The African Sahel has experienced turbulence on the political and security fronts since the early 1980s, and the countries of the region have suffered from significant famines, social unrest, military coups, civil conflicts, and, in some cases, even territorial division.
These challenges have been rooted in the poverty and marginalisation of a significant portion of the populations across the Sahel region from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Sudan and Eritrea in the east.
For nearly a decade, the region has also been under the spotlight due to the actions of armed Azawad movements aligning with jihadist groups that most countries in the region label as terrorist organisations. In 2012, such groups declared the independence of northern Mali.
Despite the defeat of the separatist-jihadi alliance in northern Mali, the wave of terrorism has not receded in most of the Sahel countries, and the ongoing instability has drawn these nations into military coups and complex international alliances that have not always placed their interests first.
In Mali last weekend, the country’s military reported that at least two people had been killed and five injured in a bombing carried out by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamaat Nusrat Al-Islam w-al-Muslimin group in the historic city of Timbuktu.
Local officials in the city renowned for its libraries dating back to the Middle Ages said that the group, classified as a terrorist organisation by the Malian government in Bamako, had fired three shells at the city, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Timbuktu, often referred to as “the city of 333 saints,” has been besieged by jihadists since August when the Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam w-al-Muslimin group declared a “war in Timbuktu” after a jihadist insurgency lasting for several years.
On 8 September, the Malian military announced that jihadists, whose identities were not confirmed, had also launched attacks on the city of Gao in the northern part of the country, as well as its airport and a ferry on the Niger River near Timbuktu.
The assaults resulted in the deaths of 64 people, including 49 civilians and 15 soldiers. In response, the army engaged in counterattacks, reportedly eliminating 50 terrorists, according to a military statement.
Timbuktu has a population numbering in the tens of thousands and is one of the major northern cities in Mali that fell under the control of Tuareg rebels and subsequently Salafi groups following the 2012 rebellion. It was not until 2013 that French and Malian forces managed to reclaim the city.
In 2015, the rebel factions, primarily composed of Tuareg groups, entered into a peace agreement with the government of Mali at a meeting in Algeria. However, this accord was rejected by the armed Islamist groups.
The ensuing violence not only engulfed northern Mali, but also spread to central Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. This escalation has resulted in numerous casualties, with estimates from Western media suggesting thousands of lives lost.
The failure of the elected governments in these three countries, as well as others, to effectively counter terrorism in the region has created an environment conducive to military coups, and the recent tensions in northern Mali have raised concerns about the sustainability of the 2015 peace agreement and the potential for renewed confrontations in the region.
FRANCE AND RUSSIA
The recent series of coups d’état in Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea has led these countries to demand the departure of French forces, as the new governments have demonstrated a shift towards Russia.
Khaled Mahmoud, an African affairs researcher in Cairo, said that “Russia and France share the objective of countering the armed Islamists, but each pursues a distinct approach.”
“The crisis in Europe following the conflict in Ukraine has also prompted Russia to exert pressure on France in its African territories, as well to cease gas supplies to Germany’s industry.”
The new military governments in the Sahel countries have requested the withdrawal of French forces, contending that the French presence has not effectively addressed the jihadist threat.
In response, French President Emmanuel Macron said that “if we had not been involved, with Operations Serval and then Barkhane, there would probably no longer be any Mali and no longer be any Burkina Faso. I’m not even sure there would still be a Niger.”
“If our soldiers had not fallen on the field of honour in Africa, if Operations Serval and then Barkhane had not been deployed, we would not be talking about Mali, Burkina Faso or Niger today,” he said.
Since 2013, France has deployed thousands of its soldiers in the five Sahel countries of Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, with additional contributions from the US and various other European countries.
The Sahel nations have also established a joint force to counter the jihadist groups, which are classified as terrorist organisations by countries in the region.
Despite these efforts, the groups have carried out attacks resulting in numerous casualties, injuries, and the displacement of thousands of people from their homes.
The new military authorities in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso have now formed a new coalition aimed at defending themselves against “foreign interference, terrorism, and organised crime,” as a way of tackling the issue.
These three countries are also concerned that the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) may intervene to reinstate former Niger president Mohamed Bazoum, a scenario they wish to prevent.
The African Sahel region became highly volatile during the “Decade of Lead” in Algeria from 1991 to 2002.
Late Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika introduced a “civil peace” initiative in 1999 aiming to end the conflict in the country, and this was accepted by the majority of the Algerian jihadist elements. However, a few then formed the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
The GSPC faced significant pressure from the Algerian security forces, leading to its isolation and lack of supplies or support and its eventual pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda.
However, its influence remained limited until after the downfall of the regime led by the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at the hands of NATO in 2011. This resulted in the proliferation of Libyan weapons across the Sahel region, along with the presence of thousands of Tuareg fighters who had fought alongside Gaddafi.
There now appears to be a concerted effort to curtail the activities of terrorist groups that exploit the grievances of Arab pastoralist tribes in countries such as Niger, Mali, Chad, and others.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) is engaged in a conflict with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group primarily composed of Janjaweed camel herders.
In Libya itself, forces led by General Khalifa Haftar in collaboration with Chadian President Mohamed Idriss Deby are encircling Chadian opposition forces in southern Libya, a group predominantly made up of Arab camel herders.
The recent ousting of Bazoum in Niger, who belongs to the Rizeigat tribe like Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti, the leader of the Sudanese RSF, can be seen as a significant development in the decline in the influence of the Abala tribes who are traditionally associated with camel herding.
Veteran Sudanese journalist Al-Nour Ahmed Al-Nour said that “Bazoum invited Hemedti to his inauguration ceremony in 2021, while Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan, the head of the Sovereignty Council in Sudan, was not extended an invitation.”
Bazoum and Hemedti held a private conversation during which it was reported that Hemedti advised his relative Bazoum to focus on “training special militias to address potential future crises,” Al-Nour added.
Sudan, led by Al-Burhan, and Libya, led by Haftar, along with several countries in Central Africa, including Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, share a common goal of countering terrorism and neutralising the influence of pastoralist Arab tribes that may be involved with terrorist groups, whether allied with Al-Qaeda or affiliated with the Islamic State group.
However, addressing terrorism in the Sahel and Sahara regions is a complex challenge that requires substantial international support.
The root causes of terrorism in these areas often include historical injustices, marginalisation, and the economic disparities faced by various ethnic and tribal groups, including Arabs, Azawads, and others.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly