Sahel Region: An interconnected crisis

by Vasiliki Kaidantzi, member of the International Affairs & Foreign Policy Research Team

INTRODUCTION

Sahel Region. A wide network of African States, or better an ecoclimatic and biogeographic realm of transition separating the Sahara Desert to the north and tropical savannas to the south, is as much a land of opportunities as it is of challenges. In the last 20 years, the Sahel has been in the global spotlight due to a variety of serious insecurities. As it is endowed with great potential of renewable energy and considered one of the richest regions in the world, with abundant human, cultural and natural resources, it endorses the interests of both global and local players (Africa Renewal). Unfortunately, the rapid deterioration of the Sahel’s interconnected crisis, has driven humanitarian needs across the region to unprecedented levels, putting millions in chronic vulnerabilities, conflict and endemic poverty. Moreover, the continuous development in the area, especially the emergence of migration movements and the concomitant of terrorist activities as well as the population growth, represent a potential risk for Europe which can no longer be negated. Consequently, Sahel’s strategic importance for the EU underlines the necessity of political discussions leading to sustainable solutions in the core areas (Austrian Military Journal, 2017).  

Following the human security perspective, people are in need of freedom from fear of losing their own lives, freedom from wanting livelihood and freedom to live in dignity. Bearing that in mind, I will attempt to analyze the current research analysis by examining the interconnected crisis that led to this humanitarian crisis, beginning from the armed conflict and violence that braced the flourish of terrorist groups, continuing with the environmental crisis and closing with the food and regional insecurity.

A FEW WORDS FOR SAHEL REGION

In order to further understand the connection between the several crises appeared in this certain region, we should primarily review a few necessary details related to Sahel. Geographically, it stretches from Senegal on the Atlantic coast, through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast, in Africa continent. It also marks the physical and cultural transition between the continent’s more fertile tropical regions to the south and its desert in the north. Historically, it’s a shoreline between the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. By that means, Sahel is the region of interaction between Arabic, Islamic, nomadic and indigenous cultures from both the north and the south. Hence, it is not randomly suffering by violent criminal movements, ethno-religious tensions, political instability, poverty and natural disasters (Suleiman Dan Muhammad, 2017).

CONFLICT CRISIS EXPLOITED BY TERRORIST GROUPS

Conflict remains one of the main root causes of humanitarian emergencies in the area. Along with climate shocks, endemic poverty, dramatic food crisis as well as community displacement, increased hostilities and further deteriorated the humanitarian needs in the region, which was effortlessly exploited by terrorist groups and movements in the area. The consequences of the surge in armed violence on the civilian population are beyond dramatic. The attacks on communities, schools, public institutions, heightened protection needs and jeopardized social cohesion (Gabellini Federica, 2020).

Sahara – Sahel region has historically contained numerous ethnic groups and nomads, whose traditional range extends through parts of five countries such as Algeria, Mali, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso. The complexity of different kinds of civilizations and dialects, along with the dynamic presence of Europeans, through French colonial rule and their decolonization in the 20th century, strongly influenced the status quo in the region. The desire of each group to further dominate certain areas and seize control over a country, destabilized the security of the whole region generating armed conflicts, violence and terrorism (Harmons A. Stephen, 2014).

The deteriorating insecurity has the last 3 years opened a new front. Regions in Burkina Faso and Niger bordering Mali, have come under a rising spate of armed attacks that have devastated communities and forced thousands to flee their homes. Mali and the Lake Chad Basin remain the region’s prominent conflict hotspots, as violent attacks have been recurrently causing numerous displacements (Guerda Yasmina, 2018). Mali War and Nigeria’s Crisis still represent the most influenceable dynamics in the area due to the flourish of terrorist groups in these areas that further escalate the whole crisis in Sahel-Region.       

o   The Malian War and Islamist Terrorist Groups

The crisis in Mali was the aftermath of long-standing socio-economic grievances, Touareg’s desire for autonomy in Bamako and the outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya, during the Libyan civil war in 2011. For decades, the Touareg ethnic group along with Arab populations in the north declared being marginalized by the Bamako group in favor of the Mardingo majority in the south. Over the past 50 years, at least three Touareg rebellions have occurred, each time challenging the legitimacy of the Malian state. Social, political and economic injustice, along with poor governance created the conditions for the fourth rebellion in 2012. The instability of Libya, during its first civil war in 2011, forced thousands of migrants, along with Tuareg fighters to return to Mali. By October 2011, the MNLA, formed by National Movement of Azawad (MNA) of Tuareg leaders and the rebel group, the National Alliance of Touareg in Mali (ATNM), demanded the independence of Azawad territory in the north and, by 2012, they had achieved their targets (OECD & Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat, 2013).

The failure of government’s legislation and its endemic corruption simultaneously allowed the emergence of Islamist terrorist threat in the region. A rise in arms smuggling in the recent years, due to Libya’s instability, has enabled groups such as Ansar Dine, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), to sufficiently built up military capabilities, exploit the deteriorating security situation and consolidate control over the north.  The former one, has been active in the Sahel countries since the early 2000s, carrying out terrorist and criminal operations including kidnapping and smuggling across the area. During the Malian war, there was evidence that all of the radical Islamists in the area had formed an alliance of convenience, based on mutual benefit rather than a unified front. All three are similar in nature and enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law against the local populations, thus abusing essential human rights of hundreds of thousands of Malians, provoking food shortages and outbreaks of diseases as well as displacing numerous citizens across Sahel Region in the absence of public services (OECD & Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat, 2013).

o   The Radical Nigerian Islamic Movement – Boko Haram

Nigeria has a long history of extremist and violent Islamist movements, dating back at least 3 decades. Boko Haram has become the most persistent and troubling of the Nigerian radical movements even though it is not considered the most extreme and the most violent among the others. The jihadist organization threatens not only the stability of Africa’s oil producer, but also the political, economic and security interests of the whole region. Even though it could easily operate independently, the influence of transnational terrorist organizations and their links to the groups, aided in its escalating and spreading of violence, growth and future path. In summer of 2010, Boko Haram declared its allegiance to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, reinforcing its links with Al-Shabaab and AQIM, terrorist groups that mostly operate across the Sahel and have their bases in Mali (Harmons A. Stephen, 2014).

Boko Haram is an Islamist sect founded in 2002, by a self-professed scholar, calling itself “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad” opposing western culture and modern science. It aims to establish an Islamic caliphate in Nigeria while opposed to Sharia Law and considering Muslims heretics. The group’s main source of income derives from donations and criminal acts, such as bank robberies.

Boko Haram’s growth as a threat stems from the wider regional instability and trafficking. A mixture of socio-economic and historical factors, such as political marginalization and inequalities, as wells as corruption of the central government and inadequate public services, contributed to an environment conducive to terrorist radicalization and recruitment. Aside from that, the Libyan civil war and the instability that was caused in the region after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, eased its efforts to obtain looted weapons from Libya and increase their strategic depth in the region. In the last 2 decades, the terrorist group flourished after accomplishing a series of intentional terrorist attacks which targeted civilians, police officers, religious leaders and local officials in Nigerian cities, as well as in churches, against Christians (OECD & Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat, 2013).

ENVIRONMENTAL INSECURITY

The Sahel Region has always been characterized by strong climatic variations and irregular rainfalls which pose two of the biggest obstacles to food security and poverty reduction in the area according to the UN Environment Program (UNEP). From 1993 to 1997, the situation has further deteriorated, as the region recorded 20 years of severe drought, as well as frequent and severe floods, thus undermining food production. The UN estimates that at least 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded. Temperatures there are rising 1.5 times faster than the global average. The combined effects of population growth, deforestation, continuous cropping and overgrazing, reduced & erratic rainfall, lack of coherent environmental policies lead to the deterioration of the soil and water resources, as well as on the shrinking of food production (Essoungou André – Michel, 2013). About 50.000.000 people in the Sahel-region depend on livestock rearing for survival, but because of climate change the land available to pastoralists is shrinking, thus pushing farmers to move towards the north in order to cultivate more crops. The problem though focuses on the sparking of violence and terrorism in these areas, thus further worsening the existing situation (Muggah Robert, 2019). Furthermore, as available land and unpredictable access to water resources is shrinking, tensions between pastoralist communities and farmers tend to rise (Gabellini Federica, 2020).

In that context, the soaring of terrorist violence can be also linked to climatic and environmental factors, as climate change has the potential to exacerbate competition over dwindling resources, fueling conflict escalation and radicalization. In any event, environmental security policy-making is needed in order to successfully tackle the phenomenon of climate change that also generates other insecurities (Raineri Luca, 2020). The 2011 EU Sahel Strategy and the 2015 Regional Action Plan, the 2018 Alliance for the Sahel Development Programme, the 2019 G7 Sahel Partnership Action Plan, as well as the African Union’s (AU) Declarations and institutional setup, along with UN’s proposals to urge regional cooperation, in order to defuse tensions between countries of the region, and to successfully adapt the Green Fund and other supportive measures to reduce emissions, constitute only a number of international cooperation steps towards this unpresented crisis (Essoungou André – Michel, 2013).

FOOD & REGIONAL INSECURITY

From armed conflict and terrorism to climate change and food security. Everything is linked with the previous as well as the next one in the list, forming a perpetual circle of interconnected crisis. As a consequence of land degradation, the production and availability of food has surged, leading to increased food prices and risk of social unrest. In 2015, according to the last Regional Harmonized Framework, there were more than 23.000.000 people suffering from food insecurity after the 2014 rains, combined with poor distribution of rainfall, thus reducing grain and cereal production (Essoungou André – Michel, 2013).  In the last year, the number of people facing critical lack of food, and the number of children suffering from acute malnutrition will deteriorate to unprecedented peaks (Gabellini Federica, 2020). Bahram Amintorabi, disaster management coordinator in International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in the Sahel region indicated: We must ensure a special emphasis on the nutritional needs of young children and lactating mothers as they are among the most vulnerable and are greatly affected by food shortages. When children are malnourished, they are highly susceptible to risk of infectious disease, they stop going to school, or have great learning difficulties (Fall Sirandou and Mueller Katherine, 2015).

Only in 2020, The World Food Program (WFP) gave food to more than 6.000.000 through its nutrition and food security program. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), helped more than 5.000.000 through food and crop production, while the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) also mobilized resources and assisted communities in need (Essoungou André – Michel, 2013).The dramatic surge in food production, the political upheaval and insecurity due to the conflict crisis and the spread of violent extremism in Libya, Mali and Nigeria, have caused one of the worst regional crises in the Sahel Region. This instability, in a context of deep poverty and vulnerability, has had dramatic consequences for the countries involved and the population living in these areas. The refugee crisis is quickly worsening, as Chad is already the 5th largest refugee host country, with 391.000 refugees. By the end of 2017, the Boko Haram insurgency has led 248.000 displaced people to the Diffa Region (World Bank Group, 2017). By 2020, more than 6.900.000 are grappling with the dire consequences of forced displacement, as they are struggling to rebuild their lives during an ongoing interconnected crisis (Gabellini Federica, 2020).

CONCLUSION 

After having analyzed the multidimensional crisis that the Sahel region is facing for the last 20 years, we could adequately assume that everything is connected in a mutual way, and that neither of these factors can be explained without examining the other ones. Conflict crisis works closely with the surge of terrorist movements, and environmental crises along with political violence and instability, they create an ideal environment for the rise of food, regional, health and economic insecurities. One cannot exist without the others. For instance, climate change causes shortages in food resources and conflict crisis along with terrorist insurgence across the region, instantly activates a large number of citizens to migrate towards neighborhood areas, thus causing humanitarian complications. In that context, international cooperation is the only viable solution towards this unpresented interconnected crisis. Humanity, Neutrality, Impartiality and Operational Independence are the 4 key factors of an international humanitarian action. In order for UN to successfully implement its Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS), UNOWAS (The United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel), works in close partnership with the countries of the Sahel, regional organizations and the G5 Sahel (S/2013/354, 2013), a regional & intergovernmental organization that was founded in 2014 providing an institutional framework to promote development and security within its five member countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger (INTERPOL). It is also building partnerships with financial institutions and the EU, in order to enhance the coherence and coordination. Therefore, solutions do exist, the question remains in our willingness to aid and end this long-lasting crisis.

References

Books

Harmons A. Stephen (2014), Terror and Insurgency in the Sahara – Sahel Region, Corruption, Contraband, Jihad and the Mali War of 2012–2013, Ashgate Publishing limited, England.

OECD & Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (2013), Conflict over Resources and Terrorism, Two facets of Insecurity, Edited by Marie Trémolières. OECD Publishing.

Academic Papers & Articles

Africa Renewal, The Sahel: Land of Opportunities, UN. Accessed on February 5th 2021. Available here

Austrian Military Journal (April 2017), The Strategic Importance of Developments in the Sahel. Accessed on February 5th 2021. Available here

Raineri Luca (December 2020), SAHEL CLIMATE CONFLICTS? WHEN (FIGHTING) CLIMATE CHANGE FUELS TERRORISM, European Union Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Accessed on January 18th 2021. Available  here

World Bank Group (2017), Sahel Refugees: the Human Face of a Regional Crisis. Accessed on January 18th 2021. Available here

Articles

Essoungou André – Michel (December, 2013), The Sahel: One Region, many crises, Africa Renewal UN. Accessed on January 17th 2021. Available here

Fall Sirandou and Mueller Katherine (May 2015), Food shortages in the Sahel: millions of people at risk of extended hunger, International Federation of Red Cross (IFRC). Accessed on January 18th 2021. Available here

Muggah Robert (January 2019), The Sahel is engulfed by violence. Climate change, food insecurity and extremists are largely to blame, World Economic Forum. Accessed on January 17th 2021. Available  here

Suleiman Dan Muhammad (February 2017), Sahel region, Africa, The Conversation. Accessed on January 16th 2021. Available here

International Instruments

Gabellini Federica (May 2020), Overview of Humanitarian Needs and Requirements, Sahel Crisis, OCHA, Humanitarian Program Cycle. Accessed on January 16th 2021. Available here

Guerda Yasmina (2018), Sahel, Overview of Humanitarian Needs and Requirements, OCHA. Accessed on January 16th 2021. Available here

INTERPOL, G5 Sahel, Accessed on January 16th 2021. Available here

International Acts

Security Council, The United Nations Security Council Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in the Sahel region, June 14th 2013, S/2013/354. Available here


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