Powerless in the face of, desertification, sporadic jihadist violence, decrepit state infrastructure, high rates of infant and maternal mortality, perennial farmer-herder conflicts, sluggish economies with little job-creating opportunities, unsustainable demographic growth, and general erosion of the democracy. Weak post-independent institutions have made the future of Sahel countries less inspiring.
The Sahel is that part of Africa that extends from Senegal to Sudan. Theoretically, it is a patchwork of various regions and large swathes of land that spreads across Senegal, Mauritania, the extreme south of Algeria (Algerian Sahel), Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mali, Burkina Faso, northern Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan. Nevertheless, in the present day, it is the ‘G5 Sahel countries’ namely: Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad, which are the focal point of international media attention especially because of frequent foreign military intervention in those countries.
The Sahel is sparsely populated meaning that while the governments of these countries theoretically exercise sovereignty over those vast territories, central power rarely prevails there. As such, controlling and manning of those territories is inevitably difficult since government forces are dispersed and separated by vast distances. The control of the territory and the national borders are equally difficult. In fact, due to their remoteness, efficient security administration would require immense logistical means, which these countries cannot afford.
Recurrent skirmishes have long been part of the history of the Sahel. Starting with the demographic pressures on land with scarce resources, overgrazing, and desertification. It is easy to see why this transitional space is the theater of perennial ancestral conflict where nomadic and farming societies often violently clash. This dynamic is particularly true in present-day Mali as evidenced by the Fulani-Dogon conflict, with the Fulani being a nomadic society and the Dogon an agrarian people.
Indeed, an analysis of historical tensions and current reports from the UN Multinational Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), as well as the African Union, have documented a proliferation of Jihadist attacks and the rise of militia groups in the region.
However, most anthropologists will rightly argue that most herder-farmer conflicts are local and endemic. In other words, herder-farmer conflicts rarely become full-blown wars. This maxim is particularly relevant in our analysis of the Sahel intercommunal clashes, especially those between Fulani and Dogon in Mali.
Moreover, as the drought seasons became harsher in the 1970s, so did the fortunes of the Fulani herders decrease. Certainly, while drought drastically affects both the herders and the farmers, it is the Fulani who suffer most, meaning that the existing mobility patterns for the Fulani are adversely affected.
For centuries, these communities have been engaged in cyclical violence that takes place at the height of the dry season. Subsequently, for these communities to coexist and complement each other would be difficult since the mutual interdependence between herders and farmers is undermined by various factors.
First, the Dogon live within an animist tradition right in the heart of a Muslim dominated region. They live on the cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment, which according to historians, was to escape the frequent slave raids and jihadist conquest by the neighboring nomadic tribes. As such, the spiraling contagious ethnic farmer-herder conflicts based on ancestral land disputes have rendered the Sahel a fertile breeding ground for cross-border criminal networks and instability. Consequently, jihadist movements like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, the Ansar Dine, and Boko Haram have intensified their presence in the region.
However, this conflict cannot be sufficiently explained only through a jihadist lens, since this would mean omitting critical historical realities that directly impact the present. To begin with, the Fulani are spread across many post-independent states in West Africa. Indeed, whether they are in Mali, Burkina Faso, or Niger, they share the same cultural molds which like similar language, religion, and identical socio-economic activities; the ideal prerequisites of a nation.
However, the arbitrariness of colonial boundaries, and the choice of not questioning them after independence, has opened a Pandora’s box following calls of self-determination by nomadic groups like the Tuaregs leading to armed conflict. (Ironically, the territorial status quo advocated by African leaders during independence resulted from a legitimate fear of revisionist conflict to redraw the colonial maps.)
Moreover, as the drought seasons became harsher in the 1970s, so did the fortunes of the Fulani herders decrease. Certainly, while drought drastically affects both the herders and the farmers, it is the Fulani who suffer most, meaning that the existing mobility patterns for the Fulani are adversely affected. This leads to a loss of social status since they are inevitably forced to enter into the drudgery of clienteles relationships with farmers since most post-independent economic institutions in Mali are favorably skewed towards farming communities.
Consequently, even the richest Fulani who used to own large herds of cattle are now forced to take care of cattle belonging to indigenous farmers. The improved economic fortunes of the Dogon are also fortified by an obsession with the famous Dogon culture – more so the Dogon cosmology and spirituality. In fact, seeing that the Dogon region is even included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, an increase in tourism in the Dogon’s mountainous country has made the Dogon diversify into tourism by selling wood carvings and sacred masks which are particularly sought-after by collectors who offer generous prices for them.
With the Dogon gaining such international attention from ethnologists, anthropologists and tourists, it has sparked a narrative that the Dogons are the only true natives of this region. In fact, this narrative has almost concealed the fact that what is now called the Dogon region, was always inhabited by diverse tribes since the twelfth century. As such, this is now leading to further economic marginalization of nomadic tribes.
Consequently, solving the Sahel’s fundamental challenges would not be easy since technical solutions are invariably linked to complex political and socio-economic problems.
Regrettably, the G5 Sahel States are economically and militarily weak to the extent that they are barely unable to meet their security pledges due to the inability to administer the vast expanses of their territories. Hence, the dependence on other international actors becomes inevitable which means that foreign support will not be miraculously reduced in the coming years.
Abdelkader Abderrahmane, geopolitics research and international consultant on peace and security issues in Africa perfectly highlight the incongruity of the G5 Sahel collective security initiative. He observes the ineptness of this initiative in part due to the fact that the day-to-day security strategies are drawn by foreigners.
Consequently, solving the Sahel’s fundamental challenges would not be easy since technical solutions are invariably linked to complex political and socio-economic problems. For instance, sustainable water management and irrigation are closely linked to enforcing very robust environmental protection laws which at first may negatively affect pastorals and farmers alike. Likewise, the proximity to government services and state machinery to better prevent civil crises, and clashes between communities only works if there is better infrastructure like roads.
Charles Waiganjo holds post-graduate qualifications in philosophy and political science. He completed his studies at the Université Michel de Montaigne, and at the Université de Bordeaux.