An Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel: Geography, Economics and Security

Click to read online
Click to read online

Today’s post is by Laurent Bossard, Director of the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat. You can find the article in French here.

The attacks that took place in Paris on 7, 8 and 9 January are part of a global, complex, diffuse and multi-faceted threat of which the bloodiest zones of action are presently in the Middle East and Africa, including within the confines of the Maghreb and the Sahel. The emergence of Salafist Jihadism in this area dates back to the early 2000s. When the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) moved further south and jihadists arrived from Afghanistan and Pakistan following the events of 11 September 2001, terrorist activities quickly merged with the trafficking of weapons, drugs, cigarettes and human beings.

The international community was slow to recognize the magnitude of the threat. The European Union developed a strategy for the Sahel in 2011, followed in 2013 by the United Nations and soon after by the African Union, the Economic Community of West African States and the Sahel G5 (Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania). The international community has thrown its support behind these initiatives which all share a long-term approach involving working simultaneously on the key areas of security, governance and development.

The Atlas of the Sahara-Sahel is intended to inform these strategies. The publication is the fruit of the Sahel and West Africa Club Forum, which took place in November 2013 in Abidjan. The Forum called into question the various “security and development” initiatives as well as their scale and level of consistency. The stakeholders in attendance embarked on a dialogue concerning the need to strengthen co‑operation among the regions of North, West and Central Africa.

The Atlas looks at the situation from the perspective of this macro-regional scale. The 250‑page publication, including some 150 maps and graphs, addresses security challenges in the Sahara-Sahelian area by considering the mobility of its territories and populations in conjunction with the socio-economic networks that connect them.

Given that the inhabitants are concentrated along roads and in towns (most people living in the Sahara-Sahel are urbanites), the Sahara-Sahel is neither empty nor immobile. The roads and towns form the framework of this area associated with mobile societies that are organised on the basis of social and trade networks more than ties to the state. The movement of people and goods within that framework — associated with nomadism, transhumance, trade and migration, but also with trafficking and violence — is the main focus of the Atlas.

Borders are superimposed onto these mobile areas that have long been and continue to be marked by the movement of such networks. Close to 17,000 km of boundary lines have been demarcated in recent history. While these lines are not obstacles to the movement of people, they are symbols of the strong political and institutional dividing lines between Morocco and Algeria, for example, but also between the geopolitical areas of the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Transnational trafficking organisations and terrorist groups, whose activities rely on a complex web of spatial, economic and social mobility, use the borders to exploit trans‑Saharan networks. This is a major challenge for stabilisation strategies.

Location of incidents by terrorist group 2003-2012. Click to see full size.
Location of incidents by terrorist group 2003-2012. Click to see full size.

The same can be said for the regional threats facing countries other than Mali. For example, Niger is “caught” between instability in Mali to the east, southern Libya to the northwest — an area rife with terrorists groups and where conflicts between Arab and Tubu tribes are commonplace — and Boko Haram to the south.

All of this is combined with forced migration and trafficking in heavy weapons and drugs. West Africa and the Maghreb are used as a convenient, low-risk transit area for traffickers: institutions’, police and justice budgets are small, and the potential for corruption is high due to the low salaries of civil servants and members of the security forces. The proceeds from trafficking activities also finance (at least in part) rebel or jihadist groups that are often mere links in global criminal networks operating on five continents.

That is why the countries concerned must work at the regional level if they wish to succeed, as most of the dangers that threaten them are expressed at that level.   It is also crucial that any analysis of the Sahara-Sahel be grounded in the reality of that area, namely, the fact that it is a territory shared by countries on both sides of the desert. The implication here is that strengthened co-operation on the part of the countries involved is indispensable. But such co‑operation must not be seen only through the prism of the urgent need for short-term stabilisation. The countries concerned should and must develop their complementarities in all domains. Sharing leads to interdependency which in turn results in a higher degree of motivation to jointly solve shared problems.

In addition to the need for trans-Saharan dialogue, there is an even greater need for international co‑operation and dialogue. A number of Sahel strategies have been developed since 2011. While this is a positive sign of the international community’s commitment, these efforts must be made on behalf of the affected populations and must tackle three challenges:

  1. The capacity for dialogue and the ability to propose concerted and joint implementation.
  2. The ability to adapt the geographical scale of the response to the area affected by terrorism and trafficking; for example, Nigeria and Libya are facing very critical situations but are not central to the existing strategies.
  3. The capacity to simultaneously implement security and development activities.

Useful links

Un Atlas du Sahara – Sahel : géographie, économie, insécurité (l’article de Laurent Bossard en français)

Les défis sécuritaires au Sahel Débat avec Laurent Bossard et Emmanuel Nkunzumwamsur Africa N°1

West African Futures 2013-14: The Sahara-Sahelian areas by SWAC

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