August 17, 2018

The Sahel: A Hopeless Corner of the World?

AKG-Images / Scanpix
Malians beside the River Niger. Water is an increasingly valuable resource in the Sahel, and access to it becomes more important every year.
Malians beside the River Niger. Water is an increasingly valuable resource in the Sahel, and access to it becomes more important every year.

We have to address the underlying cause of problems in Africa, not bury our heads in the sand

On 9 May 2018, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) approved sending an armoured infantry platoon to Mali. The Scouts Battalion troops deployed in Africa will participate in the French military anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane for a year. This decision must, above all, be viewed in the light of bilateral military cooperation between Estonia and France, which began with our participation in the European Union Military Training Mission in the Central African Republic in 2015. France was grateful to the countries that took part in this mission, because this allowed it to move some of its troops into Operation Sangaris that was taking place in the CAR at the same time.

Paris noted Estonia’s contribution, and its political readiness to see beyond the end of its nose. France’s participation in the first rotation of the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Estonia together with the United Kingdom was not by chance. There is no doubt that France’s decision was partly due to the debt of gratitude to Estonia. That Estonia and Denmark were the only countries in our region to receive an invitation from France to participate in the European Intervention Initiative was no coincidence, either. The aim of this undertaking is to increase Europe’s rapid military response, even in places like Mali. Together with participation in the British-led multinational Joint Expeditionary Force, Estonia has been determined to diversify its defence cooperation formats. Our participation in these activities is made possible thanks to Estonia’s small but capable defence forces earning their allies’ trust over the years.

Mali is not entirely unfamiliar to Estonian servicemen. Estonians serve in both the European Union Training Mission to Mali (EUTM Mali) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Mission multidimensionelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali—MINUSMA). EUTM Mali provides training and advice to the country’s armed forces but is not involved in actual combat, while MINUSMA is tasked with ensuring peace in central and northern Mali. The main focus of the French Operation Barkhane is on Mali, but activities also take place in other member countries of the regional group G5 Sahel (Cadre de coopération de cinq États du Sahel): Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. France’s task is to act as a rapid reaction force and pursue Islamic terrorists in this vast area. The operation’s headquarters are in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad.

In addition to the aforementioned three military missions and operations, the European Union is currently working on getting the so-called G5 Sahel joint force (FCG5S – Force conjointe du G5 Sahel), which consists of units from all G5 countries, combat-ready. This is a small undertaking, but ambitious considering the huge size of the Sahel. The main goal is to foster regional cooperation between the countries and to give them as much responsibility as they can bear in ensuring their security. This is done mainly with the support and involvement of the EU but also of partner countries. The main mentor of the G5 Sahel joint force is EUTM Mali. The operation focuses on the G5 countries’ shared border areas. All military operations and missions in the Sahel region are linked, and cooperate as much as the focus on resources and activity allows. If one adds all the countries’ own externally-supported armed forces to the foreign troops and the newly-established G5 Sahel joint force, one cannot help but wonder what makes the international community contribute so much to Sub-Saharan West Africa.

The Sahel is a vast transitional zone in West Africa, where the Sahara is gradually replaced with savannah. Although the eastern countries in the Horn of Africa up to Djibouti are sometimes considered part of the Sahel region, the current political understanding of the term includes five of the French-speaking West African countries mentioned above. This region has been in the grip of a prolonged crisis since the countries became independent, and the scope and external reach of their problems are so wide that the international community can do nothing but seek to relieve them.

The rapid collapse of the second French colonial empire after 1945 and the political emancipation of Africans triggered by both World Wars led to a situation in which the new native elite wanted to become independent after the French had left West Africa but did not have the favourable conditions required to do so. One noteworthy aspect was the fact that, with a few exceptions, the leaders of the newly-established countries were content to retain the colonial-era borders. The French naturally saw this mainly as continuing the imperial internal administrative division, which did not yet have a major effect on the region’s indigenous population.

An exception was Senegal, the edge of which stretches into the Sahel region, where residents of the so-called Four Communes (les Quatre Communes)—Saint-Louis, Gorée, Rufisque and Dakar—were given French citizenship as early as 1916. The residents of these areas possessed several political rights unprecedented in Africa at the time, including the right to vote and to be elected to the French parliament. This significantly longer political development is the main reason Senegal is the only West African country that has managed to avoid serious political crises and to replace its leaders in democratic elections throughout its independence.

Other new countries in the region had very little to rely on after becoming independent. There was no society or state in the contemporary sense and no qualified specialists to fill the positions of teachers, engineers, doctors, judges and other professions. The infrastructure, which was adequate for French needs, was not sufficient for the whole population of the new countries. The relatively small elite who had received European education was ideologically caught between the different schools of Pan-Africanism and Western political philosophies and their power relied on either their own moral authority or, in most cases, the traditional African support network—their tribe or clan. In the Cold War period, the Sahel was to some extent also the scene of a peripheral conflict between the two superpowers. For instance, Mali was under the political influence of the Soviet Union, and France, too, managed to maintain reasonably good cooperation with several of its former colonies. This had very clear limits, because each step by Paris was followed by many keen eyes in both Africa and France, criticising anything that could be seen through the prism of neo-colonialism. And, of course, everything could—and still can—be viewed this way, even though political sensitivity has declined significantly over the years. France’s popularity peaked after its impressive 2013 victory over the Islamic terrorist networks that had gained a foothold in northern Mali, and the support shown towards Paris in the region remains surprisingly high even today.

Independent Africa has not seen many wars between its countries. Most of the bloodshed has been due to internal conflicts, which have been numerous. As a result of civil wars, ethnic conflicts and coups that go hand in hand with starvation, epidemics and other crises, the condition of many individuals in the Sahel is worse today than at the end of the colonial period. Residents of metropolitan slums do not generally have a sufficiently strong support network like they had in their home villages, which would help them cope no matter what. Back in the colonial days, agriculture and trade could provide for the population better than today. In addition, the central authorities of these countries are very reluctant to consider several of the Sahel’s ethnic groups as their own. For instance, after Mali and Niger gained independence, the Tuareg people faced considerably greater challenges than at the end of French colonial rule, because it ended the pax gallica and significantly changed the balance of power to the disadvantage of the desert people. The new leaders in Bamako or Niamey made sure to use the opportunity to put the Tuareg and other ethnic Berber (imaziyen) tribes in their place for the injustices of the past.

As mentioned earlier, the Sahel is a zone of eco-climatic transition, which has been inhabited by societies of both nomads (the Berber and Fula) and static farmers (the Bambara, Songhay, etc.) throughout history. As a result, conflict between these ethnic groups is in many ways programmed into society. The main source of geopolitical tension is naturally access to water—a relatively scarce resource in the Sahel, for which competition is fierce. Most of the region’s water reaches people via the River Niger and the Chad Basin, and the quantity of water in these places depends on both human activity and nature. Long periods of drought reduce it drastically and, once aridity starts to kill both cattle and people, the latter will begin to move. In the past, there was nothing they or we could do but accept the will of nature or God, but now it is rooted in our collective consciousness that people can go and find a more suitable place to live.

The presence of water in a location is also connected to settlements and communication routes between them—even more so in regions closer to the Sahara—the historical importance of which is generally greater than that of mainly artificial borders. The struggle for water often expresses itself in disputes over communication routes. Those who control the roads also control the people and goods on them, as well as the oasis that provides water for life. Throughout history, control over communication routes has given advantage to one group or another, who have kept a watchful eye on what is “rightfully theirs”. This partly explains why it is possible—albeit with great difficulty—to manage this vast territory in military terms. There is no need to control the whole desert—focusing on places where people and goods can actually move is sufficient. In reality, this means that in a situation where there is no strong central power, or the country lacks a traditional monopoly on violence, different communication routes are controlled by various groups.

The French colonial forces (Troupes colonials; currently known as Troupes de marine) probably came closest to controlling the northern Sahel and southern Sahara in West Africa more than a hundred years ago by successful improvisation, adopting the most effective means of transport—the dromedary. Back then, the camel units (Compagnies méharistes) led by French officers and non-commissioned officers were extremely mobile and efficient tactical tools for controlling the desert. The armed forces of independent Mali also featured a camel corps manned by Tuareg, but this was dissolved during the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012. The handbook of a méhariste officer, available online in French, makes useful reading on how to cope in the Sahel, even for contemporary foreign soldiers. Among other things, it demonstrates French servicemen’s respect for the desert, its residents and, above all, their local subjects.

As already mentioned, the list of the Sahel’s problems is very long and contains everything from severe poverty, with all its associated ills, to a unique mixture of international terrorism and organised crime. As is the case with crises, the situation in the Sahel needs both the causes and the consequences to be addressed although, paradoxically, dealing with the consequences is somewhat easier, because every now and then they exert great pressure, for example in the form of the current migration crisis. The simple truth is that problems have to be resolved where they occur, or they will soon find their way to you. Our allies in southern Europe are groaning under pressure of the organised human trafficking conducted across the Mediterranean. Thus, sending Estonian servicemen to the Sahel is a step in the right direction, because our allies presume that their problems are also our problems, just as we do in the case of our own. At the same time, it is little use protesting that we have not caused this situation.

The majority of the Sahel’s population—about 73 million in the G5 countries—do not have the opportunity to live a decent life in their home countries, which suffer from social, security and environmental problems. As a result, the bravest and most resourceful—mainly young men—attempt to (or at least want to) escape as a solution. Those who are poorer or more conservative often live a life thrust upon them by the environment that they are unable to change, which they would not choose if the conditions were better. Global problems, including those of the Sahel, are not resolved by the residents of poor and problem-ridden countries relocating to wealthy ones, but by improving living conditions in the poor countries to an extent that allows their people to live life to the full in their own homes.

There are many who would like to escape if they could. There are some 48 million people under the age of 25 in the five G5 countries—about 65% of the entire population. An average Nigerien woman gives birth to seven children; in Mali and Burkina Faso the number is six. Simultaneously, these countries have some of the highest rates of infant, child and maternal mortality in the world. If there is a part of the world that treats women like baby-making machines, then sadly the Sahel would be it. However, children are the pride of the family and, as practical experience shows, cheap and handy labour for use in agriculture and other types of production. Women are often subjected to genital mutilation and very few have access to basic, not to mention secondary or university, education. Less than 15% of adult women in Chad are literate; in Niger, the figure is about 11%. If we were to add the non-availability of modern medicine for the majority of the local population, unsanitary living conditions—especially in rapidly developing metropoli—widespread endemic diseases, etc., it is clear that the situation in Africa is far from the sustainable development promoted by the UN. Leaving the current catastrophic situation for the next generations of the Sahel to deal with is already a step too far, but the outlook for the future is unfortunately much worse.

One does not have to be a social scientist to understand that millions of young people without sufficient parental care or education and with a future in a slum in Bamako or Niamey are susceptible to both criminal activities and radical ideas. The social control of a traditional village community is considerably weaker in cities, or absent altogether. Over the past 60 years, the G5 countries have acquired a national identity but, unlike in more recently independent African nations, people these days lack faith in their country, because they have seen from close up its inability to function for quite a long time. Football is one of the few exceptions. People are proud of—or disappointed in—their national team, just like in any other country. Footballers are probably the greatest source of national pride in contemporary West Africa. For the athletes themselves, this is their long-desired escape from poverty.

Even though there are no easy solutions to the situation in the Sahel, it might help if the international community spelled out the underlying cause of the majority of the region’s problems. This is generally known but, due to its political sensitivity, people tend to beat about the bush, spending enormous resources on dealing with the consequences. One European leader who has, in his own words, “decided to break taboos” is the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who said at the 2017 G20 summit in Hamburg that “when countries still have seven to eight children per woman—you can decide to spend billions of euros, [but] you will not stabilise anything”. President Macron repeated his views in a presentation to the Nigerian business elite in Lagos in May. On both occasions, he was strongly criticised in Western social media but received considerable support from Africa. In a situation where millions of people—mostly young women—are for some reason unable to practice normal family planning as in developed countries, due to lack of education, societal pressure or the non-availability of birth control, or for logistical reasons, ignoring this major problem is irresponsible, to say the least.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2017 there were 214 million women of child-bearing age in the world who did not use contraceptives even though they wished to avoid pregnancy. The UN reported that 25% of women aged 15–49 in Sub-Saharan Africa—the majority of whom live in the Sahel region, which has the highest birth rate in the world—do not have access to contraceptives at all. Many contraceptives would also help to avoid AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. It would be better for everyone if people could choose when to have children. If women were able to plan their pregnancy better and avoid it if they wish, the need for abortions, which are dangerous in many countries, would also reduce. In addition to increasing gender equality, access to contraceptives—and their use for avoiding unwanted pregnancies—would help reduce poverty and is closely linked to human rights. The UN declared in 2012 that access to contraception should be a human right. In practice, this means more funding for family-planning programmes and its promotion as a human right. Of course, the international community does excellent work in this field in the Sahel, but the discussion often descends into accusations of Western paternalism and neo-colonialism—charges that originate not from Africa, but from the West itself.

When talking about military planning, English-language literature sometimes employs the term “propensity”, which can be interpreted as taking advantage of the system’s internal tendencies. For instance, if we assume (on the basis of WHO statistics) that a large proportion of the millions of women in the Sahel do not wish to get pregnant in the future—or, at least, do not currently wish to—we also know that the system has a great propensity for change. Our task is to figure out how to take advantage of this and help this large number of women—and also men, who for some reason have so far not had access to that help. The international community has the means and will to help, but has not been able to resolve cultural, technological, logistical and other issues in order to avoid the current dismal situation where a large proportion of children in the Sahel region are often unwanted and born into an unsafe environment.

Estonia is currently applying for non-permanent membership of the UN Security Council. Obtaining that position is not as important for us as the process itself, which has perhaps made us slightly more sensitive to global problems. The deployment of Estonian servicemen to Africa’s hotspots fits well with this thinking. We are quite creative and not afraid to think outside the box. Perhaps Estonia will produce an innovative start-up that can find a solution to the Sahel’s problems?

The current rapid advances in technology have been hailed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution and are characterised by the fast development of bio- and nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and similar fields. This may increase the divide between developed countries and the world’s poorest regions, causing the future of mankind increasingly to resemble Neill Blomkamp’s dystopian sci-fi thriller Elysium, starring Matt Damon. We can hope that new technologies will instead help us find solutions to many global issues. As experience in the Arabian Peninsula shows, it is possible to live in a desert. Whether we like it or not, drones that use biometrics and various sensors—some of which are even equipped with artificial intelligence—will make detection of people’s movements and their identification much more precise in the future and this identification will no longer depend on physical documents. On the other hand, medical diagnostics and personalised treatment show rapid development. Nano- and other material technologies and 3-D printing will soon offer many opportunities to quickly produce sustainable and relatively cheap objects, from tools to infrastructure such as schools. In the case of the Sahel, we should add to the list the development of educational, agricultural, infrastructure and other models suitable for that environment.

The American psychologist Richard E. Nisbett conducted an experiment in which he showed his students a picture of a tiger in a rainforest. It was found that Western students paid more attention to the tiger while Asian students saw the wider context of the picture, i.e. the forest. Estonians probably associate this with the old saying about people’s inability to see the wood for the trees. In concentrating on individual problems—poverty, health and environmental issues, terrorism and human trafficking—in the Sahel region, we often simply choose one part of the bigger issue that we would like to tackle at this moment. Instead, we should look at the wider context—the source of the region’s many problems: the Sahel’s unchecked population growth, often unwanted by the inhabitants themselves, due to which the region’s natural and human environment is unable to support people in their pursuit of a better life.

Again, while trying to find solutions to long-term challenges, we must simultaneously address urgent everyday security problems. If it had not been for France’s military intervention in Mali in 2013, the current situation in the Sahel would be even worse. And if sending Estonian servicemen on a mission in Mali gives us the chance to discuss problems in the Sahel region, we must seize the opportunity and ensure that we are not just pounding sand.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.