The blurred boundaries of political violence in the Sahel-Sahara

By Olivier Walther, Visiting Associate Professor, Center for African Studies at the University of Florida and Associate Professor, University of Southern Denmark

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The Sahel and the Sahara are faced with exceptional political instability involving a combination of rebellions, jihadist insurgencies, coups d’état, protest movements and illegal trafficking. Analysis of the outbreaks of violence reveals that the region is not just the victim of an escalation of wars and conflicts that marked the 20th century. The Sahel-Sahara has also become the setting of a globalised security environment, in which boundaries between what is local and global, domestic and international, military and civilian, politics and identity are blurred.

Local grievances, global reach

A shared characteristic of many conflicts in the Sahel-Sahara is that belligerents often leverage global ideas to pursue local and national claims. Boko Haram, for example, simultaneously exploits the pan-Islamist vision of a unified Muslim world, whose boundaries transcend national borders to embrace all believers, and the historical narrative of the Kanem-Bornu empire that reigned over the Lake Chad region for around 1 000 years. These players also rely on the investment of global resources into struggles that are driven by local and national aspirations. For Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in particular, the unofficial ransoms paid by foreign governments in exchange for hostages represent amounts estimated at several tens of millions of dollars.

Sahelo-Saharan conflicts also have the ability to spill over state borders, blurring the traditional lines between domestic and foreign affairs. As a recent study[1] shows, the porous borders of Sahel-Sahara provide relatively easy freedom of movement between the different countries in the region for the purposes of carrying out attacks, replenishing weapons or recruiting new fighters. In that respect, the recent history of the region demonstrates that armed groups are placed under increasing pressure to relocate to countries where there is less military capacity or political inclination to fight them.

Varying alliances and rivalries

Another unsettling aspect of the conflicts in the Sahara-Sahel is that they set in opposition a very large number of markedly different actors. In addition to government forces and their allied militias, these conflicts involve ethnic or religious self-defence groups, rebels groups, terrorist organisations, warlords and criminals. The relationships between these actors are characterised by widely varying alliances and rivalries. Today’s friends and allies can be tomorrow’s foes and vice versa, reflecting deep social and economic divisions within societies. At the start of the conflict in Mali, for example, the Islamist group Ansar Dine and the pro-independence Touareg movement MNLA, formed an uneasy alliance before turning on each other in violent confrontation.

Soldiers and military leaders also regularly switch sides depending on whether the government forces, rebels or religious extremists have the upper hand. This volatility makes the resolution of conflicts particularly difficult. Brigadier General El Hadj Ag Gamou, for example, successively fought in the Islamic Legion of the late Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and in Northern Mali as a rebel, before joining the Malian army and forming the pro-government self-defence movement GATIA. Iyad Ag Ghaly, the current Ansar Dine leader, followed a path that was even more convoluted.

Exclusive identity politics

Many present day conflicts in the Sahara-Sahel are less rooted in geopolitical and ideological considerations than in assertions of identity. Unlike the Maoist movements that were based on transforming the peasantry into a new action force that would transcend any former divisions, the identity-based movements develop an idealised vision of the past, such as the Caliphate. This political vision, built on fear and hatred, taps into extreme ideas for the creation of ethnically or religiously homogeneous areas. For example, in 2012 Ansar Dine extremists destroyed several places of worship in Timbuktu with the sole purpose of desecrating religious symbols considered to be unorthodox.

Beyond attacks on cultural heritage, one of the most dramatic consequences of identity politics is that civilians have become the main targets in conflicts, and no longer accidental victims (Figure 1). This deliberate desire to kill or displace civilians to create homogeneous areas illustrates the fact that the objective of the present day wars and conflicts in the Sahel and the Sahara is not to defend a territory but to control their populations. The price paid by civilians in African conflicts is often hard to measure because many victims die of the effects of the diseases, malnutrition and enforced movement brought on by conflicts, and not the battles themselves.


Institutional solutions

The deterioration of the security situation in the Sahel-Sahara over the last 15 years first demonstrates that institutional solutions must be found and applied at the regional level. From this point of view, the Malian conflict was a catalyst for numerous regional initiatives designed to promote security, governance and development in the region. These actions received the support of the UN Security Council in June 2017 and culminated in the creation by the G5 Sahel States of a joint military force and of an alliance between foreign donors to better co-ordinate their initiatives in the region.

Long-term conflict resolution also means restoring the legitimacy of governments, which has been undermined “from below” by a proliferation of armed groups. The contradictory agendas and unpredictable alliances formed by these groups blur the customary distinction between government, the national army and society, which was previously one of the cornerstones of modern states in the region. In recent decades, military interventions and international legal proceedings have also often superseded states “from above” when the latter have proven incapable of defending their territory, maintaining domestic order and protecting their cultural heritage. Finally, the legitimacy of Sahel-Saharan states is subject to increased competition from non-governmental organisations whose actions, despite being driven by humanitarian reasons, end up elbowing out public services.

Finally, crisis resolution requires finding inclusive governance solutions within each state. The fact that civilians pay such a high price in current conflicts should encourage authorities to use the minimum necessary force in their anti-insurgency operations. A strategy aimed at protecting the civilian population from violence and gaining their support is the best way of countering the strategies of extremist groups that are based on fear and exclusion. This strategy can involve the creation of secure regions where more inclusive forms of policy are put in place, where dialogue is established between states and local actors known for their integrity and where initiatives to rehabilitate rebels and religious extremists are implemented. More generally, conflict resolution has to recognise the virtues of diversity and cosmopolitanism, two vital ingredients in fighting identity politics.


Learn more:

[1] African Border Disorders: Addressing Transnational Extremist Organizations