Into the Modern Era

Dreams of a trans-Saharan railway began in the 1860’s but were abandoned when interest waned in the wake of the killing of Colonel Flatter and his expedition in 1881 by the Toureg tribesmen of southern Algeri15. World War One brought about a renewed interest in penetrating deeper into the Sahara to secure and maintain territory during the war. The French were also required to drive Army convoys deep into the desert to suppress Toureg uprisings between 1914 and 1919.

The war renewed interest amongst the French in establishing trans-Saharan trade routes for both economic and military purposes which would link French Algeria with their southern colonies. The construction of improved roads made it as far south as the Hoggar mountains, but the rail line never materialized. Trans-Saharan air transportation was attempted but never realized as these early airplanes lacked many navigational aids, could be batted around in the air by sudden gusts of wind, and would be absolutely destroyed by desert sandstorms.

In 1928 the French approved a new automobile route from Bechar in Algeria all the way to Gao on the Niger River bend, but this project also died on the vine as it was too expensive without immediate economic return, and so the camel remained the primary method of transportation across the Sahara.
Trans-Saharan Challenges: Smuggling, Terrorism, and the Struggle for a State (Part 4)

By 1951, automobiles, buses, and airplanes were all traversing the Sahara and engaging in trade and other commercial activities. One route ran from Gao to Reggan and another from Agades to In Sala, however buses only drove these routes once every few weeks and only in the winter months due to the intense desert heat during the summer, following the pattern of many of the medieval camel caravans. These routes were taken by the Europeans but were mostly utilized by local16 who would travel to seaports in Algeria to work for a few years before returning home to the Sahara.

World War Two greatly improved trans-Saharan air travel as airfields were constructed in North Africa for military purposes but then were left behind to be used for civilian air traffic after the war. Airlines flew government ministers, tourists, and businessmen as well as air mail from Casablanca to Dakar and Bamako, and from Algiers to Gao, Tomanrasset, and Kano.

To this day there are proposals for a fully paved trans-Saharan highway17, while a trans-Saharan railway system has been abandoned although a feasibility study has been undertaken for a trans-Saharan gas pipeline which would run from Nigeria to the Mediterranean coast of Algeria. None of these projects have yet to be realized.

Today, trans-Saharan trade routes are used by criminal entrepreneurs who have became so prolific that, “estimates suggest that in recent years, apart from late 2008 and 2009, between 46 and 300 metric tons of South American cocaine may have transited West Africa en route to Europe18.”

Trans-Saharan Challenges: Smuggling, Terrorism, and the Struggle for a State (Part 4)

The US Government believes that counter-drug operations have pushed the drug trade away from north-south running drug coordinators that terminate in the United States and forced them to West Africa and on to European markets19. Furthermore, drug traffickers face very low costs as law enforcement mechanisms in West Africa as very weak while potential benefits are extremely tempting due to the high cost of cocaine in Europe. In a shadow of the Wad Nun trading network, “West African crime groups operate in more than 80 countries and are organized into more than 500 cells internationally20.”

The trans-Saharan trade routes have changed dramatically over the centuries, from thousands of camels walking through the wind swept desert to transport gold from mines deep in West Africa to the modern day drug traffickers shooting across the Sahara in pickup trucks loaded with bales of cocaine. The routes taken by these travelers have been effected and shaped by the political systems of their era. It is a simple matter of logistics that merchants wish to take the shortest route from where they are to where they want to be, but that route is effected by the human behavior.

Political stability in Mali, Libya and Wad Nun helped foster long distance trade and set up an apparatus for mutual security along the trade routes. Likewise, political instability from encroaching Europeans and African war lords pushed the trade routes deeper into the desert, away from the commercial hub of Timbuktu. State making was more beneficial to trade than war making, however the two world wars did motivate colonial Europeans to develop some trans-Saharan infrastructure that could be used to commerce in later years.

The camel revolutionized desert life in the Sahara and it is impossible to see how the extensive Saharan trade networks could have come into existence without the “ship of the desert” to carry the wares of merchants to markets in North Africa. The horse and the donkey were ill suited for desert life and made it possible for enterprising merchants to set up logistical lines across the Sahara. The camel dominated trans-Saharan trade routes for nearly two thousand years with automobiles not crossing the desert until the late 19th century and not playing a tangible role in trade until the 20th century.

The introduction of Islam, be it Sunni or Sufi, into Western and Northern Africa played a critical role in the development of this trade routes. It was easier for the tribesmen scattered across the Sahel and the Sahara to coordinate when they shared the same core religious beliefs which created an affinity for one another. Islam also promoted literacy which allowed Muslim traders to draft contracts and legal agreements between parties. The introduction of paper into the region, and the ability to read and write was key to the establishment of complex trading networks that spanned the Saharan desert. The Maliki Doctrine, a legalese interpretation of the Koran and Islamic tradition that emphasized what was best for the public, also led to a shared legal culture amongst Muslim traders.

While the camel, Islamic tradition, and political stability allowed extensive trade networks to evolve, there were limits on growth in the trans-Saharan trade. Although Islam helped traders overcome principle-agent problems by building trust between fellow Muslims, mitigating communication problems across the sprawling Sahara desert without modern technology was still a challenge.

Islamic law allowed complex trade relationships to be formed with the required contractual obligations, but this law also rested upon the interpretation of medieval Islamic beliefs by elders and religious leaders. When it came to inheritance and the assumption of business responsibilities, these legal interpretations were often opaque to say the least. This could lead to large parts of a trade network to becoming dysfunctional.

Trans-Saharan Challenges: Smuggling, Terrorism, and the Struggle for a State (Part 2)

Read Next: Trans-Saharan Challenges: Smuggling, Terrorism, and the Struggle for a State (Part 2)

Because of this, the Wad Nun network was probably the high water mark of trans-Saharan trade and represented the limitation of growth for these trade relationships, as trans-national corporations such as those created by European slave traders was beyond the grasp of African merchants.

Currently, drug traffickers in the Sahara make use of modern all terrain vehicles and utilize satellite and cellular phones to communicate. Whether or not these drug trafficking networks represent a modern day Wad Nun trade network composed of individual cells which cooperate together in the name of turning a profit, or if they constitute the first true trans-Saharan trade corporation is a matter that requires further study. However, it is clear that since its inception that trade in this region has been driven by groups of individuals looking to profit and even thrive in the desert waste land. Their goals have been hindered by, and their methods shaped by, the Sahara itself.



15: Benjamin E. Thomas, “Modern Trans-Saharan Routes,” Geographical Review Vol. 42 No. 2, 1952: 267, accessed December 3rd, 2012.

16: Ibid., 275.

17: Chris Ochayi, “Construction of Trans-Saharan highway project to gulp N150 billion,” Vanguard ,(2010), accessed December 3rd, 2012.

18: Liana Sun Wyler and Nicolas Cook, “Illegal Drug Trade in Africa: Trends and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, 2010: 1, accessed December 3rd, 2012.

19: Ibid., 28.

20: Ibid., 31.


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