The ‘latest front in a long war’: democratic challenges in the Sahel

“While it draws scant attention from the Western media, the Sahel-North Africa region is actually more important than Afghanistan to the vital interests of Western powers,” say two leading experts.

“North Africa provides energy security for Europe with its vast oil and natural gas deposits, along with maritime security in the Mediterranean. Governments in the region have the potential to foster democratic change in post-authoritarian states,” according to Georgetown University’s Chester A. Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, and Ellen Laipson, president of the Stimson Center.

“But the Sahel is unlikely to ever see large-scale troop deployments from NATO countries that are war-weary and financially tapped out from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan,” they write for the International Herald Tribune.

Over the past 24 months, the Sahel – a vast swathe of territory from Mali through Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, the Central African Republic and the South Sudan to Somalia- has often made headlines because of the series of humanitarian, political, military and security crises it has encountered simultaneously, a meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy heard this week. The fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the ensuing crises in Mali were a wakeup call to Sahel observers and democracy practitioners, underscoring the region’s structural fragility as a distressing domino effect was set in motion. 

Radical Islamists have benefited from a “vast criminal infrastructure” of drug trafficking, while the modern technology of GPS has opened up the region to malign external agents, said Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Criminal and jihadist groups had changed the balance of power with Sahel countries’ militaries, he told the NED forum (above), suggesting that more “ideological work must be done” to promote deradicalization and counter radical Islamist ideas.

“Terrorists gain when sovereignty is in question and governments are distracted by issues more central to their near-term survival,” says John McLaughlin, distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“If Syria, Iraq and North Africa have problems with sub-sovereign conditions, they are modest compared with those on display in the vast stretches of the Sahel,” he writes for the American Interest. “The Nigerian federal government is clearly struggling with an extremist-inspired uprising in its northeast. And there is evidence that the local group, Boko Haram, has been able to recruit fighters from outside Nigeria, even while developing ties with other regional groups such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and the larger al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”

Strengthening democratic institutions is vital to enhancing Sahel security and development, the Bridges Institute’s Vivian Lowery Derryck told the NED forum. “Civil society groups can build bridges and share strategies for resolving conflict, said Derryck, who paid tribute to Kamissa Camara, NED’s West Africa program officer, for pioneering the Sahel Strategy Forum, a civil society-focused initiative led by the NED, in partnership with The Bridges Institute.

A revival of the Club de Sahel pioneered by Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a former US ambassador to the UN, and since incorporated into the OECD, might provide a valuable transatlantic forum for addressing the region’s pressing issues of security and democracy, said NED president Carl Gershman.

“North African states need to help their southern neighbors, and vice versa, to prevent lawlessness from spreading north or southeast across the Sahel into Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Nigeria,” Crocker and Laipson suggest:

If the Malian government reaches out to rebuild the political fabric of the vast nation, it could isolate the jihadist element and reverse the negative dynamics in Mali itself. If not, a contagious and deadly interplay of people and violence could cross borders in many directions.  …..Today Mali needs the sustained support of African and Western partners. The victory there must be carefully sustained using all the political, diplomatic and economic tools available. A counterterrorism strategy will not succeed in a political vacuum.