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Is Peace Possible in the Sahel?

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on February 27, 2020 13:24

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Tribal conflict came and went as the Sahara desert dried up. Immense riches in the region attracted colonial powers, and wars and criminal activity corrupted governments and security forces. Peace seems a mirage, yet it is attainable.

The great Sahara was once a savanna with immense herds of antelope. The elephants Hannibal used against the Romans came from the Sahel, and archaeologists tell of thriving villages. But desertification forced the peoples south, and conflicts became the norm. Camel caravans crossed the semi-desert region south of the great desert and when the Songhai Emperor, Mansa Musa, in Timbuktu went on pilgrimage to Mecca, his expenditure depressed the price of gold in Europe for a decade.

Climate change in the Sahara Desert. Photo by Fayeqalnatour (CC by 4.0)

No wonder France, given the opportunity during the Scramble for Africa, annexed vast tracts of land, subjecting nations and peoples, at a heavy price. My childhood was colored by stories of Beau Geste, the French Foreign Legion manning remote forts, and graves marked "Mort pour la France," which translates to "He died for France." Major transport routes for drugs cross the Sahel, and government controls, regional instability and clashes between gangsters led to an eruption of violence in 2011, a subsequent intervention by United Nations and African Union forces, and an uneasy truce. Movements like Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al Oaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and others fight over people and money. In 2014, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania formed the G5 group to tackle security and developmental challenges.

French and African Union soldiers interview a Touareg tribesman. Photo by TM1972 (CC by 4.0)

Present military controls falter in the face of Governmental ineptitude and corruption. Military spending is exempt from auditing, and Inspectors General of the armed forces in the affected countries are mostly symbolic. Hassane Koné of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) that armies of the region spend money on heavy equipment suited for conventional warfare while embezzlement and favoritism militate against the development of well-trained special forces which are needed for asymmetric warfare.

Crime remains an important driver in the conflict. Violent extremist groups employ cattle rustling, artisanal gold mining and local levies on the population to strengthen their power bases, improve their operational capabilities, and mobilize finances. Arms trafficking between jihadist groups is linked to drug smuggling, exploitation of local populations for artisanal gold mining, and creation of alternative governments. William Assanvo of the ISS believes targeting selected aspects of the problem without taking into account the complexity of the situation will be counter-productive.

Region of Sahel. Photo by Munion. (CC by 3.0)

Yet a team of the ISS, the African Futures and Innovation, sees a scenario where this region flourishes. An education program system tailored to local needs, family planning to align population growth to economic realities, climate-smart agricultural systems, accountable governance, and coordinated national and international initiatives could see an increase of €416 billion in economic growth, 29 million people lifted out of poverty, and an increase of one and a half years life expectancy.

Farmer managed regreening of Niger. Photo by CNN.

The desert might yet bear flowers to enrich the region and Africa.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on February 27, 2020 13:24

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Source: Al Jazeera

Parts of the arid belt of land below the Sahara have been engulfed by swiftly deteriorating violence.

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