Author (s): International Crisis Group (ICG)
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: June 2015
Often seen as a haven for armed radical groups, the Sahel is the latest new frontier in the West’s counter-terrorism campaign. Though outside attention has largely been on the region stretching from Mauritania to Chad, this report concentrates on a vertical axis between southern Libya and Northern Nigeria, with a relatively stable but extremely vulnerable Niger at its centre.
INSTABILITY – AN ISSUE OF GOVERNANCE?
The Sahel, one of the world’s poorest regions, faces major structural challenges. Development is patchy or non-existent. Its countries have an average per capita income 59 per cent that of Sub-Saharan Africa and have suffered repeated food crises (2005, 2008, 2010 and 2012), heightening the regional population’s chronic vulnerability. 60 per cent of that population is presently under twenty, and with an annual growth rate of approximately 3 per cent (3.9 per cent in Niger), it is expected to reach 130.3 million in 2030 (from 75 million in 2011).
Revenue, including that generated in the peripheries and border regions, tends to be concentrated in main cities and central capitals. People concentrate in limited fertile land, leaving vast arid territories sparsely populated. Accelerated, uncontrolled urbanisation is eroding traditional lifestyles, as cities grow and additional rural residents move in search of jobs.
Nevertheless, the population remains largely rural and deeply impoverished, despite valuable natural resources, including hydrocarbons, uranium and gold, mainly in rural and border areas. These subsoil riches have tended to benefit only businesses with means to explore and exploit them, as well as large patronage networks. In Niger, “predation is the generalised system of governance”, a Western diplomat observed.
Most residents appear frustrated by the lack of effective governance and development that perpetuates their abject poverty and extremely limited social mobility. This is particularly pronounced where the government is seen as predatory, or there is little or no central state presence, but also in areas where misrule, particularly acute corruption, has contributed to preventing development and service delivery.
Even in Niger, a relatively stable country in the Sahel along with Chad, the government has struggled to promote good governance and development. President Mahmadou Issoufou came to office in 2011, at the end of a transition back to civilian rule and promoting an ambitious “Renaissance” development plan. It encompassed long overdue reforms for improving education and health care, creating jobs for youths, consolidating democratic institutions and stepping-up the fight against hunger, and it won support. But optimism did not last long, as the government shifted its priorities to security and the 2016 presidential election.
The perceived entanglement of local elites with a corrupt federal state has paved the way for radical Islamist forces to assume a leading role in “purifying the region from all the sins allegedly brought by democracy”
While few doubt the increasing risks extremist armed groups pose, many believe emphasising the jihadi threat gives the president and his circle a convenient excuse to tighten their grip ahead of 2016 elections. Certainly it has allowed them to deflect criticism of the Renaissance plan’s lack of implementation and created opportunity to co-opt parts of the opposition (allegedly sometimes with financial incentives) or intimidate those who refuse to support the “anti-terror” campaign.
In this environment, a counter-terrorism rhetoric has grown unchecked. Nigeriens who “were not at all feeling menaced by terrorism, now, brainwashed, do”, a long-time political observer said. The government allegedly also has a stake in shadowy networks, including criminal webs.
For decades, central governments in the region paid little attention to the peripheries. Since they often were not an immediate threat or a power base for powerful politicians, they allowed them to stagnate, while sharing in the profits of local corruption. In those states that do partially redistribute resources to underdeveloped areas, this often benefits local powerbrokers and corrupt elites. Too often this leads to more insecurity, elite involvement in illegal activity and, ultimately, alienation from the state that renders the areas vulnerable to insurgency and manipulation by actors who feed off and aggravate social tensions.
Criminal networks may thus become powerholders, by either entering into or overpowering state institutions. In the most extreme cases, where state authorities are essentially absent, such as in Libya’s Fezzan and Nigeria’s north east, groups that are often both criminal and extremist emerge from local communities and compete or collaborate to gain power monopolies.
Regional Demographics and Alienated Youths
The demographics of Sahel states are changing, with rapid urbanisation and significant increase of young people. Niger’s population grew 3.9 per cent in 2014 and is set to double within eighteen years, a trend echoed by its neighbours. In 2014, it had the world’s highest fertility rate: an average of nearly seven children born per woman. Mali followed with just over six and Nigeria with 5.25. Economic growth in these states is unbalanced and extremely weak. All this creates a dangerous dynamic.
In societies “under severe stress due to tension over reduced resources, where a process of unorganised urbanisation has been the only answer to the end of traditional lifestyles, and poverty was already the norm”, the presence of a strikingly large undereighteen population (in Niger, around 60 per cent) stretches the state’s capacity to absorb tensions. More than half Nigeria’s population, though only some 35 per cent of Libya’s, is also under eighteen.
Since the 1990s, Muslim associations have played a growing public role in the Sahel states. Salafi organisations, which already had some basic presence, found fertile ground and grew among societies embittered by at best the perceived lack of governance, at worst the authorities’ corruption and predation. Often supported by funds channelled from Gulf states to Islamic charities, these movements have opened mosques and madrasas, many providing an attractive alternative to secular, state schools. They have slowly but steadily gained ground, preaching against “traditional” West African Sufi Islam, portrayed as introducing “blameworthy innovation” (bid’a) not found in scripture (the Quran, sunna and dadith) and complacent about elites’ corruption and greed.
In the Central Sahel, illicit networks, local insurgents and, to a lesser extent, jihadi groups have instituted their own overlapping governance systems where the state is weak or absent
The perceived entanglement of local elites with a corrupt federal state has paved the way for radical Islamist forces to assume a leading role in “purifying the region from all the sins allegedly brought by democracy”. Reportedly, these Islamist groups typically have parallel economic networks, often unchecked by the authorities, with resources and capacity to give the needy jobs or charity, though precise data are hard to come by.
ALTERNATE FORMS OF GOVERNANCE
In the underdeveloped peripheries of many Sahelian countries, the central state is barely present, if at all. Often daily life is regulated in an ad hoc, informal manner built around tribal or local customs. This makes it easier for jihadi or criminal networks to gain a foothold and align with local power structures, concerns and conflicts. For example, the Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar established a secure presence in the region by reportedly marrying four wives from local Arab and Tuareg communities, speaking local dialects and sharing some of his lucrative earnings (from smuggling and kidnapping Westerners) with the local people. However, jihadis are but one among many groups involved in illicit activities that exploit state weakness or absence.
The term “ungoverned spaces” is used most often in discussions of global security threats, counter-terrorism and “fragile” or “failed” states. It refers both to a geographic area and the “absence of effective state sovereignty and control”. However, it fails to capture the multiple, often overlapping ways in which these spaces are in fact administered, albeit often not by Westphalian state institutions. Even in peripheral areas where government presence and services are sparse or non-existent, local entities manage daily governance. These tribal and community structures, however, are relatively weak, more vulnerable to penetration and sometimes overwhelmed by illicit networks.
In the Central Sahel, illicit networks, local insurgents and, to a lesser extent, jihadi groups have instituted their own overlapping governance systems where the state is weak or absent. Sometimes they work side by side, as in the Fezzan; at other times, they replace local institutions. In the Libya Chad-Niger region, criminals have allied with the Tebus to dominate cross-border human smuggling and control a significant portion of the illicit transit of goods (mostly drugs and cigarettes) into Libya, as well as the export of such subsidised items as fuel and food.
Criminal Networks: a Matter of Connivance?
Criminal networks are using the Sahel’s porous borders and weak governance to traffic licit (eg, cigarettes, subsidised oil and food from Libya, and vehicle parts) and illicit (eg, arms, drugs and people) goods. The same convoys may transport both, and the distinction between smuggling and trafficking is little understood by local traders. In Niger, now a key transit country, there is a deepening connection between the governing class and those who control its criminal activities and smuggling routes. State institutions have been eroded by collusion with criminal networks.
The north east is now a main corridor for smuggling and illicit trade between Sub-Saharan and North Africa and on to Europe. In contrast to southern Libya, Niger’s state institutions, though weak in many instances, exert a degree of control in peripheral areas. On the road connecting the central hub of Agadez (Niger’s largest northern city) to the northernmost town of Madama, there is visible state and military presence, but smuggling of humans and trafficking (licit and illicit) dominate. State representatives can earn much more than their salaries by turning a blind eye, and many have little incentive to curb transnational crime; some reportedly are deeply involved.
The New Caravan Routes
The long-distance caravan trade, moving goods between the Mediterranean and West Africa, was the lifeblood of the Sahel but slowly collapsed in the nineteenth century, hampered by the creation of national boundaries and easier access to West African ports. The routes survived, however, used in part for transiting illicit and licit goods. Prolonged conflicts and the loss of Qadhafi’s Libya as regional hegemon, able to exert a degree of control over the criminal networks, have allowed the illicit trade to flourish. Battles for their control are increasingly visible.
Most migrants, fleeing war or repression and sometimes desiring more freedom, social mobility and employment, pay for transport to illegally cross borders and reach the Mediterranean’s southern shores. Criminal networks have the skills and contacts to quickly turn the exodus into a highly lucrative business. The routes are not dominated by a specific group; nor are they exclusive to large transnational criminal networks. Rather, as an admitted smuggler observed, “almost everyone in the region smuggles”.
Global Interests in the Central Sahel
The UN and EU have launched a variety of Sahel-based initiatives. Since 2011, the latter has been implementing – with little success – a Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel, based on the assumption that “development and security are mutually supportive and that the issues faced in the Sahel require a regional answer”. Military interventions by France and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. have sought to stem a growing jihadi threat. As the Western military presence has increased, so too has the local belief that it is tied to growing interest in the region’s uranium, gold and hydrocarbon wealth, as well as the arms trade.
France’s history in the region, including its sometimes difficult relationship with Algeria, the kidnapping of its nationals and March 2015 shootings at a popular expat bar in Bamako (a Frenchman, Belgian and three Malians were reportedly killed) go some way to explaining its posture. But France also has other involvements, not least with Nigerien uranium mines that provide 30 per cent of its nuclear energy needs and are targets of growing international competition, including from China. Likewise, the Sahel offers opportunities for arms deals to European and, increasingly, Asian states, such as France’s highly lucrative sale of fighter jets.
The security approach urgently needs balancing by political measures that address the causes and effects of state instability: bad governance, poverty, local conflicts over resources, corruption, youth unemployment and alienated peripheries
Western states are not the only foreign actors to provoke suspicions. The Gulf states, notably Qatar, are increasingly important in the region. Gulf money is used for investment but reportedly also, often via charities and Islamic NGOs, to fund construction of mosques and madrasas.
Counterproductive and Unbalanced Responses
Greater support is needed for a sustained process to tackle criminality, corruption and state weakness. The UN and EU Sahel strategies have not been effectively implemented, and the most visible international tools to combat insecurity, as argued above, are overly military. Operation Barkhane and its Serval predecessor have had some success in disrupting Islamist extremists in Mali but can no more end the regional jihadi threat alone than policing can curb migration alone. Securitisation of the region and poorly regulated financial support for unpopular governments risk exacerbating trends that feed the rise not only of jihadi groups but also of transnational criminal networks and migration.
A Holistic Approach
The security approach urgently needs balancing by political measures that address the causes and effects of state instability: bad governance, poverty, local conflicts over resources, corruption, youth unemployment and alienated peripheries. Much depends on the political will of regional leaders to approach these holistically. International influence should be leveraged to encourage this by, for example, tying development aid to implementation of an anti-corruption strategy that includes formation of authoritative, well-resourced civil society oversight mechanisms and simple, measurable indicators.
Support should also be given to building cross-society coalitions against mismanagement and pressure applied to involve regional governments in national anti-corruption strategies. Monitoring might be combined with local programs to name and shame corrupt politicians.
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