Building Walls in the Sand: The Dangers of Securitizing Borders in the Sahel

In October of 2017, an armed group ambushed and killed four American Green Berets near Tongo Tongo, Niger. The news of their deaths revealed the quiet expansion of the American Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) into sub-Saharan Africa. Along with France, the United States is increasing its posture in the Sahel, building military bases, flying surveillance drones, and deploying special forces. Since the near-collapse of the federal government in Mali in 2013, Western security circles have adopted the language of “ungoverned spaces” to describe the threat in the Sahel. According to this analysis, Sahelian states and their security forces are too weak to patrol their territory, inviting the presence of a web of human traffickers, drug dealers, and terrorists who risk spreading instability into Europe. Washington and Paris are now pushing for Sahelian states to expand their coercive power and secure their borders with the assistance of Western special forces and intelligence. In doing so, they pose threats to long-term stability in the region; blurring lines between armed groups and civilians, alienating local communities, and ignoring the root causes of conflict in the region.

The G5-Sahel Joint Force

The G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) is a 5,000 strong force made up of troops from five Sahelian states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. With the help of French President Emmanuel Macron, the newly created force has the backing of both the African Union and the UN Security Council. With some reluctance, the United States pledged $60 million in support. An additional $165 million will come from the EU and Saudi Arabia. The Joint Force’s mandate will include counterterrorism, law-enforcement, and enforcing state authority.

The FC-G5S will have to coexist with other security interests in the region. Since 9/11, AFRICOM’s presence on the continent has expanded. It now has a functioning drone base in Agadez, Niger, from which special forces train Sahelian soldiers in advanced counterterrorism tactics. France has 3,000 troops, based in N’Djamena, Chad, as part of a lengthy counter insurgency campaign. The UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA is based in Bamako, Mali, and seeks to stabilize the country after the 2013 rebellion. It is frequently targeted by insurgent groups and lacks sufficient funding. As a result, MINUSMA holds the title of the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission, having lost 150 blue helmets so far.

Frames of Conflict in the Sahel

The threat that these security organizations seek to contain doesn’t emanate from one organization, but an array of destabilizing factors and autonomous groups. Under French colonialism and after independence, power  shifted from powerful trading communities in the north, including the Tuareg, to southern populations . Political power and the rent that accompanies it are overwhelmingly concentrated in the south. Moreover, the emphasis of the state in the current international system ensures that most developmental assistance and security programs are distributed through Bamako, and therefore favor southern populations. Tuareg separatists have called for greater autonomy and statehood, resulting in frequent rebellions.

Jihadi groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliates have been active across the region since 2004, and pose a serious threat to MINUSMA operations and state forces. The region’s unofficial trade routes, which connect communities divided by postcolonial borders, are used by traffickers of arms, drugs and migrants. This creates a rich source of revenue, worth $3.8 billion annually, in an otherwise resource-poor area, and many local elites and civil servants engage in rent-seeking behaviors. Sahelian states are unable or unwilling to invest significant resources into the development of periphery areas, where alternative and traditional sources of governance regulate order.

Borders and Space in the Sahel

Cross-border movement remains a way of life, despite the spread of the western state system. Unlike European states, who had to consolidate control over their territory and develop standing armies to control scarce territory, African states have always enjoyed abundant land. This not only made for less interstate warfare, but also weakened the relationship between the core (the state) and the periphery. Instead of exchanging security for taxation and labor, pre-colonial African states offered a greater degree of autonomy to nebulously defined borderlands. In Baz Lecoq’s analysis of space in the Sahel throughout history, he focuses on the Tuareg concept of ihenzuzagh to describe to fluid and expansive surface which allowed for the free passage of goods and people, sustaining otherwise isolated communities, without the direct control of any specific empire or state. Beginning under French rule and continuing with the creation of post-colonial states, this undefined space was divided into administrative units, and once abundant resources shrank or became inaccessible. Today, Sahelian space is contested – between the governments, regional and western, who seek to expand state power and demarcate borders – and between the assorted communities and social groups who make their lives through cross border trade and movement.  

The FC-G5S would address the old problem of borders and state power with a new regional focus. With international funding, Western material and intelligence, Sahelian states will focus their new security strategy on cementing existing borders.

A Sandstorm of Troubles

With more than twenty active armed groups operating in the Sahel, it is unclear how the FC-G5S will shape its mandate. Armed groups include AQIM and its jihadi affiliates, criminal organizations, Tuareg separatists (some of whom are in active peace talks with their governments), militia groups, and mercenaries, some of whom are soldiers of Sahelian governments. These groups have gained significant power since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, which saw the widespread proliferation of small and large arms across Western Africa. The FC-G5S will be unlikely to deal with these different factions in the same way. Since the French intervention, most jihadi groups have fled urban areas and now operate out of border towns and rural areas. For these isolated areas, they provide protection to communities abandoned by the government, and launch effective attacks on state targets and UN peacekeepers. They will be difficult to intercept due to their fluid nature, and defeating them will require the goodwill of rural communities. Criminal networks in the region are also unlikely to be affected by the FC-G5S’s activities. Most of them are tied to patronage networks based in state capitals, and some are directly related to influential national leaders. Therefore, the most powerful transnational networks will be largely unaffected. However, Tuareg separatist organizations are likely to be targeted by the FC-G5S. Their often hostile relations to the state and cross-border ties make them easily associated with the task force’s counterterrorism mandate. On November 7, 2017, Task Force soldiers arrested dignitaries of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), an umbrella groups of Tuareg organizations already in peace talks with the Malian government. Exacerbating tensions with already marginalized Tuareg communities will undermine regional stability.

The greatest risk however, comes from the securitization of the communities who rely on porous borders for their livelihoods, and who have been mostly ignored by the federal government. Given the lack of development in the periphery of most Sahelian states, local communities depend on both licit and illicit trade for income. Heavy government interdiction will result in greater poverty and further marginalization of groups already distanced from the government. Despite the focus by western security circles on ungoverned spaces, the reason for the rise in non-state armed groups in the Sahel stems from their ability to merge with local power structures.. AQIM’s success was based in part on how successfully fighters married into local families, in turn gaining accessing the kinship based trading routes. By merging with local structures, AQIM gained the popularity it needed to eventually establish control over the region. This highlights the power that the local plays in determining power in the Sahel. By cutting off key economic ties, and therefore targeting social institutions, the FC-G5S will further damage the trust of those living in border regions, and ultimately undermine its own goals.

The Way Out

Rather than investing completely in the military capacity of states, the FC-G5S should adopt community-based policing practices and regional development. The Sahel is experiencing a demographic transition, in which high fertility rates continue while mortality rates drop. Creeping desertification is making once abundant land sparser, and a new generation will have to deal with poverty and low government investment in education.

In this context, security policy in the Sahel should be oriented around providing opportunities and mediate conflict through non-militarized means. Frequent conflict between pastoralists and farmers will continue to grow, and the violence generated, often conflated with insurgent violence, will require mediation from locally respected sources. For criminal networks and terrorist groups to lose the support of local communities, Sahelian states should use western funds to invest in infrastructure, education and climate change adaptation, These approaches should not only focus on top-down policies. Local governments can and should provide context-specific development solutions using local expertise. Politics (and political violence) in the Sahel remains local, and so should the priorities of the G5 Sahel.


About Gabriel Delsol

Gabriel is a contributing editor for the World Mind with a focus on security and African affairs. He is pursuing a double major in international relations and economics. He is an intern at the Hudson Institute and a debate coach at the Walt Whitman High School.