The Sahel: combating, fighting or governing? Print
Written by Ahmedou Ould - Abdallah, President,   
Tuesday, 03 July 2018 08:44

Karl von Clausewitz has already noted: "Much of the information obtained in wartime is contradictory, an even larger part is false, and by far the greater part is subject to considerable uncertainty.’’ This weekend, while conjecturing on the Sahel conflict at the African Union summit in Nouakchott, President Macron could think of these words of von Clausewitz.




In reality, do we have enough information about the military and security realities of the Sahel Sahara? A documented answer is essential to understanding a conflict that now is more than six years old. A conflict initially Malian and now increasingly regional and international.


As a decisive military victory is not yet on the horizon, how then to help prevent the Sahelian states and their allies from being stuck in the fog of war? In that connection, there are calls for negotiation - though not specifying with which of the many-armed groups to talk.


With whom to negotiate?


Since 1964, shortly after its independence, Mali has experienced a series of civil wars with the future of the northern country as the main issue. Over the last fifty years, rebellions and subsequent peace agreements have been parts of Mali history.


The current conflict goes back to 2012 with the occupation of the country north by armed groups composed of irredentist elements - Tuareg, north African radicals, traders in various traffics and their allies from various origins. During that same year, many foreign fighters entered by force into the country where, in January 2013, French troops have been officially called in to the rescue the country.


The war then became international and changed in its nature. Today, though radicals groups cannot take over Bamako, their nuisance remains strong and that of extending to the region is very real. Still, the vocation of foreign troops, more than 15,000 men, is not to drag on in Mali.


Moreover, if generally most crises end with a settlement, which one would prevail for the Sahel? There are several possibilities: a military success, a continuation of a long low-intensity conflict and, finally a negotiation leading to a peaceful solution. Three scenarios can illustrate these three cases and serve as models for the Sahel: the crushing of an uprising (Sri Lanka, Uganda, Chechnya) or an amnesty after one or more decades of fighting (Algeria, Colombia) and finally, the continuation of a more or less low intensity crisis (Egypt, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen).


Over the past decades, one or another of these approaches has been used to address Mali civil wars. Subsequent agreements have resulted from talks between the parties but each time, the conflict resurrected from the ashes.


Among the most known of these settlements is the one concluded in January 1991 in Tamanrasset, Algeria. Then the follow-up of the National Pact, April 1992. It was well-known through the 1996 ‘’Flame of Peace’’, a ceremony held in Timbuktu. A new rebellion broke out in May 2006 and was settled through a new Algiers Agreement adopted on July 4, 2006. Then a new revolt headed by Ibrahim Ag Bahanga broke out in 2008.


A new-armed conflict led by the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MLNA) / Ansar Eddine started in January 2012. The parties - Bamako and the MLNA held negotiations that led to "The agreement for peace and reconciliation in Mali" signed in June 2015 in Algiers. Three years later, the conflict is still going on and extending to the whole Sahel.


Fighting on multiple fronts?


Affecting simultaneously several countries, the Sahel present conflict is much more complex than those civil wars mentioned above where each country had to resolve only its own rebellion. In the Sahel, conflicts are diverse in terms of their memberships, in the ideologies driving them and in their goals. Their outside supporters are also diverse and often opposed to each other.


In this context, a negotiation with these groups can result into perverse outcomes as radical movements can explode into smaller groups each more extremist than the others. As in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan or Somalia, negotiating with radical groups is not a panacea.


First, negotiating and concluding an agreement in one state is not a guarantee of peace for the region. The Algiers agreement signed in 2015 is an example. It has displaced and aggravated - by the transfer of combatants - the conflict towards neighboring countries and the coastal states (Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Liberia) even though the goal of radicals remains Europe and especially France, where there are more connection. Second, those rebel elements who agree to negotiate with the authorities are generally condemned by their former comrades and find themselves excluded from the group. If, on the contrary, they constitute the majority, the minority declare itself the sole custodians of the legitimacy. In both cases, the conflict keeps raging on.


In reality, the prolonged existence of the crisis has turned the Sahelian countries into an open space where the situation of each one affects that of the other. Across national borders, radical groups circulate easily with weapons and recruiters. The deadly attack by radical elements on the headquarters of the G 5 Sahel Force, on Friday 29 June, in Savaré, Mali, proves once more the volatility of the situation.


The current stalemate should not be linked to the value of the G 5 Sahel soldiers. With their French comrades, they served with distinction on the battlefields during the two world wars. Far from their country and in a most hostile climate.


Today their failings have several causes. They are more the result of political management than the intrinsic quality of soldiers, gendarmes, national guards and police officers. Very often the equipment is not adapted or is not first-hand, the resources for training and exercises are notoriously inadequate or not assigned to their official objectives. This is true for gendarmeries, national guards, police and other services. Above all, recruitments, which are rarely transparent, leave little room for merit and generate frustrations and unwillingness in commitments on the battlefields.


Finally, the ambiguous or established connivance between ruling circles and armed groups reinforces radicalism. Placing more light on these collusions of interests should help.


In that ambiguity, where the "fogs of war" are thickest, the crisis has a bright future and the question - to continue the fight or to negotiate with rebels groups - appears, at best, as a simple exercise of style. An exercise all the more difficult to address as the regional actors do not play the same partition



A better governance?

Governmental action should be supported by coherent and matching measures. The priority should be to contain the conflict thus limiting its contagion effects. As it metastasizes, its management becomes more uncontrollable. Simultaneous actions on several fronts, including the economic and social sectors, can reduce the risk of cross-border contagion.

In this spirit, governments should help to consolidate three points. Their political base (national cohesion), then the diplomatic component (to stop encouraging xenophobia and retribalisation of their societies) and finally their security (professionalization of security services). The fight against corruption, the theme of the African Union summit, must be more than a mere slogan.

Finally, one of the critical priorities of these governmental actions should be to put an end to the double language in the management of the fight against terrorism. An official discourse that, under martial slogans, amalgamates with the radical movements, has wreaked havoc wherever it has occurred. Chronic instability in Afghanistan and Somalia is largely linked to this double language.

In the Sahel, people are alert, state structures are fragile and the flow of information fast to allow governments to continue favoring a dangerous game. This denial of realities pushes further the region into crisis while trapping its external partners. A region that needs the external support of countries concerned and interested in its situation: Europe, United States, Maghreb, Gulf countries, etc. 

On both sides, everyone knows that the bureaucratic inertia and the sprinkling of resources generate frustrations and misunderstandings among the donors and as much among the recipients. With, in fine, suspicion and inefficiency.

 At this level, and remembering von Clausewitz, France, as the main external player in the region, should concentrate its resources mostly on the Sahel and, especially with regard to Libya, take more steps back and lesser commitments. Libya is a country that, for decades, has been destabilizes and retribalized and whose Egyptian and Italian neighbors give priority essentially to their own know-how.


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 03 July 2018 08:55 )