Several interconnected conflicts are raging in several countries in the Sahel region of Africa. And yet for much of the world, this hasn’t registered as either noteworthy or very important. But it is, and not just to the countries involved.
Just in 2019 alone, over 4,000 people were killed in terror attacks in the Sahel.
Violence has spread throughout the region since Islamic jihadists launched a terror campaign in Mali in 2012. It has since spilled over into Niger and Burkina Faso and has crept in Chad and Cameroon, displacing hundreds of thousands. This year there are worrying signs that the conflict could even spread to some West African coastal states. The region’s borders are porous and largely unguarded and this has increased the mobility of the terror groups.
The Islamic State has several offshoot jihadist organizations claiming allegiance to its banner: ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province), ISGS (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara) IS-CAP (Islamic State Central Africa Province), and Islamic State Libya are the four biggest organizations operating in the area.
ISWAP is another name for the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, which publicly announced its allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS in 2015. ISIS, through these different groups, has been recruiting converts in the Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia.
One such smaller group, the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS), ran afoul and has been outlawed by the al-Qaeda-linked terror group, al-Shabaab.
Poverty and social discontent are easily manipulated by these terror groups. When combined with Africa’s toxic religious unrest they create a potent pool of many willing recruits. Additionally, in most of these areas, the local governments have been neglectful at best. This has allowed al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to continue boosting their numbers.
Climate change adds further strain to the situation. About 80 percent of the farmland has been degraded and food shortages have thus increased in the semi-arid Sahel. The effects of climate change have also forced the Fulani Muslims from their traditional grazing lands. They have been migrating in search of better fortunes and taking lands through violence, further destabilizing the region.
Food shortages in the central Sahel — Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso — have gotten to where about 33 percent of the population is classified by the UN as food insecure.
In 2013, France recognized the danger of the situation and deployed about 2,000 troops to help the Malian army. The French stated aim is to prevent the creation of another Islamic State as seen in Iraq and Syria. By 2019, 4,500 French troops were on the ground. But they are stretched thin over a wide area covering nearly two million square miles. Thus they have been unable to prevent the conflicts from growing and sprouting tentacles. The number of French troops has since grown to 5,100.
With attacks on host nation military forces and civilians on the rise, French president Emmanuel Macron called for a summit of the G5 nations (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania) in Pau, France. He asked for European military support for the ongoing “Operation Barkhane” to prevent the entire Sahel from sinking into chaos.
The French are setting up a Special Operations task force called “Takuba,” which in Taureg means saber. Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, and Portugal have all committed troops to the new French-led Task Force. The SOF task force should be operational this summer and be completely staffed by early 2021. The United States has not joined the coalition but does supply aerial support, especially surveillance drones which are invaluable for counter-terror operations.
Special Operation Task Force Takuba will have four priorities: counterterrorism, host nation force building, reestablishment of state authority, and internal Development. It will operate in the Liptako region located in the tri-border areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. It will be headquartered near the French military base in the Nigerien city of Niamey.
The French initiative is a good start because militarily, the situation needs to stabilize. Yet, the European troops, by themselves, won’t be enough. Therefore, training the host nations’ troops tactically will go a long way. Ιntelligence-gathering and civic action efforts must also be strengthened.
Terror groups are not the only perpetrators of crimes against the local populations. Many of the African states in the region have had authoritarian rulers: Adding more military forces, especially well-trained ones, will present an opportunity, which many military leaders have taken advantage of in the past — an opportunity to answer to no one. Thus, instilling in the troops respect basic human rights, humanitarian law, and the rule of law is necessary. The military must be accountable.
At this stage, security is paramount but it is only the first step. Military forces can stabilize the current security situation, but will not address the root causes of the instability.
Social and economic reforms are as important to success as much as a military victory in the field is. Tellingly, the UN listed four of the five G5 nations among the top 10 countries that perform the lowest on the Human Development Index. (The Index takes into account life expectancy, years of schooling, Gross National Income per capita, etc.)
Furthermore, to achieve long-term success, the host nations must reintegrate themselves into these afflicted and sparsely populated areas and address the daily issues that these areas face. They have to deal with the corruption and poverty that not only cripple them but produce a breeding ground for the terror groups to recruit from. Providing job opportunities for the young gives them a clear path away from violent jihadism.
The food crisis brought about by climate change can be countered by the region’s vast and untapped water resources. Estimates calculate that just under 20 percent of the region’s irrigation potential has been developed.
Development can be supported by international funding either from organizations like the World Bank, or directly from the EU or the U.S. Nevertheless, just throwing money at the problem won’t solve any issues; rather it will likely lead to further bureaucratic corruption. Hence, funds for the region’s economic development should be tied to strict accountability provisions.
Ultimately, the people must believe that their governments are working for them and not in spite of them and that their lot will improve not by attacking neighboring regions but by working in cooperation with their governments: The Sahel countries have to stop asking the beleaguered communities to protect themselves through armed militia groups. These groups are a stopgap measure that will only stoke up more inter-communal conflict in the future.
In conclusion, the task of restoring order and bringing sustained peace in the Sahel is daunting but not impossible. It won’t be won with just drone strikes and Special Operations troops conducting counter-terror operations in the countryside. If equal emphasis is not placed on the region’s social and economic betterment, our SOF troops will be just playing “whack-a-doodle” with the terror groups in another time and place.