The west supported military solutions across the Sahel. With the death of President Idriss Déby, this strategy is helping to destabilize the region
The battle death of Chad’s unloved dictator, Idriss Déby, pushed Sahel up the Western political and media agenda. The sudden explosion of interest should not last. Global attention to this desperately poor, unstable and poorly governed region is chronically short. And yet, the Sahel is, or could soon be, everyone’s problem.
A vast and arid strip of sub-Saharan Africa comprising Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso (the so-called G5 Sahel), as well as parts of neighboring countries, the Sahel is where the world’s most difficult challenges clash. The spread of jihadist terrorism, claiming a record number of lives and representing a possible threat to Europe, is the most observed phenomenon.
But anti-democratic, corrupt and repressive governance, hangovers from the colonial era, external interference, environmental degradation, climate change, uncontrolled Covid-19, poverty and malnutrition – and the resulting conflicts, refugee emergencies and chaotic migrations to the north – are also underway. conspiring to surrender the truly hellish Sahel.
In a desperate appeal in January, the UN refugee agency called for international action to end the “relentless violence” that it estimates has displaced more than 2 million people within the Sahel for the first time. “The needs are arising in a region where several crises converge … the humanitarian response is dangerously overburdened,” said the UN. But is anyone listening?
Chad’s turmoil sums up how neglect merges with authoritarian leadership to undermine political stability and sustainable development. Déby took the presidency in a 1990 coup and – supported mainly by France, the former colonial power – never let him go. Fraudulent elections and Western complicity covered a venal dictatorship that took root inequality and stole Chad’s oil wealth.
Exactly how Déby met his death is still unclear. What is certain is that his son, Mahamat, put aside filial pain and promptly took charge. This illegal family transition is now being challenged by the advance of rebel forces, supposedly trained and equipped in Libya by Russian mercenaries, as well as by repressed opposition groups and dissatisfied army officers.
How it will play out in the long run, no one knows. But France, citing “exceptional circumstances”, seems to prefer another strong man, like Déby Jr, to the risk of aggravating civil strife or a complicated and lengthy process to elect a replacement national leader. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, met his new man in Africa at Déby’s funeral on Friday.
This is important because, to a large extent, France, the main representative for Europe and the USA, still plays the cards, in terms of security and counter-terrorism, in Chad and the Sahel in general. Its continued influence is strongly opposed by many Sahelians. But a large budget, 5,100 soldiers and a large military base in N’Djamena speak louder.
The basic agreement – in force since 2012-13, when jihadists took over large areas of northern Mali and Paris intervened – was simple. In exchange for Déby helping with operations against Al Qaeda and extremists affiliated with Isis, providing peacekeepers in Mali and helping to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, he turned a blind eye to their depredations.
Macron reaffirmed this arrangement at a virtual summit in February with Sahel’s G5 leaders. He doubled the existing anti-jihadist military strategy, promising to maintain the levels of French strength, receiving modest contributions from troops from the United Kingdom and Europe and warning about the dire consequences should France’s supposedly selfless mission fail.
“We have a shared destiny with Sahel,” said Macron. “If the Sahel falls into the hands of terrorism, Africa will gradually fall into the hands of Islamic terrorists and Europe will live with the consequences of this tragedy very clearly. So I think it is our duty ”. Military operations would go “further and stronger” in 2021 to “try to cut off the heads” of terrorist groups.
The Chad crisis threatens this strategy, whose successes Macron overstated. As the increasing violence affects an increasingly large area, its defects were dramatized by the death of 19 civilians at a wedding in a village in Mali in January. A UN inquiry blamed a mistaken French air attack, a claim vigorously contested in Paris.
More broadly, France is accused of harboring old colonial attitudes, ignoring the wishes of sovereign peoples and exacerbating the broader jihadist threat by dispersing Malian militants across the region, thus aggravating complaints and increasing recruitment.
The criticism that too much emphasis is placed on military solutions, and not enough on promoting democracy, poverty reduction and nation building, is also directed at the United States. It maintains two bases in Niger, one administered by the CIA and equipped with armed drones. It is not yet clear what President Joe Biden’s approach will be – although he has temporarily halted drone attacks.
Analyst Alexandra Reza suggested that Western strategies in the Sahel cannot deal with the “deep and complex tensions” that drive insurgencies. This includes “livelihoods under attack, trafficking networks manipulated by political and business elites [and] the failure of nation-states to provide citizens with economic and social security,” wrote Reza. The divisive effects of land and resource degradation are further destabilizing factors.
A fulminating new report by the International Crisis Group echoes many of these concerns and bluntly warns that the battle for the Sahel is being lost. “The Sahel’s stabilization strategy, led by France, is sinking amid an increase in communal murders and jihadist militancy, as well as eroding public trust in governments in the region,” said the ICG.
Sahel was facing a “deep crisis”, the report went on. “The strategy aims to calm the region with extensive investments in security, development and governance, but, for the most part, it has fallen short.” A course correction prioritizing these objectives was urgently needed.
However, even though Western lawmakers are paying attention, those words were written before Chad, the axis of regional security and the “crossroads of Africa”, imploded. As rebel forces march on N’Djamena, saving Sahel is immeasurably more difficult.