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Boko Haram is losing ground – but will not be defeated by weapons alone
Boko Haram is losing ground – but will not be defeated by weapons alone
Report 227 / Africa

The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm

The Sahel’s trajectory is worrying; poverty and population growth, combined with growing jihadi extremism, contraband and human trafficking constitute the perfect storm of actual and potential instability. Without holistic, sustained efforts against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, radicalisation and migration are likely to spread and exacerbate.

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Executive Summary

The huge, sparsely populated, impoverished Sahel is affected by growing numbers of jihadi extremists and illicit activities, including arms, drugs and human trafficking, estimated to generate $3.8 billion annually. Borders are porous, government reach limited. Populations and unemployment are soaring. Within this perfect storm of actual and potential instability, criminal networks increasingly overrun Central Sahel – the Fezzan in Libya’s south, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin. State authority is weak in relatively stable Niger. To the south, the radical Islamist, primarily Nigerian, Boko Haram insurgency is responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and more than a million displaced. Western and regional counter-terrorism efforts are insufficient, but neither have more integrated approaches proposed by the EU and UN borne fruit. Without holistic, sustained action against entrenched criminal networks, misrule and underdevelopment, instability is likely to spread and exacerbate radicalisation and migration.

The Sahel, a vast region stretching from Mauritania to Sudan bordering the Sahara Desert, has always had porous borders and thinly populated areas only loosely controlled by national governments. (For example, Niger is bigger than Nigeria, but its seventeen million population is a tenth the size and concentrated in its southern quarter). But as Libya imploded and Boko Haram expanded across borders in the Lake Chad Basin, criminal networks trafficking illicit goods and humans grew by corrupting officials, forming alliances with local communities and sometimes working with jihadi groups. The region has become a key source of, and transit point for, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Europe. By mid-June 2015, more than 106,000 were estimated to have arrived in Europe by sea since the start of the year, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Nearly 57,ooo had reached Italy, almost exclusively from Libya and after transiting countries to its south. UN officials project that between 80,000 and 120,000 migrants will pass through Niger during the year.

Western governments have primarily taken a security-oriented approach to the criminal and jihadi threats, upping their military presence and counter-terrorism operations and increasing efforts to secure Europe’s southern borders. Initiatives such as the Rabat (2006) and Khartoum (2014) processes to curb illegal immigration, as well as the latest European Union (EU) plan – including refugee resettlement, but also a military operation to disrupt smugglers’ networks and destroy their boats – tackle only symptoms of the Sahel’s problems.

There is little prospect of stabilising the region without recognising that current policies do not address the deep sources of its instability: entrenched poverty; underdevelopment, particularly in the peripheries; and a booming youth population with little access to education or jobs and no real loyalty to the state. Many youths see migration – illegal if necessary – as their only future. Others lash out at their corrupt “secular” and “Westernised” states in hope of imposing a more morally pure, Islamist government. A huge proportion of the men, women and children crossing the Mediterranean are not coming to Europe simply to escape poverty, but also to flee deadly conflicts and repressive governments.

Heavy-handed military action and closure of political space by co-option or criminalisation of the opposition aggravate tensions. Labelling non-violent Islamists potential jihadis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Government neglect of the peripheries, unwillingness to address local conflicts and tendency to rely on personal, at times criminal, clientelistic alliances rather than develop democratic institutions feed a growing sense of marginalisation, particularly in rural areas.

Remote, weak or even repressive central governments across the region have been supplanted by alternative forms of organisation, including traditional authorities; community-based structures; Islamist movements; and criminal networks. Outside forces, both criminal and jihadi, have particular success exploiting these ad hoc governance systems, aligning with the concerns of local powerbrokers to gain a foothold. Meanwhile, battles, sometimes very violent, for control of the lucrative smuggling routes are becoming more numerous and visible.

To counter the growing jihadi threat, international actors have deployed troops and aircraft and supported national security forces that pursue a militarised approach. Local populations, however, often view the Western military presence as driven by a desire to protect interests in the area’s hydrocarbon and mineral deposits. Prioritisation of counter-terrorism and conflation of violent jihadism with other forms of political Islam are creating a backlash against regional and Western governments alike.

To reverse the Sahel’s deepening instability – in particular deterioration in already precarious Niger – national governments and external actors need not only to manage the short term, but also to take a long view. This would involve committing to sustained efforts to shore-up fragile states by consistently and transparently promoting good governance and durable development, as well as to resolve existing conflicts and address their humanitarian consequences. To do so:

  • Western policies should be reoriented to concentrate on building more inclusive and accountable governments and countering structural factors that drive marginalisation and alienation, and thus criminalisation and radicalisation.
     
  • While Western governments and the EU are likely to continue their security-first approach, efforts to tackle radicalisation and criminalisation should focus on promoting accountable public administration, particularly in Niger and Nigeria. These could include encouraging creation of civilian oversight mechanisms for public institutions and supporting construction of robust, inclusive coalitions against corruption and mismanagement.
     
  • Development aid should be tied not to military counter-terrorism efforts, but to measures that improve governance, limit state corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.
     
  • Addressing youth unemployment through training and labour intensive infrastructure projects to link the peripheries to markets and services could significantly contribute to tackling migration.

Finally, efforts to deter migration need to be accompanied by longer-term strategies to curb unsustainable population growth, particularly in Niger, through support for women’s rights to education and reproductive health.

Dakar/Brussels, 25 June 2015

Op-Ed / Africa

Boko Haram is losing ground – but will not be defeated by weapons alone

Leaders meeting at the Lake Chad basin summit must battle the region’s humanitarian and development needs to combat the insurgency

Nigeria has scored important successes against Boko Haram. The military campaign that President Muhammadu Buhari launched after his election last year is stronger and better coordinated. The insurgency is now less of a military threat, after seven years of conflict that have killed tens of thousands of people, uprooted millions, damaged local economies and cross-border trade, and spread to the Lake Chad basin states of Cameroon, Chad and Niger. 

However, as regional states and their international partners gather in Abuja on Saturday to discuss their strategy, Boko Haram remains a major security challenge requiring a coordinated response. It may prove tough to eradicate, and the toughest challenge remains: to dry up its pool of recruits through better development and governance.

The jihadist group has in recent months carried out fewer attacks, has chosen softer targets like remote villages and refugee camps, and has had less success. This is a dramatic departure from December 2013, when hundreds of fighters overran a Nigerian air force base in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. Additionally Boko Haram has produced fewer statements and videos since the end of 2015, and no credible proof in over a year that its leader, Abubakar Shekau, is alive.

Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria have targeted the group’s criminal racketeering or direct participation in certain businesses. It has difficulties levying tolls since trade has dried up. The regional pushback has forced Boko Haram to change tactics. It can still mount occasional large-scale attacks, such as its mid-April counter-offensive against Nigeria’s 113th battalion in northern Kareto.

But increasingly denied territorial control, its mobile guerrillas are using terrorist tactics as proof of their continued existence, as in a suicide bombing attack on a government compound in Maiduguri that killed at least four people on Thursday. Boko Haram may be becoming more like other regional jihadist groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), that are not attached to a specific area.

Structural challenges make it hard to root out Boko Haram: massive, oil income-fed corruption; chronic bureaucratic mismanagement; growing pressure on natural resources; deepening poverty since the 1990s; northern Muslim elite manipulation of religious sentiment; a history of violence; and the fundamental dysfunction of Nigeria’s federal structure.

A new study of ex-Boko Haram fighters’ attitudes notes that “about half of former members said their communities at some time generally supported Boko Haram, believing it would help bring about a change in government”. Moreover, there are still many troubling reports by human rights NGOs. A culture of impunity remains too often unchallenged and counter-insurgency often remains too crudely oblivious of the rule of law.

A sclerotic patriarchal social system is also to blame. Some rural youths lose hope as they are forced to delay marriage and formal adulthood. Access to brides, via coercion or otherwise, seems an important attraction to Boko Haram. Outside analysis has usually centred, understandably, on the plight of female captives and girls used as suicide bombers. A recent study notes however that for some, particularly young women, the group offered access to Islamic education and an escape from inflexible, paternalistic social structures.

The stifling of the region’s economies both weakens Boko Haram’s resource base and also deepens desperation. Nearly half of the 20 million people living in the Lake Chad basin need more food; more than 50,000 people in Nigeria’s Borno state are critically food insecure. There are now 2.8 million displaced persons in the region, about 200,000 of them refugees, fleeing a war that has killed at least 28,000 people since 2011 in Nigeria alone.

The Abuja regional security summit is a major opportunity for Nigeria, its Lake Chad basin neighbours and their international partners, notably the EU, US, France and the UK, to consolidate regional and wider international cooperation.

More aid, both humanitarian and developmental, is needed, with priority on establishing local security to allow a lasting return of IDPs and refugees to rebuild local economies. The rehabilitation of populations that lived under Boko Haram, willingly or not, should also be thought through.

Nigeria and its neighbours should consider building on recent initiatives to reintegrate into the mainstream ex-Boko Haram combatants who are not ideologically violent extremists or war criminals; improve the rule of law; and end controversial and counter-productive state counter-insurgency tactics. The same goes for the use of regional vigilante groups, which could exacerbate local, communal violence. The Nigerian government should accelerate the expansion of crucial basic services like education and health to the marginalised peripheries of the country.

All this may all help reduce the appeal of Boko Haram to individuals. But the Lake Chad states should not too quickly proclaim “mission accomplished”. Boko Haram is losing ground, resources and fighters, but defeating the group and preventing the spread of its terrorist attacks to new areas needs more than military success.

This article first appeared in The Guardian.