Jihadist insurgency, geostrategic competition, smuggling, and migrant flows. More than anywhere in Africa – and perhaps the world – the Sahel is where these phenomena come together, fuelling social and economic crises. Keeping an eye on the Sahel in 2020 will be paramount.
The Sahel is one of the world’s quintessential fragile areas, plagued as it is by longstanding problems of drought and development. It is currently undergoing a crisis whose dynamics as a regional conflict overlap with simmering local tensions. This brief article analyses the political crisis currently underway in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso at different scales – national, transnational, and international – and discusses the challenges that loom ahead for the region in 2020.
At the transnational level, security problems related to radicalisation processes, jihadist insurgencies, and more-or-less organised crime continue to intensify. In 2019, attacks by jihadist groups in the region increased exponentially in number, lethality, and complexity. In Mali the presence of groups in Al-Qaeda’s orbit and united under the umbrella of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) is continuing to take hold, while the Islamic State is growing roots in Niger through an alliance between the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP) – the heirs to Boko Haram, who are active in the area of Lake Chad – and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – the heirs to the MOJWA, a group that had taken over the Malian city of Gao in 2012. Both groups are present in Burkina Faso and in Mali’s Ménaka region, and while relations have been reasonably amicable so far, there is the chance that conflicts over recruits and resources may arise as their territories start to overlap.
Large swaths of territory are now completely outside of the control of central governments, whose capital cities have been ‘pacified’ at the cost of devoting an unsustainable share of the national budget to army and police forces: northern Mali between Kidal and Taoudenni, the Inland Niger Delta, and the triple frontier between Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso are all areas in which government control is intermittent or non-existent, and where any military posts, barracks, schools, or administrative buildings are systematically targeted for attacks. In November, a terrorist attack on the military base at Indélimane, which killed about fifty Malian soldiers, triggered a “strategic retreat” on the part of the armed forces, with the consequent loss of sovereignty over a large part of the border area. Soon thereafter, an attack at Inates, on the Niger side of the border, killed 71 people and led to wholesale change in the senior leadership of the security apparatus. The inability of state forces to contain the advance of jihadist groups and their local allies served as a pretext for the formation of armed self-defence groups, which coalesce around ethnic fault lines, and are often informally supported by their respective governments and their Western allies. The consequent tribal polarisation has only worsened the escalation of violence, as evidenced by the massacres in Yirgou (Burkina Faso) in January and Ogossagou (Mali) in March, which killed about 250 civilians from an ethnic group, the Peul (or Fulani in English), who are considered to be close to the jihadists. Survivors fled en masse to escape pressure from often anonymous armed combatants: over the course of the last 18 months, the number of internal displaced persons increased three-fold in Mali, five-fold in Niger, and thirty-fold in Burkina Faso, for a total of over half a million people.
At the same time, the Sahel continues to be a favourite corridor for many forms of illegal trade. The reduction of migratory flows (probably to a lesser extent than what has been reported in official statistics, and an issue that is not considered to be a priority by local populations) has put pressure on local economies that rely on circular migration and has stimulated a criminal drift, in which the best-organised criminal networks that enjoy political protection have consolidated their positions, while illegal trade and migrant flows continue to overlap. Unprecedented drug seizures have confirmed that the international cocaine trade is back with a vengeance in the region, while increasing flows of synthetic opiates such as tramadol have been driven by exponential growth in demand, especially in North Africa. Finally, the gradual discovery of gold deposits throughout the region has launched a lively mining industry, albeit an artisanal and informal one. It is feared that the profits arising from it may be intercepted by armed groups of various types, with the creation of a protection racket on the part of non-state armed actors.
Numerous challenges are on the agenda for 2020, including in terms of national policies, in a region where the erosion of democratic standards seems to be condoned by the international community: a post-electoral crisis in Mali, elections in Burkina Faso, and a power transition in Niger.
In Mali, the contesting of the results of the 2018 presidential elections that saw the re-election of President Keita launched a tortuous national inclusive dialogue process scheduled to end in early 2020. Nevertheless, this process risks undermining not only the President’s legitimacy, but also that of the peace process with northern rebel groups. This peace process hinges on the fragile treaty that was signed in Algiers in 2015, and whose implementation remains quite problematic. In a context of growing polarisation, yet another delay in holding legislative and regional elections – as is likely to happen – risks further undermining the credibility of democratic institutions, and there are emerging worries that Keita may not be able to complete his term.
Additionally, presidential and legislative elections are scheduled to be held in Burkina Faso in November. The incumbent President Kaboré, who was elected after the popular uprising that unseated the former dictator Compaoré, has been weakened by an overall security situation that seems to have escaped his control, and which does not appear to have been improved by changes in the leadership of the country’s security forces. Although the opposition is fragmented, it can count on widespread discontent fuelled by the country’s dismal social and security conditions, and on a certain degree of uncertainty from a constitutional standpoint, which has restored confidence among those who long for a return to the ancien régime.
In Niger, 2020 will see the peak of the campaign for the presidential elections scheduled for year’s end. The Constitution bars the incumbent president, Issoufou, from running for a third consecutive term: although there is a designated successor, a linear transition would be unprecedented in a country that has seen six coups in sixty years of independence. The candidate from the majority party, Interior Minister Bazoum, is the international community’s favourite. Nevertheless, as marginalised as the opposition has been, his popularity at home remains quite low, and his ethnic constituency is numerically very small.
Finally, the countries of the Sahel are a highly dynamic front on the international level as well, and their loyalties are up for grabs. While the ongoing crises in Algeria and Libya are reducing the influence of these two traditional regional powers, French hegemony in its former colonies is far from safe.
On the one hand, rapid demographic growth in the region is drawing the attention of countries interested in conquering economic and ideological markets. In addition to China, Morocco, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – each of which three countries promotes a different vision of the relationship between Islam and the political sphere – are also on the frontlines in the region in terms of providing infrastructure, financial services, and cultural and religious promotion centres.
On the other, international anti-terrorism operations have allowed local governments to diversify their military partnerships, which has inevitably eaten into Paris’s monopoly. France’s Operation Barkhane, with its 4,500 troops deployed from Chad to Mauritania, now co-exists with a major U.S. presence, which built upon anti-terrorist partnerships launched as early as 2002 to build in Niger the largest American base on the African continent, with armed drones operating in the regional theatre. And yet, the apparent inability of Western actors to stem the jihadist insurgency in the region is fuelling growing apprehension and doubts among local populations. These feelings, which are rooted in anti-colonial mistrust and fuelled by the rapid spread of fake news, are playing into Russia’s strategic ambitions. During the first Russia-Africa Summit, which was held in Sochi in October 2019, Russia stated its interest in strengthening cooperation with its African partners, especially in the military realm. Moscow already has a presence in the region: it has intervened in the Central African Republic, has recently signed a military cooperation agreement with Mali, and is increasingly involved on the frontlines of the Libyan conflict. These dynamics have already stoked fears among European foreign ministries, who aim to turn the Sahel region into a pacified buffer zone that helps contain sensitive flows, and who now have to grapple with the instability brought about by the growing jihadist insurgency and the geostrategic competition between new and old powers.