Europe unable to help as bedlam spreads in Sahel

France’s incapacity to think outside the box and reliance on an outdated form of neo-colonial software explain the current crisis.
Saturday 13/07/2019
Turkey-made armoured personnel vehicles, shipped to Libya’s Government of National Accord, arrive at Tripoli port. (AFP)
Fuel to fire. Turkey-made armoured personnel vehicles, shipped to Libya’s Government of National Accord, arrive at Tripoli port. (AFP)

The countries south of the Sahara Desert in the Africa Sahel — Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso — remain below the radar of international affairs most of the time. So, to a lesser degree, does Libya. Yet the risks of implosion in many of these countries are growing.

The lengthening list of foreign players and increasingly sophisticated weapons pouring into the region are exacerbating deep-seated economic, social and political conflicts. In the Sahel, some 4.5 million people are displaced near the Lake Chad basin, which touches Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon.

Cameroon is home to the fastest growing displacement crisis in Africa. The UN refugee agency estimated that 800,000 people are internally displaced because of conflicts. The country is also playing host to 285,000 people who fled violence in the Central African Republic and 100,000 forced out of Nigeria by Boko Haram. In Chad, there are around 460,000 refugees, the majority of whom are from Sudan and the Central African Republic, and 150,000 internally displaced people.

There are also large numbers of non-state armed opposition groups with international links. These groups feed off perceived injustices and inequalities. As David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, pointed out: “When a humanitarian crisis is not addressed it has political ramifications.”

The crisis is made worse by the fast disappearance of Lake Chad. For centuries, the lake was the largest reservoir in the semi-arid belt spanning Africa south of the Sahara Desert, relied upon by 30 million people. Naturally shallow and replenished by monsoons, the lake is shrinking because seasonal variations of rainfall have lessened. The international community remains indifferent to this growing tragedy — the UN appeal for Cameroon is only 8% funded.

The contrast between the billions of dollars outside players spend on weapons to combat the rise in Islamist attacks and the financial effort they are prepared to make is striking. Insecurity resulting from huge numbers of displaced people and climate change offers ideal conditions for preying by armed groups. If one considers that in most of these countries the armed forces are badly trained, often under the leadership of corrupt dictators and are often predators themselves, the conditions are there for a perfect storm.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on July 10, urged the international community to support West Africa’s fight against extremism. In the view of many observers, “an Islamic insurgency” is raging across the region.

Guterres argued that more outside help was needed but “outside help” has, in recent years, taken the form of US and French troops; Russians private armies such as the Wagner Group following in their footsteps.

Here, as in Libya, the number of outside actors — all with different agendas — add to the confusion, the French and Americans out-source part of their policy. They often seek financial support in the Gulf, forgetting that by so doing they lose control of how policy is enacted.

Russia’s return to north-western Africa is being intermediated by the Wagner Group, a shadowy band of mercenaries loyal to the Kremlin and controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin. The group’s footprint has been spreading from Ukraine to Syria and Sudan to the Central African Republic. Is Libya next?

Its existence is emblematic of how a more assertive Russia recruits, trains and deploys mercenaries while using a relentless disinformation campaign to deny responsibility.

Putin, however, is keen to track down Chechen jihadists whom he promised to chase “to the bottom of the lavatory.” They are known to have been active in Syria and Libya, not in the Sahel.

Putin may not be an important player in Libya and the Sahel but the Wagner Group’s military base, unthinkable a few years ago, in the Central African Republic may be a sign of things to come.

Looking back a few decades, the Sahel countries suffer from the consequences of La France-Afrique, the network of corruption and servility to French policy aims put in place by Paris after independence in the 1960s.

The former colonial power lost control of a region where bad governance, corruption, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, aggravated by climate change, have upended a neo-colonial form of relationship that lasted half a century after independence. France’s incapacity to think outside the box and reliance on an outdated form of neo-colonial software explain the current crisis.

Desperate not to carry the burden of the “fight against terrorism” alone, France is pressuring Algeria, which has a well-equipped army of 150,000 to engage militarily in Mali.

This reminds observers of the tens of thousands of North African troops that fought in the French Army during the two world wars. Now, as then, the French were short of cannon fodder.

That senior officers and politicians in Paris even harbour the idea that Algeria might agree to the recreation of the modern version of the regiments of “Tirailleurs algeriens” of yesteryear suggests they are caught in a time warp.