With Mali, Mauritania, Chad, Niger and various other countries in the Sahel suffering from instability and foreign intervention, conspiracy theories about Western control are running amok. They always do, especially in the complex context of international relations. Conspiracy theories give us comfort and shelter against the much harsher realities of our world. Unfortunately, they also block serious analysis and our quest for solutions. The situation in sub-Saharan Africa is no different: it is essential to analyse and tackle the very real challenges in the region- including Western involvement- without reaching for counter-productive conspiracy comfort food.
Countries of the Sahel combine an inherent fragility caused by poor economic conditions with post-colonial divisions that make national stability difficult: ethnic and religious lines run right across borders and divide nations into disperse communities. Proper infrastructure is scarce. Even with good governance policies, such a situation would always be difficult to manage.
Whereas until 2001 the region was largely ignored by Western policy, and mostly left to development cooperation and humanitarian actors, 9/11 changed everything. Since then, it has very much been on the radar screen of offices in Washington and the main European capitals.
Not only does the Sahel represent a religious fault-line between Islam in the north and Christianity in the south, but weak control of central governments plus a lack of Western presence created perfect local hiding spots for terrorist groups. Or, at least, that was the argument for getting involved. And thus, since the War on Terror began, financial, political and military resources have been pouring into countries like Mali. The discovery of natural resources in the region accelerated these dynamics even further.
In parallel, and following the same religious-default-line argument, missionaries from both the Christian world as well as from countries such Pakistan and Saudi Arabia began flooding in. A moderate and inclusive version of Islam that communities in the Sahel typically follow is quickly being radicalized through this clash of religious civilizations. A clash that can be witnessed in most of sub-Saharan Africa through the proliferation of evangelical churches and mosques on every street corner, but which is particularly pernicious in those countries that until recently had a certain religious equilibrium of moderation and tolerance.
Even ignoring ethical concerns about foreign intervention in local societies, it is not difficult to see how destabilizing Western policies can be. The US AFRICOM, with a budget of roughly $300 million and almost four thousand personnel, is a game-changer in terms of local security. Similarly, when France intervenes through Operation Serval, the local balance of power shifts dramatically. This destabilization would occur even if such intervention is coherent and with clear purpose. As it stands, they are neither: Western governments, like any large organization, respond and act according to a multitude of internal and external pressures, resulting in inconsistent and deficient outcomes.
This is exactly where conspiracy theorists consistently get it wrong, and are detrimental to the search for better policies. Western actors in the Sahel undoubtedly prioritise their own agendas over the interest of local populations. They also will try to cover this up by formal discourse using all the tools in the box: human rights, democracy, development, anti-terrorism, and other such generic and vacuous terminology. And yet, there is no “Western agenda” as such. Instead, there is an amalgamation of a plurality of Western actors with specific objectives, some internal, and some with respect to local situation.
Before foreign policy is articulated and implemented, it will have been influenced by a multitude of actors focussed on disperse agendas. Some of those (such as defence contractors or oil multinationals) will want to use local instability for economic profit. Others will focus on expanding their range of activities to stay relevant in 21st Century complexities. This can be applied to the Pentagon as well as to religious or humanitarian organizations. The former will convince itself that its existence is vital for international security, and that, as such, their work represents a moral imperative by protecting the US population. Similarly, the latter believe they have a moral responsibility towards the souls or lives of local populations. At the same time, Malian diplomats will lobby the White House to support the political leader they represent, often with true conviction and purpose. And Human Rights groups will lobby the UN to condemn the very same political leader.
All, however, push for an expansion of their own importance, size and influence. What is more, this game of identifying groups influencing international policy can be played with respect to each individual lobby as well. The Pentagon does not represent a uniform set of interests. Nor do human rights groups. Any NGO will consist of some people who choose to work there because of non-financial agendas, such as religious or moral concerns. To others, it is just a job like any other. Both types, however, will have as a primary objective the survival and growth of their own organisation.
When analysing actors at the lowest possible level, i.e. the individual CEO, criminal mastermind, local diplomat, advocate, analyst, secretary, aid worker or lobbyist, people tend to be terrible at understanding the complexity of their own environment. As a result, and even if we have a clearly identified purpose, we tend to fail at understanding the role we need to play to properly influence such a complex system. Furthermore, the moment agendas are shared between individuals, information tends to be leaked. Groups are not particularly good at keeping secrets.
Within such complexity, any large scale policies or operations tend towards destruction rather than creation. Not because of some master plan that defends the interests of a selected few, but because of the people’s inability to create any type of master plan in the first place. The days of clearly developed Napoleonic campaigns are long gone, and even Bonaparte had to contend with numerous lobbyists and complex influences. Within this context, the best is to be as modest as possible with respect to local interventions- whether they be military, economic or humanitarian- and work on a daily basis to understand and improve the internal dynamics that lead to such decision making in the first place. In other words, know thyself.
Western policy in the Sahel is largely responsible for the destruction and violence taking place at the moment. The irony that locally based terrorism could become a reality through anti-terrorist programmes was not difficult to foresee. And yes, some actors may have actually pushed for this to happen. But the main reason is not a controlled conspiracies emanating from Washington or Parisian offices, but the lack of control and lack of purpose that complicated internal human systems always display.
This is a much scarier thought than any conspiracy theory could ever be: human beings- including its most powerful individuals- are not in control of their own destiny. All we can do is try to steer society in the right direction by analysing and improving our systems’ internal mechanisms. Putting one’s head in the sand by eating the comfort food provided by conspiracy theorists only undermines such a worthy cause. Reality is difficult enough, and there is no need to create imaginary foes.