The death in battle last week of Chad’s unloved dictator, Idriss Déby, has pushed the Sahel up the west’s political and media agenda. The sudden burst of interest is unlikely to last. The global attention span for this desperately poor, unstable and ill-governed region is chronically short. And yet the Sahel is, or soon could be, everyone’s problem.
A vast, arid swath of sub-Saharan Africa that comprises Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania and Burkina Faso (the so-called G5 Sahel), plus parts of neighbouring countries, the Sahel is where the world’s toughest challenges collide. The spread of jihadist terrorism, claiming record numbers of lives and posing a possible threat to Europe, is the most closely watched phenomenon.
But undemocratic, corrupt and repressive governance, colonial era hangovers, external interference, environmental degradation, climate change, unchecked Covid-19, poverty and malnutrition – and the resulting conflicts, refugee emergencies and chaotic northwards migrations – are all also conspiring to render the Sahel truly hellish.
In a despairing appeal in January, the UN’s refugee agency called for international action to end “unrelenting violence” that it estimates has displaced more than 2 million people within the Sahel for the first time. “Needs are surging across a region where multiple crises converge… the humanitarian response is dangerously overstretched,” the UN said. But is anyone listening?
The Chad turmoil epitomises how neglect fuses with authoritarian leadership to undermine political stability and sustainable development. Déby seized the presidency in a 1990 coup and – backed principally by France, the former colonial power – never let go. Rigged elections and western complicity gave cover to a venal dictatorship that entrenched inequality and looted Chad’s oil wealth.
Exactly how Déby met his death remains unclear. What is certain is that his son, Mahamat, set filial grief aside and promptly took charge. This unlawful family transition is now being challenged by advancing rebel forces, reportedly trained and equipped in Libya by Russian mercenaries, as well as by long-repressed opposition groups and disaffected army officers.
How this plays out in the long term is anyone’s guess. But France, citing “exceptional circumstances”, appears to prefer another strongman, such as Déby Jr, to the risk of worsening civil strife or a messy, drawn-out process to elect a replacement national leader. Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, met his new man in Africa at Déby’s funeral on Friday.
This matters because, to a large extent, France, the lead representative for Europe and the US, still calls the shots, in security and counter-terrorism terms, in Chad and the wider Sahel. Its continuing influence is strongly opposed by many Sahelians. But a large budget, 5,100 troops and a big military base in N’Djamena talk louder.
The basic deal – in effect since 2012-13, when jihadists seized large areas of northern Mali, and Paris intervened – was simple. In return for Déby assisting operations against al-Qaida and Isis-affiliated extremists, supplying peacekeeping troops in Mali and helping fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, a blind eye was turned to his depredations.
Macron reaffirmed this arrangement at a virtual summit in February with G5 Sahel leaders. He doubled down on the existing anti-jihadist military strategy, vowing to maintain French force levels, welcoming modest UK and European troop contributions, and warning of dire consequences should France’s supposedly altruistic mission fail.
“We have a shared destiny with the Sahel,” Macron said. “If the Sahel falls into the hands of terrorism, Africa will gradually fall into the hands of Islamist 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 head” of terrorist groups.
The Chad crisis threatens this strategy, whose successes Macron exaggerated. As rising violence affects an ever-wider area, its defects were dramatised by the killing of 19 civilians at a village wedding in Mali in January. A UN inquiry blamed a misguided French airstrike, a claim vigorously disputed in Paris.
More broadly, France is accused of harbouring old colonial attitudes, ignoring the wishes of sovereign peoples and exacerbating the wider jihadist threat by dispersing Mali’s militants around the region, thereby aggravating grievance and boosting recruitment.
Criticism that too much emphasis is placed on military solutions, and not enough on promoting democracy, alleviating poverty and nation-building, is also levelled at the US. It maintains two bases in Niger, one run by the CIA and equipped with armed drones. It’s unclear as yet what President Joe Biden’s approach will be – although he has temporarily suspended drone strikes.
The analyst Alexandra Reza has suggested western strategies in the Sahel fail to address the “deep-rooted and complex tensions” driving insurgencies. These include “livelihoods under attack, trafficking networks manipulated by political and business elites, [and] the failure of nation states to provide economic and social security for citizens,” Reza wrote. The divisive effects of land and resource degradation are additional destabilising factors.
A withering new report by the International Crisis Group echoes many of these concerns and bluntly warns the battle for the Sahel is being lost. “The Sahel stabilisation strategy, led by France, is foundering amid a rise in communal killings and jihadist militancy as well as eroding public confidence in the region’s governments,” the ICG said.
The Sahel faced a “profound crisis”, the report went on. “The strategy is intended to calm the region with wide-ranging investment in security, development and governance, but for the most part, it has fallen short.” A course correction prioritising these aims was urgently needed.
Yet even if western policymakers are paying attention, these words were written before Chad, the regional security linchpin and “crossroads of Africa”, imploded. As the rebel forces march on N’Djamena, saving the Sahel just got immeasurably harder.