of the Lake Chad Basin. 

Resolving the conflicts and neutralising Islamist ideologies that blight the region will require a larger international response. Amongst those currently engaged, France has the largest presence on the ground. In January, French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a summit in Pau, at which he was joined by the leaders of five regional powers (Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso) collectively known as the G5 nations. Before the summit, France’s role in the Sahel had been thrown sharply into focus by recent events, namely in November 2019 when headlines were made after a helicopter crash in Mali. The crash resulted in the deaths of 13 French soldiers, the single biggest loss of French troops in over 36 years. Such events are still very raw in Paris, and President Macron displayed his frustration at a perceived lack of support from local governments, even hinting at the possibility of withdrawing troops should the G5 members fail to clarify their preference for a French presence in the area. 

In the event, the ranks of 4,500 French troops already stationed throughout the region were bolstered by a further 600 reinforcements amidst escalating violence and instability. The French military presence is complemented by 5,000 troops from the G5 nations, as well as those from EU allies including Sweden, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the UK in a joint counter-terrorism task force named Takuba, which is expected to commence operations in the summer of 2020 in the Liptako region, spanning the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.

The United States has a presence here too, with 6,000 troops stationed on the African continent, of which an unspecified number of which are stationed at an airbase in Niger; but for how much longer remains uncertain. Despite the recent allocation of a special envoy to the Sahel, the allocation of US military resources to combat extremism here is currently subject to a wider Pentagon review of the deployment of its forces around the world, with suggestions that many of those currently afforded to the region may be redeployed elsewhere in areas better aligned with US defence policy, namely the perceived threats of Russia & China.  

Beyond bullets

Over 4.9 million people have been internally displaced, and many more have been turned into refugees, often attempting desperate and perilous journeys towards and across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Yet despite the worsening security situation, the population of the Sahel continues to grow exponentially. Large family groups are a cultural norm, with the average number of children for women in the Niger being approximately 7.6, a figure that rises to over 8 in parts of northern Nigeria. A lack of access to family planning services has resulted in a population boom, with growth predictions indicating that by 2050, the population of the Sahel will exceed 450 million. This trend is set to continue throughout the century to an estimated 928 million people by 2100.

The Sahel remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped areas on the planet, where the average GDP per capita is just USD 300-800 annually. Poverty is endemic here, with perhaps the most fundamental challenge being that of food security, which in an already desperate situation is yet another component that seamlessly fits into the cycle of chaos. In addition to the conflicts blighting the region, food security across the Sahel is made extremely fragile owing to the extreme nature of the climate here. Monthly average temperatures range between 30-35°c, with the UN observing that temperatures across the region are rising 1.5x faster than elsewhere on the planet. Scientists indicate that climate change may cause temperatures in the region to rise by 3-5°c by 2050, the effects of which could prove catastrophic, with many fearful that evermore sporadic rainfall and shrinking wet seasons will develop into prolonged periods of drought, potentially resulting in widespread famine conditions. 

The future impact of climate change in the Sahel is sobering enough, yet conditions today are already placing a greater and greater strain on farmers and herders to grow adequate quantities of food and rear enough livestock, whilst the amount of arable land available to their efforts continues to decline. With as much as 80% of the Sahel’s arable land already classified as degraded, the UN estimated that by the end of 2018 over 33 million people across the Sahel were classified as ‘food insecure’. The number of people that required urgent access to food aid by the end of 2018 exceeded 6 million across the G5 countries, and a further 8 million people required aid relief in neighbouring Nigeria’s Lake Chad basin, largely owing to ongoing violence and instability by the extremist Boko Haram organisation.

The road ahead

Affecting change in the region will not be easy, nor will it be quick. Of the G5 nations, four rank within the bottom ten of the UN’s Human Development Index, and all are classified as having ‘Low Human Development’ on this scale. Beyond peacekeeping and security, investing in development will be key to be establishing lasting stability and positive change across the Sahel, and despite the significant challenges, there is reason for cautious optimism. 

The Sahel is young, with over 60% of the population under 25 years old, however, with a mean of 2.5 years of schooling across the G5 countries, education and vocational training represent key areas of humanitarian investment. Education has enormous potential in improving the lives of Sahelians and opening vocational pathways away from the traditional agricultural and livestock sectors that dominate livelihoods. Opportunities for commodities investment are also overlooked, with the Sahel’s abundant natural resources including oil, natural gas, gold, phosphates, diamonds, copper & iron ore. There is also a huge potential within the renewables sector, with the UN’s 2018 Support plan for the Sahel identifying that its capacity for solar energy production could exceed 13.9 billion kWh/year, the largest capacity of any region in the world.

Whilst there is both hope and potential for the Sahel, the immediate future is dominated by the need for a robust security operation to establish stability and control, particularly across the vast, porous borders of the Sahelian nations. The success of which will be instrumental in preventing the movements of militant Islamist groups and their ideologies, as well as halting the spread of weapons, drugs and human trafficking operations. This is also crucial in ensuring that the security situation does not deteriorate further, spilling over to other West African states and destabilising a wider region. 

Sadly, the Sahel’s perfect storm continues to rage for now.

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