Carlos Lafuente provides a primer on the dire situation in the Sahel region of Africa, where a combination of factors including post-colonial influence, imperialist competition, poverty and climate change converge into violence and instability.

The people of the Sahel are dying. You may not know about their situation, or you may have heard about it from time to time on an international news channel. Nevertheless, there is hardly any media that can relate the underlying importance of this region of the world. Such is its importance that one could venture to say that its fate may change our European future.

The Fraught Position of the Sahel

Firstly, it’s essential to understand the geographical significance of the Sahel. The term, derived from Arabic, denotes a coast or border, as this region marks the natural boundary between the Sahara Desert and the African savannahs. Encompassing countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Sahel is a vast territory characterised by harsh living conditions. Multiple factors contribute to making it one of the most conflict-ridden places in the world.

Terrorism, corruption, illegal human trafficking, mafias and coups are some of the issues that plague the Sahel, rendering it an insecure and unstable territory. Moreover, climatic conditions exacerbate the hardships faced by its inhabitants, who endure recurrent drought and famine.

Climate change further compounds these challenges, as diminishing rainfall and escalating desertification make the region increasingly inhospitable. Widespread droughts make it more difficult to grow crops, resulting in food shortages. Moreover, scientists are already warning of the potential drying up of Lake Chad, one of Africa’s largest lakes. Additionally, rising temperatures, 1.5 times higher than the global average, exacerbate these environmental pressures. When rainfall does occur, it often leads to flooding, as was the case with the Niger River in 2020.

The Sahel has become a veritable powder keg, providing fertile ground for criminal organisations, warlords, terrorists and traffickers to find refuge and thrive. The convergence of these elements fuels  instability. Despite the relentless drought, the Sahel has become a fountain of violence and fear.

The roots of this decline are multiple, tracing back many years. In order to understand the plights of a population, it is often necessary to look beyond national borders, even the continent. Slavery and colonialism shackled not only one generation but affected countless ones across the Sahel.

The Plights of (Post-)Colonialism

Over many years, the region had to carry the incalculable weight of the old empires that took advantage of the resources they could find. During the 19th century, most of the Sahel fell under French influence, forming what was known as French West Africa.

Despite achieving independence in the 1960s, France has maintained significant ties with her former colonies. France’s enduring presence in its former colonies is evident across various domains, including the economy, security, defence or natural resource management.

Paris retains the first right of extraction of any natural resources discovered within its former territories, particularly benefiting from uranium, crucial for fueling over  50 nuclear reactors on French territory. Furthermore, France has introduced a common currency in its former territories, the CFA Franc (Franc de la Communauté Financière Africaine). The CFA Franc is pegged to the Euro and dependent on  the French Central Bank, which means that France continues to exert economic influence over these countries.

On the military side, France deploys a substantial  number of troops on the ground, upholding a foreign policy known as Françafrique, which allows it to maintain control over its former colonies, curtailing their independent development.

Instability and Violence

The number of coups that have taken place in recent years is increasing, notably in Mali (2021) and Niger (2023). Events such as the 2021 assassination of the president of Chad and the murder of three journalists in Burkina Faso underscore the gravity of the situation.

With state sovereignty and effectiveness called into question, compounded by widespread poverty, the region becomes susceptible to the proliferation of terrorist groups. The lack of state control over territory provides an ideal environment for such armed groups to operate with impunity, spreading chaos and violence, turning the Sahel into a landscape of sand and bullets.

The emergence of the terrorist presence in the area traces back to the Libyan crisis, which facilitated the rise of an armed insurgency in northern Mali. Terrorist groups took advantage of the situation to seize control of parts of the country. Subsequently, factions affiliated with the Islamic State, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), established a presence in the region.

Consequently, the Sahel has become one of the primary sources of migration to Europe. The decision to leave one’s home, family and culture is undoubtedly difficult, just as the arduous journey and the many challenges to overcome before reaching European shores. Yet, the fear of remaining in the region outweighs the dangers of the journey, leading to alarming increases in mortality rates year by year.

Moreover, according to UN estimates, Africa’s population will reach 2.5 billion by 2050. The European Union does not have the capacity to handle such a volume of migrants, yet also bears a moral duty towards all those who endure the consequences of our history and die in pursuit of a better life.

In recent years, the lack of European capacity to address the issues in the region so far has increasingly pushed the Sahel into the arms of  the Russian Federation or the People’s Republic of China.

Russian and Chinese Competitors

Amidst regional instability and growing anti-French sentiment, Russia capitalised on the situation and has offered regional leaders the military support of the Kremlin-aligned Russian private military company, the Wagner group. Russia seeks to bolster its alliances, gain a geopolitical advantage over Europe, and access resources, including precious commodities such as gold and diamonds, as they allow it to evade international sanctions.

Meanwhile, China has also seized the opportunity, emerging as an alternative to France for many Sahel countries. In this case, the resources targeted include uranium, natural gas and lithium, essential for the manufacture of batteries used in electric vehicles. Chinese influence can also be seen through the operation of Chinese companies across Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.

These two major players in international relations have discerned the future that the region has to offer and have been quick to capitalise on its unstable conditions.

The Role of the EU

In the midst of this environment of competing interests, what role does the European Union play? Aware of the importance of the region, the EU maintains a strategic relationship with the Sahel. However, the complexity of the region makes relations fraught. European contributions to the region have mainly focused on security and defence, alongside economic and humanitarian aid.

Yet much remains to be done. Europeans have a duty to extend selfless aid and save lives. To accomplish this, the Sahel-Europe relationship needs to be strengthened again, greater cooperation in security and defence needs to be achieved, and the resilience of African institutions and organisations such as the African Union must  be reinforced.

While the solution to the problem is complex and elusive, European cooperation can aid this long-suffering region in rising out of the sands of despair.

Feature image: Daniel Tiveau/CIFOR

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    Wanderlust, enthusiastic and adventurous are some of the qualities that define me. I study Law and International Relations in Spain and I am interested in geopolitics, migration and Human Rights. Passionate about writing and people, I try to bring realities that I consider important to give visibility and learn from this world.

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