During the last decade security experts and practitioners have frequently described the Sahel as the quintessential exemplification of an ungoverned space. According to this narrative, large parts of the region’s territory remain out of the reach and control of local governments. Because of the structural fragilities and lack of resources, most of the Sahelian peripheries are seen as places deprived of any form of order, lands of chaos where local populations struggle to survive in a sort of perpetual and violent anarchy.
While the very concept of ungoverned space applied to the Sahel has already been discussed and contested in the past, this interpretation of the conditions on the ground appears to be even less useful today, as it fails to capture one of the most important developments characterizing conflicts and insurgencies in the region. When in January 2013 France deployed the Opération Serval and reconquered the main cities of northern Mali, all projects aiming at creating a new and independent state in the area – whether it be an ethnic-based or an Islamic Republic of Azawad - seemed to have been stopped once and for all. Nevertheless, what started as a struggle for independence instrumentally supported by jihadist combatants, has changed and evolved since then. Nowadays, conflict(s) in the Sahel are better described as a complex web of local grievances and transnational insurgencies, where different armed actors are finding their way for imposing their authority and control over expanding pieces of territory.
One of the main factors explaining the changes that have occurred in the spaces and the dynamics of conflict in the Sahel is linked to the strategic redeployment implemented by the jihadist groups who participated in the 2012 rebellion. By exploiting their knowledge of the territory and their linkages with rural communities and traditional leaders, the jihadist groups – starting from those affiliated with al-Qa’ida – developed a strategy of expansion and regionalization which changed their nature, transforming them into a galaxy of local insurgencies and big men networks more or less unified under the ideological banner of the Jihad. The success of this transformation has been indirectly but decisively favoured by the reactions and the initiatives implemented by the states of the region. With the implicit acceptance of their international partners, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso opted, with different degrees of intensity, for assuming a security-first approach for dealing with the expanding insurgencies in their territories. A dangerous mix of public stigmatization against different ethnic groups – the Tuareg and the Fulani in particular – and counterinsurgency and counterterrorism initiatives characterized by numerous exactions and brutalities committed against local populations by the state security forces, fostered popular grievances vis-à-vis the central authorities, consequently reinforcing the presence and the legitimacy of the jihadist insurgent actors.
In this sense, while the level of violence reached in central Mali, in the Tillabéri region in Niger, or in the Sahel province in Burkina Faso is unprecedented, the dysfunctional relationship between these states and the local populations is not. Sahelian states have never been absent from their territorial peripheries, but they have rather exerted their authority and rule through neo-patrimonial systems of governance, built on clientelist chains of command that have favoured the spread of corruption and the mismanagement of local resources and public services. In most of the provinces and regions currently under the control of the insurgent groups the social contract between local inhabitants and their respective states was already broken, and local disputes of different natures – whether connected to class, land management or ethnicity – were already affecting social relationships. This is not to say that the jihadist insurgent groups have been able to impose their presence in these areas without the use of violence. The case of Katiba Macina in central Mali and the inner Niger Delta is particularly illustrative of a dynamic which has been reproduced by the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara in the Tillabéri region or by Ansarul Islam in the Sahel province few years later.
Led by the Fulani preacher Amadou Kouffa and member of the JNIM (Jama'a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin' - Group to Support Islam and Muslims, the alliance of the various Sahelian groups linked to al-Qaida and led by Iyad ag Ghali), as of 2015 Katiba Macina progressively imposed itself as the de facto dominant actor in an area roughly corresponding to the inner Niger Delta and the administrative region of Mopti. During a first phase Katiba Macina mainly employed violence to assert its position against state security forces and state representatives, but also against those traditional and religious leaders who were opposing its penetration in the area. Nevertheless, in the following years the group has demonstrated all its ability to exploit the mounting grievances and insecurity in the area. On the one hand, Katiba Macina has begun to present itself as the protector of those communities – in particular the Fulani – who were suffering from the attacks and the exactions committed by state security forces and the different ethnic-based militias which started to appear in the area since 2016. On the other, once the military conquered large parts of the territory in the centre of Mali, Katiba Macina started to act as the central political and administrative authority in the area. By mixing sharia-based and traditional forms of rule and management, the group has built a veritable jihadi system of governance, with the more or less voluntary support of local traditional authorities. The group now administers justice; regulates social behaviours and the access to and exploitation of the land; delivers essential services; and collects taxes through the imposition of the zakat. Recent research suggests that during 2020 Katiba Macina also acted as peace broker, settling conflicts between opposing Fulani and Dogon communities living in the area.
Recalling Charles Tilly’s famous aphorism “War makes States”, what we observe in different areas of the Sahel today is the formation of hybrid political orders which more and more resemble jihadi “proto-states”. Even if any form of external recognition must be excluded, it is still undeniable that different jihadist groups are now exerting a sort of sovereign authority on the areas under their control. What is more troubling is the fact that this authority is exerted with the agreement of at least a part of the local populations, who see jihadi governance as more fair and egalitarian than the system of rules previously implemented by state’s authorities. All interventions and initiatives aiming at contrasting terrorist activities and restoring the presence of the state in the Sahel must take this latter element into account, in order to avoid replicating the same errors that favoured the emergence of these proto-state entities in the area.