MINUSMA peacekeeping troops are one part of the military response to the Sahel’s political and socioeconomic problems

As 2019 gets underway, the risks for most Sahel countries point to further deterioration in political instability, insecurity and increasing economic uncertainty.

Two major problems face most of the region. One is that of political Islam with the spread of jihadist extremism threatening much of West Africa. The second is that the purely military response is failing.

The spread of political Islam

The continuing spread of the more extremist forms of political Islam into West Africa not only retards the modernisation of regional states, but also reduces investment in strategic priorities such as construction of road and rail infrastructure.

The spread of jihadism in 2018 was most clearly seen in Burkina Faso. Insecurity — which was originally limited to the northern part of the country — has gradually spread to other areas and, in particular, to the eastern forest area which borders Benin and Togo.

Between mid-August and the end of September, there were 21 reported terrorist attacks of which 14 occurred in the east and particularly in the Kompienga and Komandjari provinces. State institutions, such as schools and police posts, were directly targeted. In mid-November state officials were ambushed on the Fada-Pama road in the area of the Presidential Reserve. The insecurity is so great that the staff of the Fada N’Gourma High Court have been on indefinite strike since the beginning of November in protest against the lack of any security in the east.

The 30 November proclamation of the State of Emergency in south-western Niger — in the departments of Say, Torodi and Tera in the region of Tillabéri — will make eastern Burkina Faso a natural fall-back region.

Whole regions of the Sahel, including the Torodi border region between Niger and Burkina Faso have become militarised no-go areas. On a regional scale, this applies to:

  • the central and Ménaka regions of Mali;
  • much of northern Mali;
  • western and south eastern Niger;
  • Niger’s northern border region with Libya of Niger; and
  • the entire Tibesti region of northern Chad.

A purely military approach is not the solution

It is becoming obvious that a purely military approach is not the solution to these insecurity problems. Every few weeks, France’s Operation Barkhane forces announce a spectacular strike against a jihadist position, which, as far as the French popular media is concerned, provides President Emmanuel Macron with the victories that he requires.

But, whichever way the statistics are manipulated, the number of civilian and local security force deaths outnumber those of the jihadists. The latter seem to proliferate and expand geographically, irrespective of the apparent military setbacks.

President Macron said on 17 December that the forces of Operation Barkhane would remain engaged in the Sahel ‘until victory was complete’. At the present rate of progress, French troops will be in the Sahel for a long time to come.

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