Rather than the ideology of global jihad, the driving force behind the emergence and resilience of non-state armed groups in the Sahel is a combination of weak states, corruption and the brutal repression of dissent, embodied in dysfunctional military forces. These are structural problems that long predate the ‘war on terror’, and they serve to underline that bad governance and the weakness of state security structures, including police and justice, lie at the root of violence in the region.
Mali offers a clear example in this regard. The collapse of its army, two coups – in 2012 and 2020 – and a weak state presence in rural areas, on top of a history of repression and abuse suffered by its northern population, have done much more to drive the growth of jihadist groups than did the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 or the rise of so-called ‘radical Islam’, the power of Salafist indoctrination and alleged support from Arab countries. By contrast, the relative resilience in recent years of Niger, a country that shares many of the structural and historical challenges faced by Mali, demonstrates that progress is possible if more inclusive governance can be built. In such a context, international responses that seek to support military action against armed groups without tackling deeper challenges of governance, especially in the domain of police, defence and justice affairs, are very unlikely to succeed. The dominant narrative of counterterrorism and religious extremism obscures underlying political grievances and dysfunctionality, and the widespread use of poorly controlled state-aligned militias to tackle insurrection – in the absence of effective state military capacity – has only served to fuel violence and worsen intercommunity tensions.
It has also resulted in the pursuit of ineffective and often counterproductive policy by international actors, which risks building resentment among Sahelian governments and citizens alike, and which over time may undermine the political will to maintain costly military cooperation at all. Undoubtedly, insurgencies in the region are a pressing issue. The ‘terrorist’ threat is the main driver of foreign support in the Sahel. Yet it might not be as global a threat as it is perceived to be, and its existence does not justify why other unstable African countries receive less attention. Moreover, international support always risks providing a security net that deters the military and the ruling class from reforming governance. In Mali, for instance, strong international support did not prevent a coup in 2020 or the expansion of so-called jihadi groups since 2013. Reframing policy away from hard-edged counterterrorism towards a more inclusive view of human security, and an emphasis on tackling the underlying challenges of governance, impunity and development, may offer a route out of the acute policy dilemma faced by those seeking peace in the Sahel.
In the context of complex and protracted conflicts, it is time to rethink the role of the international community and acknowledge its limits. Today, success depends first and foremost on the willingness (much more than on the capacity) of corrupt leaders to reform and renew their social contract with citizens, especially in rural areas. International efforts will fail as long as impunity prevails and local armies can kill civilians and topple governments without consequence. Prospects for peace in the Sahel should not exclude any option in this regard, from negotiating with jihadists to ‘naming and shaming’ those responsible for abuses perpetrated by national armies or their proxies, strengthening aid conditionality, or even considering the possibility of disengagement.
A change in international community policy in the Sahel is inevitable. France’s intervention in the Sahel has become increasingly difficult due to resentment that has built up against the former colonial power, particularly in countries such as Mali and Burkina Faso with strong anti-imperialist sentiment dating back to the Cold War era. Over time, French troops who were initially seen as liberators have begun to be perceived as an occupying force, amid suspicions that France is trying to gain control of resources and markets: this view is echoed by some external observers. In 2013, the French government even blocked the Malian authorities from sending troops to Kidal – to avoid the risk of Malian soldiers massacring civilians in revenge for the killings of Malian soldiers there – by withholding the technical support, security and transport that the Malian military needed in order to carry out its planned operation. This act of obstruction was subsequently publicly denounced by President Kei?ta in an interview with the daily newspaper Le Monde.
Not only does this damage the all-important goodwill that will be necessary for meaningful reform. There is an additional risk that continued setbacks will undermine political support within France for continuing these international efforts. Operation Barkhane, in particular, seems to have reached a peak in terms of public support in France, given the difficulties experienced by the French army in terms of recruitment, logistics and renewal of equipment. More than 50 soldiers have been killed while deployed to the operation since 2013, and some members of the French parliament have challenged its continuation. Addressing the deep-rooted governance and development challenges that drive violence in the Sahel, and the replacement of a counterterrorism imperative with counter-insurgency approaches that focus on human security, and recognize the importance of winning hearts and minds, may be long overdue.
There are signs that some in the international community are beginning to recognize these imperatives. In a report published in 2015, for instance, members of the French parliament highlighted the contradiction of spending €1 billion a year on Operation Barkhane while cutting development budgets without tackling the root causes of the crisis. Some senators went even further in recognizing that ‘justice and the fight against impunity’ were probably ‘the first demand of the people, before education or economic prosperity’. Niger might not offer a model that can be replicated in its entirety in Mali, or elsewhere in the Sahel, but it demonstrates that there are possibilities for improvement. Not least through a high voter turnout, the most recent presidential election, which took place over two rounds in December 2020 and February 2021, has so far confirmed the democratic foundations of the country. Though by no means perfect, the experience of Niger shows that it is possible for states in the Sahel to overcome the legacy of a violent and divided past. Sahelian governments and their external partners alike need to learn the lessons of history, both recent and of earlier decades, in order to avoid a repetition of past mistakes.
‘Rethinking the Response to Jihadist Groups Across the Sahel’ – Research Paper by Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos – Chatham House / The Royal Institute of International Affairs.