Humanitarian catastrophes, food crisis, hijacking, hostage taking, ethnic conflicts, endemic violence. We hear more and more talk about the Sahel in the media. There is a clear increase in interest in the region, which has become a new central hotspot for International Relations. This is a very new perspective on the Sahel, traditionally very much ignored. It is interesting to try to understand how it has passed from being the forgotten corner of the world to a major zone of problems threatening the “international community”. In this process elements of colonisation, decolonisation and globalisation converge in the scenario of a failed state where causes and consequences overlap in a complex vicious circle.
Difficult to define, the Sahel has traditionally been the ignored part of Africa. From the Arabic Sahil that means shore, the word Sahel referred to the border regions of the Sahara desert. The main (and almost only) factor of unity in the region is the climate, and even this is very relative and changes as the desert keeps on moving forward. It is a region ranging from Senegal to Djibouti that hosts a mosaic of populations with poverty and a growing scarcity of resources being one of the few things that they have in common. Disengagement from local development and the plundering of resources seem to have been the traditional approach of both colonial powers and emerging states. This attitude started to change after 9/11 and the beginning of the war on terror by the US, which started developing a number of military projects to fight terrorism in the region.
From then we have witnessed a clear change of approach to the Sahel by the major international powers. What has changed in the region for it to be argued to be the origin of the modern threats such as terrorism or drugs? Normally the responses evoked are the expansion of dangerous flows and networks (drugs, arms, terrorism). Nevertheless, these dynamics are not new. On the contrary, as a traditionally uncontrolled region, the Sahel has always been characterised by constant flux and trafficking from slaves to cigarettes. Rather, the new phenomenon would be the inclusion of these local dynamics in the flux of globalization, and, more specifically, their insertion into “the grey globalization”. An increasing grey zone, out of law and state control, where criminal networks spread freely.
“The international community” has almost only focused on these dangers of grey zones perceived as modern, but when we analyse these phenomena more carefully, it becomes clear that they are more than a product of globalisation. Let’s analyse for instance the symptomatic case of drug dealing, especially of cocaine. Located between producers (Latin America) and consumers (Europe), the region offers cocaine dealers the appropriate political scenario where many are keen to embrace such a source of money and power. Still, if a weak state represents an advantage to traffickers, a complete disorganisation of the territory becomes dangerous. And the evidence is that current flows move traffickers from Mali to a more stable Niger. This corroborates the idea that the major source of destabilisation in the Sahel is not mainly those by criminal networks.
Without neglecting the impact of external influences and manipulation, the central problems are not drug trafficking, or even terrorism, but their use as an instrument by actors undermining the state. This way, income from cocaine would have become a major political instrument for the army, the Tuaregs, and jihadists, all to fight state power. It is essential to understand the context in which the actors act. That context is in this case a failed state. This collapsed state needs to be understood within a whole economic and political trajectory of the state (where the impact of colonisation and decolonisation has an important role).
It is difficult to analyse which is the major source of problems in the Sahel. Quite contrary to this task, what is needed is precisely to admit the complexity of the situation where a huge range of factors are intertwined. Colonial history, decolonalisation, globalisation. These vulnerable states are the outcome of structural weaknesses that promote and exacerbate competition and impact of different actors. This includes both non-state actors (ethnic minorities, jihadists, traders, NGOs) as well as international and regional powers. This is not new in itself, but it is very much accelerated by globalisation. It is a vicious circle of past and present in which the legitimacy and the inability of states to control the territory are structurally undermined. Still, notwithstanding the new evaluation of the region, the majority of the approaches to the problem continue to be very simplistic and focalised on terrorism and drugs. Some analysts speak of a self-fulfilling prophecy. By focalising on terrorism we would have forgotten the polymorphic nature of the problem and precisely create the condition for it to develop.
And the consequences of a bad evaluation of the region extend their roots even further. Indeed, at the origin of those structural weaknesses, characterising the failed states, we find the traditional disengagement of the power states. The process of colonisation and decolonisation has had an undoubted impact on the failed state, from arbitrary frontiers to the absence of social investment. Even nowadays, the specific geopolitical interests in the region shown by the power states still refuse further engagement. The West focus on threats such as drugs and terrorism, the emerging states are mainly interested in raw materials, the Arab states using their religious influence, all to have a piece of the cake of this uncontrolled region.
So, it is by this indifference that the “international community” has created the conditions to make the Sahel a hotspot. It is precisely because it was considered no man’s land that it has become the dangerous zone of problems that it is today. It seems we are still in this situation of misunderstanding the region; a misunderstanding that risks giving surrendering to those heralding a self-fulfilling prophecy of terrorism and local state fragility. And the local population remains mostly forgotten, even if they are the only direct victims.