Insecurity in the Sahel and the Future of West Africa

By Osuolale Alalade

The trajectory to the insecurity in the Sahel has been complex and remains murky. Algeria’s ambition to establish its hegemony in the Sahelo-Saharan space confronts headlong, France’s inflexible will to dominate West Africa and, along with it, the uranium deposits from Arlit in the north of Niger to the heart of the Sahara. The exit of Gaddafi’s Libya’s challenge to Algerian strategic objectives, through the deft instrumentality of the Gaddafi funded but now practically defunct Community of Sahelian States (CENSAD) has left Algeria coast free, with the support of the United States and the United Kingdom, to advance its goals in Sahelo-Sahara. The death of Gaddafi and the end of his Jahramiyya has transformed the strategic layout of the region. The fallout has been the rapid unraveling of the fragile security complex of the region and the increased profile of Sahelo-Sahara in global news headlines. Gaddafi’s demise left the al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) unchallenged. The AQIM is the same as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) that metamorphosed into the AQIM in January 2007. Key actors in the GSPC are widely believed to be agents of Algeria’s Départment du Reseignement et de la Securité (DRS). Since 2009, the activities of these destabilizing agents have been accentuated.  It is the popular sentiment in Algeria that the Algerian state exploits the weaknesses of the states in the Sahel, in particular, Mali and Niger, to advance its national objectives to control the resources in that region. The joint declaration of the Republic of Azawad in April 2012 by the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) culminates from the ensuing murky process.

The DRS was thus central to the rebellion in northern Mali and instability in the north of Niger. The al-Qaeda in the Sahel (AQIS), also a direct product of the Algerian DRS, has worked closely together with the AQIM. AQIS had infiltrated the Malian military aided by the massive corruption in the government of Ahmadou Toumani Toure (ATT). Also, the deposed Malian president, even while cognizant of the situation, adopted a policy of personal appeasement by paying off leaders of the AQIS and the pivots of the Tuareg rebels. This approach demoralized the poorly paid and equipped Malian military that did not stand a chance against the better-armed Tuareg MNLA and the Ansar Dine when they eventually struck in March 2012. Evidence abound that the over 420,000 returnees, 95% male between the ages of 20-40 years, to the Sahel from Libya in December, 2011 constituted a threat to stability.  Many were armed with sophisticated weapons. 30,000 returned to Mali, 40,000 to Mauritania, 150,000 to Chad and 200,000 to Niger. The strong economy of Libya was a magnet that attracted workers from Chad and Niger. The option of living in Gaddafi’s Libya was a coping mechanism to defuse potential social tensions and agitation that arose from underdevelopment and perceptions of neglect in some communities. The Tuaregs of Mali and Niger harbored such grievances.  Gaddafi’s influence in buying off and reigning in radical elements among the Tuareg had bought time for the decayed Toumani Toure administration. The Gaddafi regime had invested significantly in the Sahelian region. It forged crucial economic relations with Chad, Niger and Mali as well as Mauritania and Nigeria.

Meanwhile, the situation in the Sahel, including Mali and Niger, are closely linked to events in Algeria, Mauritania as well as to policy preferences of France, the United States and the United Kingdom. The United States and the European Union all handle their Sahelian policies from their Magreb departments. For Mali and Niger, France becomes the best option in removing the menace from across the Sahara to protect their territorial integrity and the modicum of sovereignty that a post colonial state can lay claim to in these circumstances. President Mahamadou Issoufou understands this too well in confronting increasing destabilization of his country. In dealing with the Salafist Boko Haram, Nigeria must take note of the evolved complexities of the security in its backyard. It is clear that the revolutionary Islamic movements in West Africa emanating from as far away as Algeria, through the Maghreb into the Sahel can only stop on the coast of the Atlantic.

The security conundrum in the Saharan space had quietly evolved over a decade.  The feeble capacity of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to respond to this complex security construction and the evolution of the situation in the Sahel should be seen in this context. The Sahel epitomizes the complexity of the emerged challenges for West Africa and in particular, before Mali, Niger and Mauretania. The successes of the joint military offensives of the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and the Movement of the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in breaking up Mali, following the Captain Senogo’s coup of March 22, 2012 in Mali heralded the beginnings of a potential reconfiguration, including territorial diminution, of the strategic space of West Africa.  Indeed, by the end of June, Tuareg rebels had been dislodged by the radical MUJAO from the town of Gao as Islamists continue to push them aside from their dubious secular independent state of Azawad. These developments should possibly elicit a process of strategic reassessment of relations between West African states and forces from the Maghreb with perceived historical and entrenched strategic interest in the Sahel.

Beyond economics and political realism, sociological affinities, racial, religious and historical, are significant drivers of the hegemonic objectives of Algeria in the Sahel. Slavery is alive and kicking in the north of Mali. The slavery takes place between the Berber descended Tuaregs and the indigenous Bella people who live in this region. The Tuareg “masters” and the Bella people have lived in a complex caste system for many decades. Little is said to have changed in this power relationship. These factors also impact the attitude of Mauritania to the irredentism of Moors and Tuaregs in Mali and Niger. Mauretania remains the bastion of the continued subjugation of black humanity in its continued practice of formal slavery of blacks today. The Moors can only marvel at a political arrangement in which black and dark people rule over Moors and Tuaregs. At independence of the republic of Mali, the Tuaregs resisted giving up their black slaves, pay taxes to the new state and even send their children to western schools to be educated. With this mindset, it was only time before their resistance led to their marginalization and underdevelopment.  Some political incorrect thinking that is founded on an unfortunate existential realism. Even then, Mauritania has affirmed that Algeria is the spokesperson of AQIM.

Principally, Algeria is left standing in the competition for the control of the Sahel. This follows the decomposition of Gaddafi’s Libya, and now defunct, that had instrumentalized its interventions in the Sahelian space in the service of strategic objectives of the political unity of Africa under the leadership of the Libyan Guide. In June 2012, Algeria was left to contend with competition with France, supported by the United States, to determine the future of the Sahel-Saharan space. This explains why in April 2011, Niger’s President Mahamadu Issoufou has called for the strengthening of French engagement in battling deteriorating security situation around his country. Acknowledging that the forces destabilizing his country are the same as those that seem to have pried the north of Mali from the Republic of Mali, Issoufou has invited France to table a motion in the Security Council of the United Nations for a military intervention in Mali.  ECOWAS, and by extension the African Union that has so far maintained a very low profile in these engagements, would appear to be conspicuously marginal. This may be understandable given the limited strategic scope and vision that have characterized the foreign and security policies of the major leading states in West Africa, especially Nigeria. Paradoxically, while this may reflect preoccupation with domestic challenges, these internal developments are clearly linked to the evolution of developments in the Sahelo-Saharan space.

Though only a strand of a complicated “Sahelo-Saharan’ expansive trans-regional space, the territorial expanse of newly declared Republic of Azawad, covering more than four-fifth of the total land area of the Republic of Mali, is indicative of the geo-strategic consequences of the problematic evolution in the Sahel.  By the end of June 2012, the knee-jerk proposals of ECOWAS to seek a military solution to the coup d’état in Mali had fizzled out. This replicated the Community’s ill thought out reaction to the situation in Cote d’Ivoire barely a year ago. In Mali, the solo run of Blaise Compaore, the ECOWAS mediator in the Malian crisis, has been perceived as a failure by most of his brother and sister leaders of the sub region. Yet, realism dictates caution in plunging ahead into a military confrontation in the Sahel. West Africa lacks one pivotal power with the wherewithal around which a credible military assault against a well-heeled desert guerrilla terrorist group in northern Mali would revolve. Also, internal circumstances of many of the key players are suspect. The Forces Republican du Côte d’Ivoire (FRCI) is a rechristening of a rag tag ill disciplined rebels barely under the control of the Alassane Ouattara government.  Ouattara is heavily dependent on France to survive in Abidjan, as the West of his country is yet to be pacified. His RDR coalition with the Democratic Party of Cote d’Ivoire PDCI at home is shaky. Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso barely overcame recent mutinies and has coerced the parliament to secure amnesty from crimes committed in the event of being toppled from power. Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan has more than enough on his plate in the struggle with Boko Haram. Niger’s army is another Francophone ceremonial military in Africa designed not to fight. Senegal’s last military adventure in Bissau, Guinea Bissau, in 1998 ended disastrously. It is paradoxical that only Chadian forces have had sustained experience of war in a desert environment. In a confrontation between a hodge-podge West African coalition army and the disparate destabilizing forces in the Sahel, Algeria and Mauretania would play Pakistan against the ECOWAS forces. Yet, given the stakes, it is no surprise that Niger’s Issoufou has been particularly irked by the lack of progress in implementing the military option proposed by ECOWAS.

The Nigerien leader hopes that France, along with the United States, would be generous with logistical support to the ECOWAS force so as to prevent al-Qaeda from consolidating in the Sahelian region and, more importantly, dissuade Nigerien Tuaregs from taking a cue from their Malian cousins. France would appear to have accepted the challenge in leading the diplomatic charge against the Ansar Dine and Islamists in the United Nations Security Council. Should a convergence of interests among western states implicated on the security chess board of Sahelo-Sahara lead to massive logistical and technical support to ECOWAS forces in an improbable hostile engagement with the AQIM, AQIS, Ansar Dine, MUAJO and the MNLA, it would imply a radical realignment of forces in the region. The realignment would include a review of the association of the United States with the Algerian DSR in the Sahelo-Sahara space. The interests that could drive this policy change would include Algeria’s seeming duplicity in its projected image of being the bulwark against terrorism in the Sahel, USA’s continued commitment to fighting terrorism in the Sahelo-Sahara wasteland in its Global War on Terror (GWOT), preventing the use of the region as transit route for drugs, mainly cocaine to Western Europe and the USA, and of course the economic interests at the heart of the Sahelo-Sahara quagmire. In the final analysis, the Sahelo-Saharan space is reputed for being scandalously rich in natural resources. This is of interest to France, the US and now China. Meanwhile, France has secured a free hand on mining uranium deposits in Niger. A new definition of resource curse is emerging in the Sahel that could further inflame insecurity in the region.


About africapeacesupport

Former Representative of the United Nations SecretaryGeneral in Guinea-Bissau and Head of UNOGBIS.
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