Contemporary Africa confronts multiple challenges: mass impoverishment and food insecurity; identity-based violence and mass atrocities; destitute or failed institutions; compromised elections and authoritarianism. Over the past 20 years many of these issues have boiled up now and again in two regions in particular: the Horn of Africa, and the Great Lakes’ region, which have together defined recent international policy and perceptions of the continent as a whole.
Now a deadly escalation of these problems brews anew in the Sahel, the largely desert region that stretches from the Arab Maghreb in the north to Equatorial Africa, and from the Atlantic in the west to the Blue Nile in Sudan. It embraces Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad as well as territory in southern Algeria and Libya, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan.
The Sahel now presents what may be the continent’s most daunting challenge yet; how Africa and the international community respond now could define Africa’s future.
Much of the recent attention to the Sahel so far has focused on Mali, which was until the coup d’etat of March this year regarded as a model of democratic transition and consolidation in Africa. Mali has now been overtaken by unconstitutional rule and sectarian terror and faces the prospect that it could break up entirely. Some countries in and outside the region have even threatened to intervene unilaterally in Mali.
Mali may prove to be only the first country to be felled by the Sahel’s unique combination of challenges. But what is happening is part of a wider regional pattern, and many other countries face serious risk. In its broad outlines, the current pathology of the region is easy to summarize.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active in the northern frontiers of the Sahel, in Algeria and Mauritania fed partly by memories of Algeria's brutal annihilation of the Islamic Front in the aftermath of the annulled elections won by the Islamists in Algeria in the 1990s. To the south, in Mali, a violent rabble operates, including the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), described by South African journalist Simon Allison as "nationalists first and Islamists by convenience"; Ansar al-Dine, which is more overtly proselytising in a fundamentalist sense; and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), among others, has instigated state fragmentation. West of Mali, Senegal’s episodic southern secessionist movement has recently roused itself.
To Mali’s south, Nigeria’s fragility is assailed by a combination of inter-ethnic, sectarian and governance crises. On Nigeria's northern borders around the Lake Chad, the Jama'atul Ahlus Sunna Lid Da'awatis Jihad (the Group of Al-Sunna For Preaching and Jihad), better known as Boko Haram, stakes murderous claim to parts of north-eastern Nigeria and undertakes operations across the territories of Cameroon and Chad as well.
Chad itself is host to many armed militias active in neighbouring countries, including Cameroon, Nigeria and western Sudan, as well as having a renegade military with a history of unpredictable and shifting allegiance to anyone with enough resources to buy their skills and loyalties. On Chad's eastern border and often also organised from around the Lake Chad or on the outskirts of Ndjamena, there is a horde of Sudanese militias in a perpetual state of rapid-fire atomization generating an alphabet soup of acronyms. Niger also harbours militias now asserting self-determination credentials and the combatants in Côte d’Ivoire’s recent civil war, in which Burkina Faso was actively implicated, are yet to be fully disarmed.
All this takes place in a context of weak governance and competition for money, hardware and ordnance between diverse militias and a desperately disorganized community of migrant fighters from the still-confused situation in Libya.
These territories are contiguous. Their borders are weak and porous. Across these borders there are multi-national communities joined by long-standing and historical bonds of ethnicity, faith, and commerce.
To add to a complex picture, there is the on-going involvement of international justice institutions, including the International Criminal Court (ICC) seeking accountability for recent mass atrocities in several countries in the region, including Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, and western Sudan. The ICC is also currently weighing up the situation in northern Nigeria and has recently received a referral from Mali.
The international and regional response to all this has so far been disappointing. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has focused its attention to restoring appearances of constitutional government in Mali. It has also threatened military action against nihilist militias. A regional tri-lateral Force comprising contingents from Nigeria, Chad and Niger active for over 20 years in the Lake Chad Basin is poorly manned with limited footprint. It also suffers from mission creep, does not receive full co-operation from all the neighbourhood’s countries and is stretched beyond regional capabilities.
Somewhat ironically, former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in his lifetime a major threat to open society in the region, was the first to recognize the significance of the Sahel when he founded the Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) in 1998, with headquarters in Libya. Now comprising 28 African States, CEN-SAD lost its way even before Gaddafi’s violent demise, leaving a vacuum of regional and international initiative.
Neither ECOWAS on the southern Sahelian rim nor the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) in the north can impose their will on the situation. Yet, the African Union (AU) waits for regional actors to take the lead while the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), to which some of the countries of the Sahel belong, can participate in a search for solutions but lack convening legitimacy. Distracted by problems in Syria and elsewhere, the United Nations is ponderously slow, unwilling to plunge into the Sahel’s quicksands.
Nonetheless, the best routes out of the crisis in the Sahel lie in determined multilateral action. African and international institutions charged with maintaining security must urgently agree and implement a plan:
First, all sovereign and inter-governmental actors should affirm African and world unity in the face of the present challenges to regional peace and security in the Sahel.
Second, an international conference on the Sahel is urgently needed, convened under the joint auspices of the United Nations, ECOWAS, AU, and the UMA.
Third, the AU and UN should jointly designate an international envoy on the Sahel with suitable stature and mandate to help prepare for this conference and advocate for its outcome.
Fourth, the five Permanent Members of the Security Council should support the search for a comprehensive plan for the Sahel with suitable diplomatic and strategic assets, eschewing the kind of parochial work-arounds that marred the intervention in Libya.
Fifth, while all these are deployed, all the countries involved and interested in the region must firmly eschew unilateral action.
A start is being made by the UN whose Department of Political Affairs will convene a meeting on the Sahel on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 26. Some 51 countries, plus some 28 more delegations from regional organizations and other inter-governmental bodies (including UN agencies, funds and programmes) will attend.
The future of open and democratic societies in the Sahel is in jeopardy. It is critical that African governments and institutions take up full responsibility and a leading role alongside international partners; without that, any international effort will be stillborn.