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Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?
Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?
In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards
In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards
Report 92 / Africa

Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction?

The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as "the new front in the war on terrorism".

The Sahel, a vast region bordering the Sahara Desert and including the countries of Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania, is increasingly referred to by the U.S. military as "the new front in the war on terrorism". There are enough indications, from a security perspective, to justify caution and greater Western involvement. However, the Sahel is not a hotbed of terrorist activity. A misconceived and heavy handed approach could tip the scale the wrong way; serious, balanced, and long-term engagement with the four countries should keep the region peaceful. An effective counter-terrorism policy there needs to address the threat in the broadest terms, with more development than military aid and greater U.S.-European collaboration.

There are disparate strands of information out of which a number of observers, including the U.S. military, have read the potential threat of violent Islamist activity in the four Sahelian countries covered by the Americans' Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). There is some danger in this, but in this region, few things are exactly what they seem at first glance. Mauritania, which calls itself an Islamic republic, harshly suppresses Islamist activities of any kind, while Mali, a star pupil of 1990s neo-liberal democratisation, runs the greatest risk of any West African country other than Nigeria of violent Islamist activity. Those who believe poverty breeds religious fanaticism will be disappointed in Niger, the world's second poorest country, whose government has maintained its tradition of tolerant Sufi Islam by holding to an unambiguous line on separation of religion and the state.

The prospects for growth in Islamist activity in the region -- up to and including terrorism -- are delicately balanced. Muslim populations in West Africa, as elsewhere, express increasing opposition to Western, especially U.S., policy in the Middle East, and there has been a parallel increase in fundamentalist proselytisation. However, these developments should not be overestimated. Fundamentalist Islam has been present in the Sahel for over 60 years without being linked to anti-Western violence. The Algerian Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which lost 43 militants in a battle with Chad's army in 2004 after being chased across borders by PSI-trained troops, has been seriously weakened in Algeria and Mali by the combined efforts of Algerian and Sahelian armed forces.

The U.S. military is a new factor in this delicate balance. Its operations in the four countries are orchestrated by the European Command (EUCOM) headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. In the absence of Congressional willingness to fund a serious engagement by other parts of the government, the Pentagon has become a major player by emphasising the prospect of terrorism, though military planners themselves recognise the inherent dangers in a purely military counter-terrorism program.

With the U.S. heavily committed in other parts of the world, however, Washington is unlikely to devote substantial non-military resources to the Sahel soon, even though Africa is slowly gaining recognition -- not least due to West Africa's oil -- as an area of strategic interest to the West. The resultant equation is laden with risks, including turning the small number of arrested clerics and militants into martyrs, thus giving ammunition to local anti-American or anti-Western figures who claim the PSI (and the proposed, expanded Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative (TSCTI) still under consideration in the U.S. government) is part of a larger plan to render Muslim populations servile; and cutting off smuggling networks that have become the economic lifeblood of Saharan peoples whose livestock was devastated by the droughts of the 1970s and 1980s, without offering economic alternatives. To avoid creating the kinds of problems the PSI is meant to solve, it needs to be folded into a more balanced approach to the region, one also in which Europeans and Americans work more closely together.

Dakar/Brussels, 31 March 2005

Chadian President Idriss Déby acknowledges soldiers and military officers in the Chadian capital N'djamena, on 11 December, 2015 Brahim Adji/AFP
Commentary / Africa

In Backing Chad, the West Faces Moral Hazards

The West sees Chad as a reliable ally in the fight against extremists in the African Sahel. But it needs to take more care. Chad is breaking prior agreements by spending much of its oil revenue on the military, while social services and good governance have suffered.

Chad is facing a severe fiscal and social crisis. On 7-8 September, President Idriss Déby is in Paris for an International Donor Conference to seek much-needed funding for the country’s National Development Program. The government likes to portray the country’s problems as due to external shocks like the drop in oil prices and the cost of military intervention against Boko Haram and other extremists. Donors, under pressure from France, largely accept this narrative and support has recently been forthcoming from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But a closer look at the country’s recent history tells another story.

According to the Chadian economy minister, the conference aims to mobilise support “for the transformation of Chadian economy”. This is not the first time Chadians have been promised such a transformation. When Chad joined the club of oil-producing countries in 2003, the World Bank supported the building of the critical pipeline to get the oil to the coast on condition that the money generated would be put to good use. The Oil Governance Law was passed in 1999, stipulating that 80 per cent of revenues were to be allocated to pre-defined priority sectors – public health, social affairs, education, infrastructure, agriculture, livestock and water. Ten per cent of oil revenue was to be channelled into a fund for future generations, while another 5 per cent was earmarked for the oil-producing region. Only the remaining 5 per cent would flow directly into the state budget.

Soon thereafter, however, Déby started to dismantle these control mechanisms. In 2006, he amended the Oil Governance Law, dismantling the future generations fund and, crucially, adding defence to the list of priority sectors. He faced down donors and gradually rolled back all the control mechanisms so painstakingly negotiated by the World Bank, eventually gaining full discretion over spending of oil revenues.

This came about against the backdrop of mounting political and military opposition. The lack of political space, and in particular the constitutional changes in June 2005 that allowed Déby to run for a third term in 2006, led to the defection of senior political and military figures including his nephews Timane and Tom Erdimi. After a failed coup attempt on 14 March 2006, they established a rebel group, one of several rebellions to challenge Déby’s power with the support of neighbouring Sudan. Major rebel offensives on N’Djamena in 2006 and 2008 nearly overthrew the regime.

Oil money gave Déby a critical lifeline. Free from any obligations of transparency, he awarded his supporters import licenses or public contracts for numerous infrastructure projects. To ease social tensions, the regime also recruited workers into the public sector. Oil revenues likewise enabled Déby to confront the armed opposition, through heavy investments in the army. Military spending skyrocketed from $67 million in 2005 to $247 million in 2006. Military expenditures reached an all-time high in 2009, accounting for $670 million – a full 8 per cent of GDP. According to SIPRI data, between 2006 and 2016, the regime acquired 34 aircraft (attack and transport planes) and 372 armoured vehicles of different varieties, turning its armed forces into one of the best equipped on the continent. After this splurge, military spending declined, but still remains way above pre-oil money levels at 2.6 per cent of GDP.

As in other African countries that have received significant Western support for their militaries, Chad’s government is itself a product of a civil war and remains military at heart.

As in other African countries that have received significant Western support for their militaries, Chad’s government is itself a product of a civil war and remains military at heart. So diverting funds to the army fits seamlessly with the government’s own desire to reward its military and keep it loyal. Military spending has helped Chad intervene in the Central African Republic, Mali, in neighbouring countries threatened by Boko Haram and as far afield as the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to fight Huthi combatants in Yemen.

This engagement has strengthened relations with Western powers and brought substantial financial and political support. The EU, France and the U.S. in particular today consider Déby as their principal partner in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel. For Déby it is a win-win: tackle domestic armed opposition, pay his troops and gain significant leverage over donors.

But the rise in military spending along with mismanagement of oil revenues has come at a cost. Having failed to diversify the economy while the going was good, dependency on oil money has made the country highly vulnerable. Declining prices and production levels have led the country back to international donors. Partly as a requirement under the IMF financial and economic support program, the government has introduced drastic budget cuts, affecting allowances for civil servants, parliamentarians and police, student scholarships and the staffing size of state agencies. The government has accumulated arrears in payments of salaries, allowances and pensions.

This situation has caused waves of strikes by teachers and other public sector workers. Many feel that while they didn’t profit from the oil revenues in the first place, they are now, on top of this, paying the price for its mismanagement. Widespread corruption, high living costs, and the lack of political space and civil liberties have further fed the anger and the country’s growing number of protest movements.

The government has reacted [to strikes] with repression and a clampdown on civil liberties.

The government has reacted with repression and a clampdown on civil liberties. Reports of harassment, arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment and torture of journalists, civil society activists and political opponents have increased. Unsurprisingly, international partners have been reluctant to denounce such practices, let alone impose conditions for their support. So even as Chad’s economy nosedives in the context of corruption and authoritarianism, Déby’s international position appears untouchable. Europe’s increasing desire to get Sahelian countries to stop migrant flows from reaching the Mediterranean will likely give him a further opportunity to show how useful his country can be.

Chadian civil society activists and political opponents are increasingly frustrated with this unconditional international support for Déby, which they interpret as silent complicity. And understandably so: in backing Déby as he pours money into his military while the rest of the population suffers, Western powers are paying scant regard to the sustainability of their engagement, nor to what kind of state they are encouraging. The longer-term fight against extremism requires stronger and more legitimate public institutions, not “more strongmen”.

While financial support for the fight against extremists in the Sahel is certainly an immediate priority, Chad’s international partners should also extract real commitment to use part of international aid to support the country’s crumbling social sectors, as well as to build new monitoring mechanisms to guarantee greater transparency.

Eliane Giezendanner, Central Africa Project intern, assisted in the preparation of this commentary.

This text was changed on 12 September 2017 to rectify the original version that incorrectly stated, "Between 2006 and 2014, the regime purchased 139 aircraft and 153 armed vehicles". According to SIPRI data, the regime actually acquired 34 aircraft (attack and transport planes) and 372 armoured vehicles of different varieties between 2006 and 2016.