Güray Alpar/Turkey, M. Hamani Massaoud/Niger
Geographically, the Sahel region stretches from the westernmost tip of Africa to the eastern coast of the continent around Senegal and Mauritania to Sudan and Eritrea. Geopolitically, the central part of the Sahel region has received the most attention due to the persistent and seemingly multi-layered spectrum of crisis and insecurity. Central Sahel region This part of the Sahel consists mainly of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and to a lesser extent Chad.
The Central Sahel region embodies numerous security challenges triggered or exacerbated by environmental, political and economic factors. Extreme poverty, global warming, terrorism and chronic food shortages reinforce the vulnerability of the region and its population. These causes make the situation increasingly volatile, vulnerable to shocks and natural hazards. Again, for these reasons, millions of people are exposed to very dangerous events and leave their regions.
Especially due to the events taking place in the Central Sahel Region, people feel insecurity, violence becomes a part of their lives, and when unfair practices are added to this, social incompatibility problems are experienced. Women and children are the groups most affected by these events. The insecure environment denies access to humanitarian support, leaving local communities at the highest level of vulnerability. The current Covid-19 outbreak further complicates the situation in the region.
In this study, focusing especially on the Central Sahel Region, the crises in the region and their consequences will be emphasized and a picture of the region will be tried to be created in terms of security.
1. Crises in the Central Sahel Region
There are many crises that have plagued the Central Sahel countries for decades, and many of them overlap. The most important of these crises affecting regional security are as follows.
a. Food insecurity
It is one of the most important problems in the region. In the last four decades, persistent droughts and lack of precipitation have combined to create periods of famine and famine. Those engaged in agriculture in the region cannot produce the crop that they can survive throughout the year. Often times, the failure of local government officials to implement policies to prevent such disasters is added to this. The people of the region, especially women and children, are greatly affected by this and malnutrition problems arise. Hunger mainly drives people to migrate from the countryside to urban centers and neighboring countries. As a result, the population in villages and rural areas is gradually decreasing, and the gap in the countryside is filled by unwanted groups such as armed groups and drug traffickers.
b. Drug trafficking
The Sahel's geographic location (middle line between sub-Saharan Africa and desert North Africa facing the Mediterranean) and natural features (semi-desert and sparsely populated areas) and the low presence of security forces in most of these areas are the perfect environment for the proliferation of illicit drug trafficking activities. and has become deeply rooted in certain parts of Mali and Niger in particular.
In these areas, the low presence of the state (security apparatus, transport, health and education infrastructures) creates a certain sense of marginalization among local communities, while the revenues from this illegal trade are often used to provide the basic needs of people in this region, providing popular support to these elements.
c. Armed groups
The Sahel Region has witnessed many waves of rebellion over the past four decades in both Mali, Niger and Chad. These movements have generally been characterized by armed struggles by ethnic Tuaregs in Mali and Niger since the early 1980s. At times these movements were violently suppressed by military means, and at other times peace agreements were negotiated to restore peace and stability in the northern parts of these two countries. The most prominent of the armed groups were MNJ (Niger Justice Movement) in Niger and MNLA (Azavat National Liberation Movement) in Mali.
In addition to these rebel groups, a number of armed organizations emerged after the collapse of the Libyan state. These groups invaded northern Mali with a vision of establishing a sharia state or caliphate. Some of these groups included MUJAO, AQMI, ANSARDINE and Boko Haram, which operates in parts of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and northern Cameroon.
2. Factors that increase insecurity
a. Environmental: Climate change
According to UNEP (UN Environment Programme), the Sahel region is known for extreme climate change and rainfall scarcity, leading to food insecurity and extreme poverty throughout the region. In recent years, the situation has gone from bad to worse, according to many experts in the region. Only between 1970 and 1993, the Sahel region recorded 20 years of severe drought, during this period the frequency and severity of flooding increased alongside drought. FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) reports that more than 80% of the area's land is degraded. According to Malcolm Potts of the University of California-Berkeley, increasing greenhouse gas emissions around the world will likely increase temperatures by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2050, and extreme weather events will become more common. This situation seems to make its impact felt the most in the Sahel Region.
The environmental crisis in the Sahel itself has not been acted upon as a result of a combination of factors, including relentless population growth, soil erosion (caused by overgrazing and deforestation), soil degradation, a sharp decrease in rainfall across the region, reduced water resources and inconsistent environmental policies of governments. Otherwise, it is certain that it will cause increasing problems for this region in the future.
b. Salafist ideology stemming from poverty and injustice.
One of the key factors complicating the nature of insecurity in the Sahel region is the Salafist ideologies that have sprung up in the region over the past three decades.
For centuries, the population in the region was predominantly Muslim, but in the early nineties, a fundamentalist version of the religion was introduced and gradually enticed the masses, especially the low-income. The early form of Islam (Sufism) introduced in the region and known until now was more moderate and tolerant, but the new Salafi-oriented version opened the door for radical groups to gather followers and sympathizers throughout the region.
Ideology itself was not a direct trigger of radicalism, but rather created a fertile ground for radical groups to rally young people eager to serve ideology. In addition to the ideology itself, poverty, lack of infrastructure, unemployment and frustration with the authorities make radical groups particularly attractive to those in the countryside.
c. Political instability
Since 2012, following the Mali coup that ended 20 years of relatively stable democratic practice, the political crisis in Mali has further destabilized the already fragile sociopolitical stability of neighboring countries. Niger, for example, has witnessed two waves of armed insurrections and four military coups in its 60-year existence as an independent state. While Niger has recently made a successful peaceful democratic transition and appears to have experienced a seemingly stable period, uncertainty remains after the assassination of long-time in power President Idris Deby. In addition, it is clearly seen that the demands of the people for the transition to more independent and democratic governments in countries such as Mali, Niger and Chad are gaining strength.
3. Critical instability link
We can say that the environment of instability in which non-state armed groups operate and therefore almost never gained since independence, focuses on two main hot spots. These are the Lake Chad region and the three border regions between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.
Conflicts in the Sahel region are worsening and spreading to new areas. In both hotspots (Central Sahel and Lake Chad basin), there are no signs of a decrease in security incidents. Kidnappings, violent clashes and attacks are on the rise, and this is becoming a normal routine for hundreds of thousands of civilians. Desperate people are caught between armed bandits, military operations and inter-communal conflicts. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of violent attacks increased eightfold in the Central Sahel and threefold in the Lake Chad basin, according to OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
4. Weaknesses of anti-insurgency policies and reasons for failure
The most important reasons why insecurity incidents in the Sahel Region could not be prevented can be summarized as follows.
a. Extreme militarization of solutions: The main issue focused on the war on terror, waged by regional governments and their international partners since 2012, with more emphasis on military solutions. Since this does not address the root cause of the problem, let alone solving the problems, it only increases the problems.
b. Decreased coordination of government security apparatuses: The creation of the G5 Sahel was aimed at increasing cooperation among Sahel countries in the fight against violent extremist groups. However, as this could not be achieved, violence and incidents gradually increased.
c. Lack of reliable alternatives for radicalized youth: Looking at the rate at which these armed extremist groups are spreading, it is seen that the countries of the youth who join these criminal organizations and their rulers cannot provide them with a minimum level of livelihood or give them hope for the future. Unjust and inadequate practices lead especially young people from nomadic communities to armed groups to seek their rights.
As a result, the Sahel Region has its own characteristics and the events taking place in this region cannot be revealed without an in-depth analysis.