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Peace and Security in the Sahel as Elusive as Ever – Professor Hussein Solomon

October 2, 2019

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Peace and Security in the Sahel as Elusive as Ever

by Hussein Solomon

Volume 7 (2019), Number 14 (October 2019)

The security situation in the Sahel region has deteriorated this past two years with the number of terror attacks on the rise whilst terror groups continue to proliferate and continue their expansion both southwards and westwards. The curious issue about the expansion of terror groups is that it is occurring at the same time as the counter-terror alliance arrayed it is also increasing its footprint across the Sahel. At its September Summit last year, the Economic Community of West Africa States (ECOWAS) has pledged to spend US $1 billion between 2020 and 2024 to support national and joint military operations. The Sahel G-5 force has renewed its military operations after a hiatus following an attack on its headquarters in Mopti on 29th June 2018. France still maintains its 4,500 strong Operation Barkhane anti-terrorism force in the region and has joined forces with Germany in creating a Partnership for Stability and Security in the Sahel. The US military presence across the region is also palpable. Meanwhile the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUMSA), with its more than 15,000 security personnel, had its mandate renewed for another year.

Despite these forces against them, why then do terrorist groups proliferate? First, terror groups operate across a vast and inhospitable region. Second, many of the region’s armed forces are over-stretched and under-resourced. Chad’s soldiers are fatigued with multiple deployments and are overstretched financially. Niger’s army operates on a chronic deficit whilst maintaining a permanent presence on three borders with Mali, Libya and Nigeria. This poor state of affairs is worsened by the tense relations existing between the military and political establishments. Burkina Faso’s army and intelligence services seem to be involved in a never-ending restructuring process since the fall of President Campaore whilst Mali’s armed forces are as disorganized as it was when Captain Sanogo staged his coup in March 2012. It stands to reason that regional forces – whether the Sahel G-5 initiative or an ECOWAS force – made up of national contingents will be infused with these problems also. Third, such regional forces lack strategic coherence. Whilst ECOWAS has pledged funds for ongoing counter-terror initiatives, there is little clarity on how they will operate with other security initiatives in the region. This lack of strategic coherence is also seen on the part of international players. Consider the case of MINUMSA. Whilst having an expanded mandate, there has been no equivalent increase in funding for the force. Moreover, MINUMSA’s objective of restoring the presence of the state and the authority of Bamako over vast swathes of ungoverned spaces has not endeared it to the local population who regard such state authority with suspicion if not outright hostility. Corruption in the Malian state is endemic and fuels jihadi narratives of the state being viewed as illegitimate. Benjaminsen and Ba in their pioneering study, for instance, has demonstrated how rent-seeking behavior on the part of local officials and judges are not properly adjudicating land-use conflicts because they have received payments from both parties to support their claims.

This suggests a more holistic approach to counter-terrorism stressing development initiatives and the international community making use of their leverage over states to behave better towards their citizens. Recognizing this, Paris is beginning to stress the developmental dimension in its counter-terrorism operations by focusing on healing ethnic cleavages inside communities. Whilst this is a welcome departure from military-centred approaches it will not work if the nature of the African state itself is not problematized: where states live against their citizens, where the state fuels communal violence and where the armed forces engage in random acts of violence against hapless civilians.

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