The Sahel: Large scope, complex situations, and interlinked challenges

Since 2012 a complex conflict has spread from Mali into Burkina Faso and Niger. This is part of a wider crisis affecting the Sahelian nations, with armed conflict, climate change, governance issues, and demographic change amongst a multitude of problems in a region beset by state fragility. Organized violence is only one part of a large and complex picture, and it is getting worse.

I could start at a number of points when attempting to explain the crisis in the Sahel. The central Sahel crisis, involving a tri-state region encompassing parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is first to mind. The crisis in the Lake Chad basin is a close second. Both have drawn in multinational alliances from across the Sahel region to deal with insurgencies. If I were to focus solely on Mali, where the central Sahel crisis originated, I would be describing a complex scenario of jihadist groups, armed militias, farmer-pastoralist conflict, and foreign intervention. Another starting point might be the recent events in Chad, where rebels have entered the north from Libya, the country’s leader has been killed in the fighting and his son has taken over (triggering popular unrest). This has brought French support under the spotlight and might result in the withdrawal of Chadian troops from a joint mission in Mali.

When reference is made to the ‘Sahel crisis’ it tends to be concerned with the conflagration in the tri-state region and/or the Lake Chad basin. The recent events in Chad have the potential to produce another crisis: the swathes of northern desert border unstable Libya, to the east is Darfur, to the south an unstable Central African Republic, and to the west is northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin. There is an incredible amount going on, much of it interconnected, and I haven’t mentioned climate change yet.

The above is a broad sweep which misses a great deal out. This blog acts as an introduction the ‘Sahel crisis’ as it affects countries understood to be Sahelian. It is unlikely that I will be able to convey the full scope of the issues facing these countries, but the reader will have a basic grasp. I intend to keep the Sahel as a theme for the remainder of this year (and possibly the next). The reason for this is the same reason that I haven’t addressed the Sahel crisis in this blog so far: it is so big and complicated that it requires multiple blogs to do so. It is also poorly defined. I will introduce the subject using three points, treating conflict in the Sahel as big, complex, and interlinked.

Speaking geographically, the Sahel is a distinct semi-arid band stretching across northern Africa from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Eritrea in the east and is a transition zone between the deserts of the north and sub-Saharan Africa. Some countries, such as Algeria and Nigeria, have fringes in the north and south within the Sahel, others such as Chad and Mali straddle it, with deserts to the north and a savanna in the south. It is a huge space, and while few countries are almost entirely within the region, changes within the Sahel affect the areas around it and cross borders in a reciprocal fashion. The ‘Sahel crisis’ means different things according to where you sit and what your interest is, but in terms of armed conflict, its origins and root causes, cross-border linkages, responses, and attempts at conflict resolution, the geographical scope is unprecedented.

For those interested in the relationship between climate change and armed conflict the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, fighting in the Lake Chad basin, and earlier rebellions in Mali and Chad have all centred on a region clearly affected in a negative manner by climate change. I should stress that I am not advocating a causal link between climate change and conflict, but I am treating it as a significant factor amongst others, with governance issues near the top of the list.

From the perspective of terrorism and insurgency, the connections of al-Qaeda and ISIS linked groups in Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali, is of the same interest as those in Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. The two clusters are separate, with different armed groups and governments, but similar in that a governance crisis in one country (Mali/Nigeria) has contributed to the emergence of Islamist groups, which has been exploited by the global extremist organisations, and also drawn in its neighbours. Other armed groups, sometimes ethnically linked militias, sometimes government backed, control areas where governmental authority is lacking. If we were to look at communal conflict such as that between farmers and pastoralists, then we are looking at a problem which includes all these countries and would also take us farther afield.

What happens elsewhere can also have an impact: the Algerian civil war, instability in Libya, and conflict in Sudan have all had spill-over effects outside of their borders. The first point is that however we look at it, the ‘Sahel crisis’ is big, and there are more than the examples I have given to consider.

I should add that I have drawn a misleading picture by aggregating distinct crises into a whole covering much of Africa north of the equator. I might get away with this If I was looking at the impact of climate change, but organised violence is more specific geographically and occurs over a shorter timescale. If we were to limit ourselves to Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali, the scope would still be large. We are better served by disaggregating the bigger picture into smaller ones, while recognizing that there are common factors and linkages, which are transnational and international. This not only makes analysis more specific but also aids conflict resolution as local solutions are more achievable than grandiose international ones. We should forget about the ‘Sahel crisis’ and start thinking about ‘Sahel crises’.

None of the examples I have given above is necessarily a root cause of conflict and we would need to consider them in the context of socio-economic and political factors. The second point is that the crises in the Sahel are hideously complex. While organised violence is taking place in areas under stress due to climate change, terrorism and insurgency represent an immediate threat, and farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, this is all taking place in the context of something else. The list is long: governance problems, state fragility, food insecurity, displacement, and a booming population, are examples. The complexity of the crises are as daunting as the geographical scope.

The aspect that hits the headlines the most is the violence, and this is frequently when jihadists or an ethnic militia have attacked a military installation or committed an atrocity. To be clear, while there are several jihadist groups, which I define here as seeking Islamist goals through violent ends, there are also inter-ethnic conflicts, farmer-pastoralist conflicts, and opposition to governments, and these are more often than not intertwined. In Mali and Burkina Faso in particular, the governments have encouraged the formation of local militias for self-defence where security is sparse, but they are prone to attacking civilians and members of other groups. The violence of the militias is inter-ethnic and brutal. To this can be added the human rights abuses of the security forces, who have killed more people than anyone else. Even when limited to violent actors, the complexity is unmistakeable.

The complexities of the Sahel crises prevent us from defining it as one conflict or even a given conflict category. We will take Mali as an example. The 2012 insurgency was led by Tuareg nationalists allied with jihadist groups, who would start fighting with each other once they had taken the north. The Tuareg declared independence and the Malian military, unhappy at the handling of the crisis, overthrew the government. Neither were recognised as legitimate, and Mali was subjected to sanctions until a commitment was made to reinstate civilian rule. The Tuareg, meanwhile, lost out to the jihadists, who implemented sharia law. The UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA) and the Malian government also requested French intervention. They were successful in reclaiming the north of Mali, the French withdrew, the Tuareg signed a peace deal, and AFISMA was replaced by a United Nations mission (MINUSMA). Tuareg separatism predates the 2012 rebellion, ethnic conflict between pastoralists and farmers is linked to scarcity, and jihadists have their own agenda but exploit existing divisions.

My third point is identifiable above and requires less explanation. Despite my intention to disaggregate a wider picture into manageable pieces there are obvious linkages, which cross borders and are regional and international in scope. The largest is the effect of climate change on the Sahel, where temperatures are rising, which affects the viability of the land for agriculture. The conflicts between farmers and pastoralists cross borders and, more often than not, they are ethnically based, producing a proliferation of armed groups small and large. The presence of jihadist groups draws in Western militaries, making a local conflict part of the terror wars, obscuring local causes, and effectively burying any chance of negotiation. A rebellion in northern Mali has transformed to instability on the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, and it is no exaggeration to say that the neighbouring coastal countries are eyeing this nervously. Not surprisingly, this all results in people being on the move, hence internal displacement is severe, and migration is high, crossing borders, and reaching the EU via dangerous migration routes. Meanwhile, smuggling, the drug trade, and other lucrative activities continue, often controlled by the jihadists, armed groups, or corrupt officials.

This description of a trinity of size, complexity, and linkages across borders is incomplete but hopefully conveys the immensity of the task involved in understanding the crises in the Sahel and some of the challenges facing conflict resolution. There are three things missing above that are going to form the subject matter of future blogs: the humanitarian consequences (the most important of all), the responses to the crises (military and otherwise), and the successes and failures of attempts at conflict resolution and what can be done in the future. This is better served by focusing on a given crisis (for example, the central Sahel crisis), a country (such as Chad), or an aspect (climate change or armed groups in Mali). The next blog with look at the central Sahel crisis involving Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include BBC News, the Economist, the Conversation,andthe Guardian.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

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1 Response to The Sahel: Large scope, complex situations, and interlinked challenges

  1. Pingback: The Sahel: Large Scope, Complex Situations, and Interlinked Challenges - Global Sentinel

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