Stretching nearly six thousand kilometres across the African continent from Senegal to Eritrea, the Sahel forms a belt of political and geographic transition. Consisting of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, and parts of Nigeria and Cameroon, over 121 million people call the Sahel their home.
It’s here, in Mali, that the Danes will be joining the French-led Operation Barkhane to fight Daesh and other jihadist insurgencies. Deployed in hand with a piracy-fighting mission in the Gulf of Guinea, the Danish forces aim to support, accompany, and advise local security forces. As foreign minister Jeppe Kofod put it: “A more active Denmark in the world means a more secure Denmark at home,” helping to highlight Danish priorities. And considering the 10,000 people that have fled terrorist attacks daily in May (as of May 20th), additional security forces should bring about some much-needed protection. But while the deployment has broad parliamentary support, there is little historical support for the efficacy of such a move.
Two events in 2011 and 2012 defined the socio-political landscape of the region today: the Libyan civil war allowed for an influx of arms, and the rebellion in Northern Mali spilled over into Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger. Since then, the Sahel has seen an uprising in Burkina, two coups in Mali, and unprecedented levels of violence, food insecurity, and destruction.
Over 35 million people require humanitarian aid, 5.3 million have been displaced, 14 million are food insecure, and 1.6 million children are severely malnourished. At one point in 2019, one-third of Burkina has classified as a combat zone. Wide swaths of Mali continue to be effectively cut off from all state structures. There is also a call to stem the tide of desertification, with millions of dollars being poured into reforestation projects throughout the Sahel. Year after year, headlines state that the situation in the Sahel has never been direr. And if conflict forecasts are to be believed, we will be seeing similar headlines for many more years.
Interventions in the region aim to address the alleged causes of this crisis. That is jihadist insurgencies, poor governance, weak state security forces, and environmental degradation. To highlight the former point: the Sahel is pockmarked with violent groups to the point that it has been described as a “petri dish” of jihadist insurgencies. It is this factor that has driven Denmark to deploy, and it is also this factor that has increasingly drawn criticism.
Due to their colonial legacy, the French have taken the lead in attempting to mediate the region’s conflicts. In part (or entirely, depending on one’s pessimism), this is due to the threat that the unstable Sahel poses to Europe. We’ve seen how the Syrian refugee crisis altered the political landscape of Europe—something which Europe is not keen to repeat. This explains Denmark’s interest in the region and France’s long-term involvement. Even post-Brexit London has reached out to regional leaders to gauge needs and potential opportunities for support.
This isn’t to say that humanitarian aid hasn’t been flowing in the region, but that it has been overshadowed by assistance focusing on the security aspect. Humanitarian response plans (HRPs) have been created for 2021, but so far only an average of 9% has been funded.
What this has led to is a “traffic jam” of security forces. Academics have been increasingly noting as of late that the goals, motivations, and priorities of the various forces pull in different directions. The only thing more complex than the history of Sahelian intervention has been the history of insurgencies that have cropped up, disappeared, joined forces, or fought one another—all this flying in the face of increasing military intervention.
Oversimplified assumptions about the situation lead to military force being seen as the fundamental answer. However, the Sahel also falls victim to over-complications. One example can be seen in the environmental tinge that has coloured many interventions.
The Sahelian narrative that growing conflict is due to increasing competition for dwindling resources has been embraced for years. This is no surprise: drawing a causal link between violence, environment, and terrorism is something of a donor’s wet dream. But not only has research complicated this narrative, but these assumptions have even contributed to an exacerbation of conflict. Writing for the European Institute of Security Studies, Raineri argues that these top-down approaches only serve to deprive locals—those actually affected by these policies—of their decision-making abilities.
International intervention does have a place in the Sahel, but it should only be a supportive role that focuses on governance and humanitarian aid. Research has found that peace processes in Africa have higher chances of success if another African leader acts as an intermediary. “African solutions for African problems” is often proclaimed, but rarely practiced.
One example can be seen in France’s complete refusal to negotiate with terrorists—a tactic that has worked in certain circumstances for some countries (notably, Burkina). This is not to say that it is not a dangerous tactic, but it drives home the point that Western intervention pushes “insurgents” out of peace processes—the effects of which are only felt by those who live there.
France’s moral grandstanding has no place in the Sahelian death spiral because it is self-serving and short-sighted. Now, Denmark has entered the fray to add to the security traffic jam. There is no reason to believe that this will improve the situation.
The answer for a Sahelian future will come from Sahel’s own political will. Intervention, both from the African Union and the international stage, is necessary and right. But this type of intervention must take a radically different path than it has so far, and African leaders must take radically different steps as well. The Sahel G5 (consisting of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) is a step in the right direction, but at the moment it is only one of several competing priorities.
Strong and lasting governance will come from the inside and with the support of global actors. However, these global actors must be prepared to accept answers that may not fall in line with their priorities. This means setting down a radically different path of governance, statesmanship, and citizenship. The solutions thrown at the Sahel have only temporarily patched problems; the Danish arrival will likely be another in a long list of stopgaps.
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