By - Adedoyin Shittu
The Sahel is presently facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis owing to factors such as geography, fragile state structures and demographics. The region is one of the world’s poorest areas and poverty in the region has been compounded by climate change, population growth, food insecurity, corruption, crime and violent extremism. Perceived as a crossroads of African instability, the Sahel is largely a transitional zone that is “semi-arid and extends from Senegal eastward to Sudan.
Stretching across Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The area covers Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mauritania. Terrorism and insurgency have significantly expanded in recent years in this area. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the number of attacks by Islamic extremists in the Sahel has doubled on a yearly basis since 2016 and according to data from Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a group that monitors and maps conflicts, civilian fatalities between November 2018 and March 2019 rose by an “shocking” 7,000 percent in Burkina Faso, 500 percent in Niger, and 300 percent in Mali, when compared to the same period the year before. About 440,000 people have been displaced by the conflict and 1.8 million people face food insecurity. 5.1 million people require humanitarian assistance just in 2019 alone.
The violence spread across the countries in the Sahel and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left thousands dead as Islamist militants with links to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State extend their reach across the region at a time when they are losing ground in their Middle Eastern strongholds. The region have been called the “Afghanistan of Africa”.
Despite regional and international anti-terrorism efforts, the jihadist threat in sub-Saharan Africa, especially in the Sahel region, is far from receding. In the recent completed United Nations meeting, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres raised the alarm of “continuous escalation of violence in the Sahel” and he called for “urgent mobilisation to support countries and people of the Sahel.” Sadly the jihadist activities have spread from Mali to Burkina Faso, and Niger. Nigeria is also battling home grown Boko Haram jihadists that is responsible for numerous gruesome attacks and kidnappings, and also sending its fighters to join IS in Libya. What makes the crisis more critical is the potential for wider destabilisation. There is a growing concern that the violence could spill over into important coastal economies like Togo, Benin, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire as the Jihadist continue their movement southwards.
Underlying Cause of Sahel Growing Instability
Following Libya uprising in 2011 that led to the downfall of Muammer Gaddafi, Libya became a hub for jihadist networks that stretches south into the Sahel and there was a flow of weapon into Northern Mali. This helped to revive an ethno-tribal conflict that had been brewing since the 1960s in the country. The Tuareg have sought autonomy in the Sahel region since the early 1900s. The first rebellion took place in northern Niger during 1916-17 against French colonial rule. The succeeding months in 2012 witnessed a military coup and the takeover of northern Mali by the separatists in a battle for autonomy. Then the Islamist groups turned on their separatist allies and took control of major population centers in northern Mali and began to establish what Europeans feared would become an “Afghanistan of West Africa.” The jihadists were able to spread from northern Mali to central Mali in early 2015.
Exploiting the permeability of the region’s borders in the Sahel, the jihadists were able to move from one country into another and the poor social, economic and political environment in the Sahel also made it a fertile breeding ground for the penetration and development of terrorist groups and other armed or criminal groups that seek to profit from the increasingly chaotic conditions in the region. These jihadists filled the political vacuum existing in many areas of the Sahel because of marginalisation from the central government and they took advantage of the deep resentment of local populations/ethnicities towards central authorities. Disunity along ethnic lines, economic discontentment, limited territorial control, and corruption and weak institutions are common to many countries across the Sahel.
In late 2016, Jihadists were able to set up their base in western Niger under the umbrella of the “Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and in Northern Burkina Faso through the Ansarul Islam – a local Burkinabe group with links to Al-Qaeda. In 2018, the jihadists in Mali expanded their base in Burkina faso and they were able to set up all their groups, and there is a potential for the jihadists to expand their base into Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic.
Some of the factors that drive young men to join jihadist groups include; poor education, ethnic and religious intolerance, poverty, lack of economic opportunities, political fragmentation and criminal activities. Impoverished young men join for either ideological reasons or for money. These groups presented themselves as defenders of the local population against alleged abuses by the state. In order to reinforce the local communities’ confidence in them, some have entered marriages and kinship affiliations, gaining trust and influence in local dynamics.
In addition, the persistent marginalisation of neglected communities from the key formal economic sectors led to the emergence of an informal economy (in particular arms and drug smuggling, as well as contraband in basic necessities), thus indirectly contributing to the growth of Islamist extremism. In summary, People think the jihadists can offer them a better life than the state because of government neglect.
Who are these Jihadists Operating in the Sahel
Some of the jihadists in the Sahel are homegrown movement that have adopted the Islamist ideology and some are linked to the Islamic state and Al-qaeda and the AQIM (rebranded Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslim [JNIM]) remains the most prominent Sahara-Sahelian armed group and the most important terrorist organisation in the region. The group is indissolubly linked to al-Qaeda and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. AQIM’s ideology blends local and global Salafist-Jihadist dogma with persistent references to European colonialism (especially France and Spain).
The origin of AQIM started from the group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). GSPC broke out from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the 1990s and in September 2006, it joined the al-Qaeda and was renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The final goal of AQIM is to implement Sharia in West Africa. Others affiliates of AQIM are Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Eddine. Another group called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) which is connected to the Islamic State and led by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi is also an important militant group operating in the Sahel. In 2017, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) was created, the creation was an attempt by AQIM to unify the Islamist front to implement Sharia law in the region. , JNIM’s goal is to merge and reinforce the presence of armed groups in the region in order to set up a stronger organisation committed to developing a Salafist-Jihadist policy of “Sahelisation”. The merger includes Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoun, the Katibat Macina and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and analysts argued that the Islamist merger is a strategic move to create a common, united front against the G5 Sahel force and France force in the region..
However, it is undeniable that the presence of two unified Jihadist entities in direct competition (the newly-founded JNIM and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara) poses a major threat to stability in West Africa, undermining the peace process in northern Mali, and can undermine the stability of the whole Euro-Mediterranean region.
International Response to the Sahel Crisis
In 2017, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, with the support of France, started the G5 Sahel task force, which was supposed to number up to 5,000 soldiers from the G5 Sahel countries. The force is financed primarily by the EU and is a key priority of French strategy in the region.
Currently, European countries also contribute troops, logistical support, training or financing to several distinct missions and initiatives in the five countries of the G5 Sahel. These include Operation Barkhane, a French force of 4,500 troops equipped with heavy weaponry and primarily tasked with a counterterrorism mission, stationed in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. There is also the EU Training Mission Mali, grouping 620 soldiers from more than 20 EU countries, which primarily trains the Malian military, and also officers from other G5 countries. The United Nations “Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali,” or MINUSMA, has deployed almost 13,500 uniformed personnel, including several hundred German soldiers on a peacekeeping mission in northern Mali.
European initiatives in the region also include the European Union Capacity Building Mission in Mali and European Union Capacity Building Mission in Niger, which together have deployed several hundred civilian experts to support and train police forces and national guards in those two countries. It was also projected that between 2014 and 2020, the EU and its member states would spend at least €8 billion on development aid in the Sahel, this is in addition to the costs of the various military missions and direct bilateral security support. Finally, the EU and especially France are actively pushing for the implementation of the Algiers agreement, a treaty signed in 2015 by the Malian government and Mali’s main secular rebel groups that was meant to bring peace to the country’s north.
But as it stands, little or no results can be seen from all this and the militants are gaining more ground. These forces are not winning this battle and there is potential for wider destabilisation, and it seems the world at large is short of answers to the Sahel problem. The ability for these jihadists to mobilise local support stems from much deeper, systemic social, political and economic problems in these countries and this has to be effectively tackled for any serious results to happen in this fight against terrorism. However it cannot be left out that the West attempt to topple a government in Libya has spurred terrorism in Europe, Syria, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. Some Malian officials have blamed Nato for the crisis in the country after it helped Libyan insurgents topple Colonel Gaddafi.
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