The Sahel’s web of woes

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 16 Aug 2023

How much longer can the peoples of the African Sahel region endure its succession of coups and civil wars?

The Sahel s web of woes
Sudanese Armed Forces mark Army Day in Sudan s eastern Gadaref state near the border with Ethiopia (photo: AFP)


The Sahel countries, much like the majority of African states, have experienced more than their fair share of military coups, civil conflicts, famines, and fragmentation over recent years, with some even enduring a collapse of the state and its institutions.

Sudan and Chad have not been exempt from the turmoil. Sudan has endured severe famines that have ravaged its periphery, leading to the division of approximately one million square miles of territory into a northern portion inhabited by two-thirds of the population and a southern portion allocated to the rest.

However, these tumultuous circumstances have not deterred dictatorial regimes from maintaining their grip on power. Former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir (in office between 1989 and 2019) and his Chadian counterpart Idriss Déby (1990-2021) both emerged as principal figures amidst this backdrop of unrest, despite their predominantly adversarial relationship.

Khartoum and N’Djamena have provided backing to rebel movements opposing each other’s governments. Sudan-backed militias launched an assault on N’Djamena in 2006, while Chad extended support to Darfur rebels in Sudan, facilitating their incursion into Omdurman and forging an unwelcome alliance with Khartoum in 2008.

In October 2021, Lieutenant General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, Sudan’s head of state and army commander, led a coup against his civilian partners and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok.

He had come to power through a previous coup that had garnered support from a popular uprising against the regime led by Al-Bashir and the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood. This led to his appointment as head of the Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, effectively assuming the position of head of state.

“These events diverged from the pattern observed in recent years in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Guinea, where coups followed a more conventional trajectory, unlike the case where the head of state himself orchestrates a coup against the very pillars of his rule,” said Khaled Ismail, a professor of political science in Khartoum.

Meanwhile in October 2021 it was announced in Chad that Déby had been killed. The country’s government and parliament were dissolved, and a Military Council was established headed by Déby’s son Mohamed, who assumed the role of head of state.

“Déby came to power through an armed uprising against his predecessor Hussein Habré,” Ismail said. “His son Mohamed is no stranger to power, being one of the country’s most prominent army commanders.”

He noted that while the succession of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to the rule of his father former president Hafez Al-Assad was not labelled as a “coup,” but rather as an “inheritance,” opponents of Déby’s rule in Chad have characterised his taking power in their country as a coup.

“The terminology used lacks consistent criteria,” Ismail said. “In Sudan, power fell into the hands of the stronger partner, while in Chad it was a case of the inheritance of power.”

“Coups only take place in poor countries and states experiencing acute crises,” he said.

Sudan and Chad are among the world’s most economically disadvantaged nations, and internal conflicts can create an environment where individuals vie for positions of power.

“Drawing from the lessons of Syria, it becomes evident that many individuals outside the ruling tribe or sect tend to lend their support to succession efforts. The middle classes in Chad, extending beyond the Zaghawa tribe, want to safeguard their interests, so they support Mohamed Déby,” Ismail stated.

“Similarly in Sudan, many people other than Nile farmers will support Al-Burhan to prevent the collapse of their system-dependent livelihoods,” he said.

The two countries have experienced a fluctuating pattern of conflict and alliances, contributing to the prevailing instability.

For centuries, the peoples of Darfur in Sudan and the neighbouring Lake Chad Basin that lies at the core of Africa’s Sahel region have been involved in exchange. But starting in the late 1970s, the region became a zone of conflict between North African countries, most notably Libya under the rule of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and countries located to the south of the Sahel such as Nigeria, Cameroon, and Sudan.

As a result, Chad itself became entangled in a civil war, with Gaddafi providing support to the Arab pastoralists hailing from the desert regions in the far north of the country and pitting them against other pastoral and agricultural communities comprising both Muslims and Christians.

Chad’s Arabs, with financial backing from Libya, formed what was known as the “Islamic Legion.” Under the leadership of a Chadian mathematics professor called Ibn Omar, this consisted of pastoral Arab tribes from Darfur in western Sudan, Niger, and other regions.

As the Civil War in Chad came to a close in the early 1980s, Sudan found itself mired in its own civil war. It was also grappling with a famine that afflicted the broader African Sahel region. These factors led to the downfall of former Sudanese president Jaafar Numeiri (1969-1985), as well as his Malian counterpart Moussa Traoré (1968-1990), among others.

The conflict in Darfur ignited an internal struggle between Arab pastoralists, the majority of whom were camel herders, and their African neighbours, who were primarily cattle herders.

In Darfur, the Janjaweed militia, today accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, predominantly consisted of camel herders. They included recently toppled President of Niger Mohamed Bazoum, who belongs to the Arab Rizeigat tribe, from which also hails the Commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

The ruling elite in Chad is composed of African Zaawa tribes, who are predominantly cattle herders and live in both Sudan and Chad.

“Many people, even outside government circles in Chad, are concerned about events in Darfur,” said Ismail.

Since the outbreak of the conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the RSF in the country, large-scale ethnic cleansing has occurred in Darfur, primarily targeting communities such as the Masalit and Zaghawa in the southwest of the region. The objective appears to be to create a homeland specifically for Arab camel herders.

“If the RSF successfully executes their plan and Bazoum’s rule is re-established in Niger, the situation in Chad will become very tense,” Ismail noted.

“Chad is also concerned about the possibility of the war in Sudan spilling over into Niger, potentially resulting in the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees into an already impoverished country.”

Ismail said that “the victory of non-Arab Muslims in Niger and Chad would pose difficulties for the RSF operating in Darfur.”

The complexities in Sudan and Chad are further compounded by external actors, including Libya and the Central African Republic, as well as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has now also entered the picture.

France and Russia are also involved, and there is potential involvement too from China.

Meanwhile, climate change is becoming a more and more important factor. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Sahel region have already sought refuge in other areas as a result of climate change, giving rise to conflicts between the displaced populations and the inhabitants of the regions they migrate to.

Harsh conditions in the Sahel have led to large-scale illegal immigration to Europe, prompting further engagement between the European countries and the countries of West and North Africa.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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