This week, I was in Niamey, Niger Republic for a scholarly conference on the state of knowledge on security and development challenges confronting the Sahel and the way forward. It was organised by the National Centre for Strategic and Security Studies in Niger. I was the only Anglophone invited from West Africa. This might not be unconnected to the fact that the Francophones have a very narrow and mistaken understanding of what is the Sahel.
France has narrowed the definition to five countries only – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Sudan and when events on the Sahel are organised, these are the five countries placed on the agenda. For geographers and historians however, the Sahel is defined as the area of Africa lying between 12°N and 20°N.
This area shares two climatic characteristics: one relatively short rainy season per year and August as the month of highest precipitation. The area covers all or part of 12 countries from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea: Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti.
One of the reasons for the inability to address the challenges confronting the Sahel is this reluctance to define the area correctly.
The Sahel is defined today by its high levels of poverty and inequality worsened by climate change, the southern march of the Sahara Desert and the drying up of Lake Chad. At the same time, it has about the highest population growth rate in the contemporary world. Family ties and the culture of socialisation have broken down as girls are married off as children while millions of boys are sent outside the family as almajirai.
The traditional religious order has also been destabilised as a result of widespread conversion to Wahabi schools. This means that there has been contestation about who conducts religious education within and outside the family creating opportunities for radical pathways to develop.
The State in the countries of the Sahel is extremely weak and is unable to perform its key functions related to security provisioning and the delivery of social and economic needs of the people. The State has therefore lost much of its legitimacy. The Sahel States all have secular constitutions modelled on the French Constitution which is difficult to defend in majority Muslim States with high levels religiosity.
This constitutional provision provides an easy target to question the legitimacy of the State. A recent survey in Burkina Faso and Niger for example showed that over 80% of the population would prefer a Constitution based on Sharia law. The only Francophone country without a secular Constitution is Morocco where the State has enjoyed a relatively high level of legitimacy.
The crisis in the Sahel is linked to the failure of the development project of the post-independence State. A lot was promised but very little was delivered. The result is that many communities felt marginalised and excluded from the fruits of independence. Even when formal opportunities for inclusion were promised, little was delivered.
Nomadic communities in the Sahel for example have felt excluded and have never had access to health and education services. It is therefore interesting to see that way back in the 1960s, during the First Republic, Niger created a Ministry of Pastoralism and Saharan Affairs to cater for their needs. In practice however, it simply translated as an avenue to get ministerial jobs and political opportunities for a select elite group from the marginalised communities.
The people themselves got nothing and it was not surprising that they were the first to revolt. The same trajectory was followed in Mali. Today, the countries of the Sahel do not even have the resources for development projects. In Niger, the military budget has grown to 19% and what suffers is the provision of social services.
The Sahel has become a massive centre for the articulation of the geopolitical interests of international powers, especially the French and the Americans. They are all over the place with their troops, fighter jets and drones. At the same time, violent extremism is growing. For many ordinary citizens in the Sahel, the narrative emerging is that Western powers have come to take their minerals rather than to help in the fight against violent extremism.
As the State is unable to deliver, people have had to provide themselves and as formal livelihoods collapse, trafficking in persons and in drugs have emerged as alternative and lucrative livelihoods that have fuelled the rise and spread of violent extremism. Today, criminality in the form of armed banditry is spreading and is completely destabilising social cohesion.
The problem today is that there has been a massive increase in the circulation of small arms and light weapons in the Sahel which is fuelling the spread of violent extremism throughout West Africa. It is extremely easy for the extremists to recruit young people.
Popular narratives that the pathway to violent extremism is religious radicalisation is wrong. Current research in the Sahel is showing that there is no evidence of religious indoctrination among most recruits. Two factors play a key role, the provision of financial resources and the security of belong to a community that provides protection.
The researchers also pointed out that most of those engaged in radical thought had been to prison and become radicalised in State facilities as is the case in many European countries. In such cases, the basis of their incarceration is unjust State and therefore becomes the basis for their indoctrination and the perception that the State is evil and must be combated.
While knowledge of the theological basis of violent extremism is weak, one element has been picked up by actors – that Islam provides the justification to kill. It is in this context that lack of sufficient understanding of Islam provides a justification that has no basis in theology.
The youth in the Sahel are becoming aware that in addressing violent extremism, the only groups considered to be valid interlocutors are those who are armed actors. Resources and projects are directed to the most violent groups and others who have not been violent are today seeing the “virtue” of procuring arms and engaging in conflict so as to benefit from positive responses from the State and the international community.
There is a concerted tendency to designate one ethnic group, the Fulani as the new conscripts and leading agents of terrorism in West African in key Sahelian countries, especially in Mali. Significant numbers of their people are killed and the State would not respond except when the perpetrators of the killings are Fulani. The issues around the crisis of pastoralism and the factors that led to the breakdown of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms are set aside.
It has been difficult to seek pathways out of violent extremism because in most countries in the Sahel, the State has been focused on a military solution to violent extremism and it is failing and is likely to continue to fail except if a broader strategy is adopted. The Boko Haram insurgency which has endured for a decade with no signs of a solution is a good illustration of the limitations of a uniquely military solution.
Many participants in the conference argued that there is an urgent need to place citizens at the centre of agency in addressing the security challenges in the Sahel. They know their communities and its challenges and its their children that have strayed into violence.
The most important issue on the agenda is to create counter narratives to challenge the discourses of the terrorists and show that their actions cannot be defended on the basis of Islamic theology. This activity would create a dividing line between terrorists and ordinary citizens.
Dialogue with terrorists is extremely difficult because some of their demands are unacceptable to the State. In addition, many of them are beholden to their leaders in the international Jihadi movement and therefore are not in a position to negotiate.
Many of the participants however argued that in spite of these facts, it is important to get interlocutors who could play the role of “good offices” and that attempting to negotiate could in itself open new possibilities.
It is therefore important to try to negotiate in case such possibilities emerge. At the end of the conference it also became clear that the problems of the Sahel are not different from those of West Africa and that it helps no one to think the Sahel is a separate space.