Security failures in the Sahel have their roots in the mistrust between communities with different languages, histories, and traditions; in centuries-old conflicts between sedentary and nomadic communities; in disregard for the needs and aspirations of the people in the northern Sahel; and finally, in the unregulated exploitation of natural and mineral resources that threaten traditional ways of life.
The countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean cannot ignore developments in the Sahel for long.
Today, there are no other options than to consider new approaches to regulate regional tensions.
Editor’s Note: The original version of this article was published in l’Opinion (France) on October 4.
Without being overly paranoid or pessimistic, we are witnessing a major upheaval in the Sahel. This upheaval is political, with six coups d’état in West Africa since 2020, the latest of which overthrew President Mohamed Bazoum in Niger. It is also security-related, as evidenced by the North-South confrontation in Mali, and diplomatic, with the expulsion of diplomats, the reversal of alliances, the deterioration of relations with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the banning of the international organizations. Finally, it is demographic—the region’s population is set to rise from 84 million to 196 million by 2050—and climatic, as evidenced by the expansion of the Sahara, whose surface area has increased by 10 percent in a century to over 9.2 million km2.
The countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean cannot ignore these developments for long. The challenges they face are largely the result of the legacy of colonialism, post-colonialism, authoritarian political systems, corruption, and the predominance of the “first world” attitude of superiority towards the countries of the South, all of which have led to the estrangement of governments and their peoples.
Many mistakes have been made: from the simple transfer of governance models unsuited to local contexts, to a failure to listen to and underestimate people’s need for dignity, to the bureaucratic and ineffective involvement of international organizations and the acceptance that political, diplomatic, and security gaps are filled by authoritarian regimes.
Security failures also have their roots in the mistrust between communities with different languages, histories, and traditions; in centuries-old conflicts between sedentary and nomadic communities; in disregard for the needs and aspirations of the people in the northern Sahel; and finally, in the unregulated exploitation of natural and mineral resources that threaten traditional ways of life. The list would not be complete if we omitted the biases of the international community towards certain countries compared to others.
In the end, democracy is receding, and violence is simmering. The Western model of values and society is rejected in the name of an unfinished decolonization process. The structures created by colonialism overlapped with local identities and governance traditions that remain de facto autonomous and opposed to those of modern states. According to Western countries, the repeated, sudden, and unconstitutional changes in power express the fragility of political systems. But are these really weaknesses? Are we actually confronted with dynamics of alternation that are the normal mode of polarization between “those who have and those who have not,” or the embodiment of regional differences?
Currently—but for how long—Chad acts as a barrier preventing the Sahelian powder keg from igniting from the Atlantic to the Red Sea in Africa. The entire Sahara and Sahel region could become the outlet for new international geopolitics, unloading all the tensions resulting from uninhibited and instrumentalized multipolarism.
Several scenarios are emerging:
Scenario 1: At best, the formation of a 3-million-square-kilometer zone (ten times the size of Italy) abandoned to institutionalized violent chaos, within which states, leaders of armed groups, jihadists, and various traffickers (drugs, migrants, gold, etc.) will either share or dispute spaces, trade routes, and tolls in a low-intensity confrontation.
Scenario 2: The emergence of a long strip bordering the northern Sahel, running from Mali to Chad, in which rebels and marginalized communities excluded from political life and dialogues will assert their authority and solidarity while threatening the populations in the south.
Scenario 3: Taking advantage of the chaotic situation, the rise of a caliphate that may not bear that name but establishes itself in the Northern Sahel before reinitiating a southward progression.
In any case, non-African authoritarian states that are our strategic competitors will know how to exploit this chaos to their advantage. Traditional methods of conflict prevention or crisis management are failing in the Sahel. The usual “guardian” powers are gradually disengaging due to their inability to make their voices heard and produce effects. Attempts by other bilateral actors, especially in the field of controlling migratory flows, border on the idea of trying to empty the Mediterranean with a “teaspoon.”
International organizations are also facing the inefficiency of their policies: withdrawal, retreat, and criticism of the United Nations, limitations of development aid policies, and residual difficulties in coordinating major donors. The lack of knowledge about local realities, their diversity, and specificity is the most significant obstacle to establishing constructive relationships with the populations in the northern Sahel.
The sectoral approach to Sahel issues has proven ineffective, whether by primarily focusing efforts on the security dimension, attempting to influence migratory flows, limiting actions to military operations within international interventions, or solely concentrating on humanitarian aspects.
Focusing solely on the military approach without establishing a political framework that promotes socio-economic development and, ideally, decentralization, only strengthens the security forces and the armies of the countries involved at the expense of civilian populations. While this approach may contribute to tactical victories in the fight against terrorism, it cannot guarantee complete victory if it has not gained the population’s trust.
The idea that a “providential” strongman would be the only guarantee against the “Somalization” of the region’s countries has proven to be misleading. Relying on autocrats and the military to solve complex social problems while turning a blind eye to the disregard for fundamental principles of Western societies has not yielded tangible results.
The promises of justice, democracy, and development from Western states have not led to tangible benefits for the populations. Insufficiently addressed are the need for dignity of the populations and their leaders; the frustration of different peoples with the lack of modernization in their countries and the contrast between investments made in infrastructure and the lack of access to water, electricity, schools, and basic healthcare services. Addressing these factors is crucial for building trust and forging relationships with communities, which are key to resolving crises. This is obviously more challenging than the usual transactional interactions with militias or authoritarian executives.
So far, the strategies that aimed to be more comprehensive sought to combine and coordinate the dimensions of defense, development, and diplomacy. It is evident that these good intentions have not been successful, mainly because an essential dimension is missing from this strategy: mediation with communities.
Today, there are no other options than to consider new approaches to regulate tensions in the Sahel. It is no longer sufficient to seek solutions solely with the affected states but to think alongside local, and sometimes even cross-border, communities that are often left to fend for themselves.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.