The Sahel region, the ‘underbelly’ of the Sahara desert is one of those geo-politically important, yet under-estimated by many. The Sahel has been in a period of turmoil since ‘Toyota war’ in Northern Chad in the late 1980s, but the current situation mainly arose out of two major isolated events that would collide somewhere in 2013 to create a geographical belt of a – to a large part – unstable area.
The first point is the birth of Islamist radicalism beginning with Boko Haram movement and ‘Islamic state’ branches which meant that the Sahel came to the fold, visible in other African countries as well as internationally. Different Islamist movements rarely get along, their overall tendency is heavily fractured, and there are frequent in-fights between different Islamist groups.
The second cause is the Libyan civil war following the fall of long-time ruler Muammar Ghaddafi. After the eruption of war, Libya ceased to exist as a unified political entity. The country was instrumental in policing the Sahel through proxies – like their support of Tuareg movement – and in some way as it happened with Chad in 1987. Libya’s absence meant new players emerged to fill the power void. Another catalyst was the massive weapons stockpile in Libya which eventually found its way to the black market providing ‘would-be’ warlords with cheap means to carry out their activities.
Multiple solutions have been suggested and it was tried by some to solve the Sahel crisis, from ‘boots on ground’ to support of local institutions. However, these attempts seem to fall short of expectations. One solution which has been successful is the economic development and improvement in the lives of the civilian population of the region. The most important factor of war are the victimized polulations. The Sahel region has the highest birth rates in the world, the median age being 14. Therefore, an ample recruitment base for youth is given in the region. A large part of young men are ready to join a militia to secure a respect, wealth, and a wife. The promotion of female students’ education will be a step in the right direction.
To limit recruitment of young people into militias, a broader engagement especially concerning the improvement of standard of living will need to be implemented. This is, of course, a difficult task, the Sahel being a vast area with remote and often hardly accessible settlements. The example of Mali has shown such limitations in sustaining and building up administrative structures, a condition of economic development in remote areas of the Sahel. The region will continue to be a contested as long as central governments, due to the conditions mentioned above, have difficulty to adequately reaching and impacting those remote areas, where there are actors who want to capitalize on the situation in parts of the region for their own ends.
Thus, the Sahel crisis is also a crisis of authority in the most remote areas. Governments across the region need to instate education and economic opportunities while securing remote regions, be it larger or smaller ones.
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