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The Sahel: north-west Africa’s security weakest link

In addition to terrorism, the Sahel faces a host of thorny intertwined issues, which if not dealt with could plunge the region into chaos.

Flickr/David Stanley. Some rights reserved.

A major regional crisis

Since the sparking of the Malian crisis in 2012 – which saw most of northern Mali almost falling into the hands of terrorist groups – a profusion of security analyses of the country and the Sahel in general has largely emphasised the issues of terrorism and organised crime.

While perfectly valid, thorough security analyses of the Sahel must also include other thorny intertwined issues such as climate change, galloping population growth and poor economic growth. These, if not dealt with rapidly and adequately, could not only descend into major internal crises, but plunge the entire region into an abyssal chaos. Four landlocked countries, namely Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, remain of particular concern for the continent at large and especially the north-west Africa region.

Poor economic growth

The Sahel states in general suffer from multi-layered poor economic growth, contributing to a multidimensional crisis. Out of 188 countries listed in the UNDP Human Development Report, the bottom 20 countries are in sub-saharan Africa, including Mali (179), Burkina Faso (183) Chad (185) and Niger (188).

A common characteristic of these and most sub-Saharan economies is that economic growth is largely concentrated in urban areas and major cities, neglecting rural areas, thus making these countries largely underdeveloped. Indeed, the ratio of GNP between urban and rural areas is 5.5% in sub-Saharan Africa, compared to only 2.7% in India. 

Access to main roads and electrical power – as tangible evidence of improved standards of living – also remains difficult in these countries. In Chad, only 5% of villages are located in less than 5 kilometres from a main road, making transport of people and goods extremely difficult. Likewise, in Niger, which largely depends on Nigeria’s electrical power, only 10% of households have access to electricity (0.4% in rural areas). Niger could produce most of its own electricity by using its large coal deposits if Niamey were not under international pressure from donors and partners not to use its coal natural resources. Furthermore, the economic growth of these countries is deeply threatened by their exponential population growth, especially in Niger and Mali.

Demographic challenges

Population growth in Africa is equivalent to 3.5% which doubles the population every 20 years; in the Sahel, these figures go as high as 7%. To clarify, the population of Niger is today 20 million, but could reach 40 million by 2035 and from 63 million (for the most optimistic forecast) to 89 million (for the most pessimistic) by 2050. To make matters worse, 85% of this population lives in 20% of the total territory. In total, the four landlocked states’ population should triple from 67 million in 2015 to 200 million by 2050.

One reason for such a galloping growth rate is that birth control use remains low in Sahel societies, with figures varying between only 30%-45%. A major consequence – but not the only one – of this uncontrolled population growth is that unemployment is high, which is a key challenge for Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso and a major hurdle to their economic growth. 

Climate, migration and agriculture

This demographic trend – more pronounced in rural areas than urban ones due to lower education – further leads to transnational and regional migration of rural populations seeking unlikely job opportunities in urban areas. This rural migration further participates in the growing of slums in and around large cities, which in turn leads to xenophobia and animosity from their urban neighbours, increasing social unrest and internal instability.

Furthermore, due to inefficient irrigation systems that also largely need unavailable electrical power, the agricultural sector – by far the primary job creator – remains underexploited.

Climate change also has negative repercussions on the Sahel’s population and agriculture. According to Africa 2050 (Oxford University Press, 2014), cereal production could drop as much as 40% – in particular maize – leading to a dramatic price increase. Likewise, in Niger, the authorities expect a decrease of 15% to 25% of millet and sorghum production in the coming years. The issue of land grabbing is making the situation worse. Countries such as China, Saudi Arabia or Qatar, are renting vast tracts of African land to grow crops for their own economy and survival, further weakening the local peasant population who cannot compete with these powerful rivals.

As Indian economist and Nobel prize laureate, Amartya Sen, clearly explains, famine and hunger are not caused by drought but by a lack of good planning systems, organised leadership and political will, as well as poor food distribution systems.

The high insecurity due to the presence of terrorist groups in this region has also had a negative effect on agriculture, by creating further internal displacements (IDPs) towards and around urban centres, exerting more population pressure.

Regional dependency

Additionally, these four landlocked states depend very much on their neighbours’ economies – principally Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, the regional driving economic locomotives.

However, these two states’ respective economies depend also very much on their natural resources and thus the price of raw commodities on the international market. As a result, when the price of cocoa (Côte d’Ivoire) or oil (Nigeria) drops dramatically as it did in the 2000s for cocoa and as it is doing now for oil, this can lead to major crises, inevitably affecting the economies of their four neighbours.

Organised crime, Boko Haram and the Islamic State

The highly volatile internal security situation in Libya, which has permitted the bloodthirsty Islamic State to operate there, as well as the worrying presence of Boko Haram in Nigeria, further complicates the security equation of the Sahel. Chad and Niger share common porous borders with Libya, which facilitates criminality and the movement of terrorists. Mali and Burkina Faso both have common borders with Niger, the latter further sharing a 1500-kilometre frontier with Nigeria. The recent terrorist attack in Burkina Faso – until now often perceived as relatively immune to terrorism – conducted by the terrorist groups Al Murabitun and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and resulting in more than 30 casualties, further indicates that no country is spared from this blind violence.

Religion and international aid

International aid provided by countries such as France, the USA, Qatar or Saudi Arabia also has negative implications for the global security of these Sahel states. Besides the political and often immoral economic conditions imposed on the much needed aid, religious dogmas also have negative implications for these African countries.

For instance, American and Gulf donors are indirectly responsible for the high birth rate of the Sahel, as they provide their aid under the condition of avoiding family planning, exerting further pressure on the population, already pressured by national religious groups.

Moreover, to further fuel instability, hatred and religious intolerance and divide, a radical Islamic ideology is increasingly exported by Saudi and Qatar to the Sahel region. Through their international aid agencies, these countries are slowly imposing their own rigorous interpretation of Islam onto populations whose practising of their religion has been for centuries largely peaceful.

Strong centralised institutions

On this rather bleak geopolitical and economic background, it is crucial to add that no matter the international aid provided to these economies, no matter how many foreign military troops are sent to fight terrorists and other criminals, the key factor for stability, security and eventually economic growth is strong and modernised centralised state institutions.

One reason behind the fall of Mali in 2012 is that this country had for too long been blindly portrayed by too many observers as a west African democratic success story. By doing so, those observers had ignored not only the fragility of the Malian institutions but also their corruption at all strata of society. A similarly high level of corruption also (partly) explains why despite its GNP of $500 billion and an army of more than 100,000 men, Nigeria has so far been unable to defeat Boko Haram.

Strong centralised and (quasi) efficient institutions can not only guarantee the protection of ethnic minority rights but also help erase ethnic, linguistic and regional cleavages and bring about a sense of togetherness, of national unity, which is deeply lacking in the Sahel’s multi-ethnic societies. If the Iraqi army was so easily dismantled, it is because this much-needed national unity had not been achieved under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It was therefore easy for his successor to demolish the army which in turn, plunged the country – and then through spill over, Syria – into chaos.

It is paramount to bear in mind that nation-building is a long and tedious process that only strong and competent centralised institutions are able to conduct through national unity and togetherness. To recall, it took six centuries (13th-19th century) for a geographically small state such as Switzerland to achieve this goal of national unity.

The crucial role of the AU and the RECs

The African Union (AU) and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) would therefore do well to focus a great amount of their efforts, time, manpower and limited financial means to these Sahel countries. This would be not only to improve their economies but importantly, to strengthen their respective governmental institutions and by doing so, help them in their essential ongoing nation-building process.

In order to have significant economic growth in the long term, the priority for these Sahel states – as for most of Africa – must emphasise the development of agriculture, which remains neglected; greater access to electrical power, especially in rural areas; and the control of birth rates. Otherwise, the Sahel will remain not only a threat to its own population, but also to north-west Africa and Africa at large, as well as Europe, creating an unprecedented deep humanitarian catastrophe.

About the author

Abdelkader Abderrahmane is a geopolitical researcher and international consultant on African peace and security issues. He is also part of the Brehon Advisory Ltd adviser board and previously held a senior research position with the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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