The Sahel: Fixing Tomorrow’s Problems Today


This report is inspired by the International Crisis Group’s work in the Central Sahel, particularly its Africa Report No. 227, 2015.

On the southern shores of the Sahara, from Dakar in the west to Khartoum in the east, lies the world’s most underestimated yet geopolitically significant arena for international instability. The Sahel, a biogeographical zone spanning 5400km across the African continent, has become synonymous with the collection of volatile states it encompasses. All of these countries share mutual and overlapping security challenges – and all are using the same unproductive and superficial policies.

The Sahel has become the next breeding ground for trouble, globally too, not just regionally. Lack of authority, disenfranchisement of the youth, poverty and underdevelopment have triggered and supported a conglomeration of international security challenges. Radicalisation, migration, organised crime and general increases in violence and oppression are the by-products of such core challenges, and the international community is still playing its usual card – focus on the problems perceived, rather than the roots that caused them.

This is the general pattern of most responses to similar crises worldwide. The threat is seen as nuanced and imminent. Therefore, the response should be swift and targeted. The spill over effects of the security issues unfolding in this region are reverberating across the continent and internationally. Europe, in particular, is feeling the pressure at present from the trans-Saharan migration networks that are feeding the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean. Thus, when small-scale problems in the Lake Chad Basin or an outlying region of Sudan become a concern for policymakers in Europe, the instinctive reaction is to throw everything at it. In the cases of Mali and Mauritania, France is conducting huge anti-terror operations, there is a significant international effort of personnel and funding concentrated on the Boko Haram group in northern Nigeria, and a vast anti-organised crime funding allocation to halt people smuggling.

These are only a pinch of the hard-line policy initiatives recently put in place to tackle these threats. It is imperative, however, that we shift focus to the underlying causes of these security threats and promote development rather than militarisation in these areas. If the global community wants lasting solutions for peace and prosperity in the Sahel, we need to look at the issue coherently from a contextually profound angle and downplay the popular, heavy-handed security orientated approach.

In a nutshell, the current policy approach is naïve and misinformed. It is overly militarised, superficial and a Western “gung-ho” attitude to problems which conversely find their roots in very fundamental core issues. Radicalisation is the primary concern of local states and their western sponsors. The world’s most hyped threat is the Sahel’s main drawcard for Western security agencies. Why are the people of the Sahel succumbing to the pressure of the many groups operating in the region? If this is to be answered and overcome, a fundamental policy change needs to occur, and it can start with an upheaval of state management and governance.

Nigeria is one of Africa’s most resource-rich countries, but according to a Congressional Research Service report, its population is now poorer than it was at independence. There is an incredibly unbalanced distribution of wealth, focusing on the elites and coastal urban centres rather than its peripheries. This is echoed across the region, and education is a similar core grievance. The system is mismanaged, with 80% of the teaching staff unqualified and poorly distributed, causing over 2.1 million children to drop out since 2008. There is a local perception that this Western education is failing and weak, which is every bit justified and this gives strong traction to Islamic alternatives. Boko Haram, for instance, operates in the poorest region of Nigeria. Not only are schools not educating the youth adequately, but they aren’t providing the opportunities, and this is where radicalisation is bearing the most fruit.

“I have no money, no job, no education. I cannot have a house or form a family. I don’t believe
in the state, I don’t believe in anyone. I pray God to let me travel away, or to give me
a gun to fight”– ‘Kano’ a local Nigerian in a 2015 interview with Crisis Group

This situation is worsened when coupled with the shifting demographics in these countries. The fertility rate is rising to uncontrollable numbers. Countries like Niger have the world’s highest, with 7 children born per female according to an article by The Economist. Mali and Nigeria are trailing close behind. Niger’s 2012 census found the population under 18 years old was close to 60%, and the overall population is expected to double within two decades. If the state can’t provide for its youth, the exact groups it is trying to combat in the present will have a never ending supply of willing recruits in the future that will hold grievances way deeper than any anti-terror operation could hope to quell. Crisis Group interviewed one regional analyst who termed these youths “a ticking time bomb.”

The funding and resources that should be spent on reconnecting with the alienated peripheries and establishing institutional assurances for the youth are instead being allocated to bolstering states’ security apparatus. Many states’ anti-terrorism rhetoric has gone unchecked, and the security budgets – the majority of the time sponsored by Western aid – are far less scrutinised than development funds. According to Crisis Group, in 2014, Niger spent no more than half of the security budget it received, the rest was assumed lost in a web of political elites and criminal networks. Another innate problem with the security approach is the classification of these troubled areas as unpopulated, “ungoverned” spaces. This is not the case. Where the state has been lacking in governance, popular local alternatives have arisen, be it jihadist groups, criminal networks or ethnic/tribal systems. A security approach is unfeasible as it does not recognise the conditions that these alternative systems operate in and their relationships with the local people – positive or negative. These groups may aggravate socio-political tension or they may strengthen social cohesion. Regardless, through cooperation and understanding, the government needs to bridge the alienation between these outlying citizens and the state, in an effort to reduce the power vacuum in which these groups operate and the security issues they cultivate.

Diverting critical attention away from the underlying causes of instability and towards a superficial hard-line strategy in the Sahel region perpetuates and even exacerbates the problems we are so desperate to repair. The securitised, almost hostile approach that is implemented by the regional, elitist and corrupt governments with the support of the West is prompting a local backlash in communities where radical jihadism or migration is seen as the more appropriate choice. The current policies need an overhaul to make these alternatives obsolete. This can be done through a policy spearheaded by a developmental angle, where aid is scrutinised and accountability of the state to the people is guaranteed through assurances. For example, if states can’t prove accountable spending on areas such as welfare, education, and other state institutions then the aid should stop. As for ‘ungoverned spaces,’ states need to attempt to understand the groups serving as their replacements in these areas. Are there possibilities for collaboration? Or if not, they can strive to remove the grievances these groups use to hold popularity by focusing money on development and improving the overall lives of the populous that live in these areas.

A layered, more profound and contextual response must be orchestrated, focusing on development rather than security and accounting for demographics, institutions, and governance. This is not to say that security operations should cease entirely, but that they must be scaled down to give way for a new integrated framework. This comprehensive strategy will boost the credibility of the regional government and downplay the terrorism narrative. If governments – both local and those internationally supervising – can create alternatives to radicalism, migration, and organised crime at their core epicentres through development, then these threats will fix themselves, and not just in the present, but for decades to come.

John McMahon

A Sydney-based International Relations graduate, I specialize in case briefs and situation reports by means of up to date research on various armed conflicts around the globe. I'm here to fill the gaps and create awareness of ongoing situations in the hope to find avenues for peace.
John McMahon

About John McMahon

A Sydney-based International Relations graduate, I specialize in case briefs and situation reports by means of up to date research on various armed conflicts around the globe. I'm here to fill the gaps and create awareness of ongoing situations in the hope to find avenues for peace.