Sahel, Arabic for coast or shore is the region of Africa between the Sahara desert to the north and tropical Savannah to the south and covers a surface area of approximately 3,053,200 km2. If the region were to be a country, it should be the 4th largest in the world. The semi-arid climate of the Sahel is dry, hot, sunny and windy, similar to what obtains in the Sahara desert located to the north of it, though less extreme. This means that the area experiences a short rainy season with very low amount of precipitation annually followed by a very long dry season.
For hundreds of years, the Sahel region has experienced droughts. The effect of climate change, coupled with man-made factors such as over-grazing, over-population of marginal lands has caused increasing desertification with associated large-scale food shortages leading to herder-farmer clashes. That is one of the major factors contributing to the violence and instability in the region which terrorist organisations such as Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have seized upon to recruit jihadists. Nowhere in the Sahel is this problem more prevalent than in Mali.
In the 13th century, the legendary city of Timbuktu was an important trade centre of the Malian empire and was the first entity that resembled the modern Mali. It was a rich civilisation with many resources and trading routes. Some of the goods included Ivory, salt, slaves and most importantly gold. Mali was so rich in gold that at the time, it accounted for half of all the gold in the world. The resources were produced in the south and then transported through the north to the rest of the world mostly by the Tuaregs. The Tuaregs are a large confederation of predominantly nomadic pastoralist that inhabit a vast area stretching from Libya, Algeria, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso. A small group is also found in northern Nigeria.
This golden age grinded to a halt when the Europeans came and established a sea trading route. French took over in 1893 and it was easier to transport goods through the sea and so the trans-Sahara routes were abandoned. Northern Mali with a large Tuareg population lost its income and since then the economy never recovered. The wealth gap between the north and south Mali widened and the pangs of poverty became unbearable.
At independence in 1960, the ethnic Turareg rebelled against the government of Mali, asking for a separate homeland to be known as the state of Azawad. They were unsuccessful in this quest but undeterred, a group that called itself the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) spearheaded continued effort and tried again in 1990 and in 2007. It was, however, only in 2012, with the help of weapons obtained from Libya that they became a serious force, threatening the peace of the entire country and the sub-region. During the Libyan uprising, many of the Tuaregs fought alongside Ghadafi who made a lot of juicy promises to them. With Ghadafi’s death, that obviously didn’t materialise but when they left Tripoli, they took with them, caches of sophisticated weapons which they utilised to unleash another round of insurrection against the government in Bamako.
This time, Islamists joined their effort. Initially, the Tuaregs welcomed them in the mistaken belief that the former only came to liberate them. It soon dawned on them that such was not the case. While the Tuaregs wanted a secular government with democratic ideals, the Islamist wants a government that rules by Sharia. The Tuareg later decided they want autonomy and not separation from Mali and then joined forces with the government army to fight the Islamists. At this time, French, Mali’s former colonial power had sent in troop and chaos ensured with too many factions fighting. France has a serious vested interest as most of the Uranium used to power the nation’s nuclear plants came from her two former colony of Niger and Mali.
In central Mali province of Mopti on the other hand, the intractable conflict between the agrarian communities (Dogon and Bambara) and the pastoral Fula (the Fulanis) over access to land and water has exacerbated since 2015. The United Nations responded by sending a contingent of peace keepers. Also, the G5 Sahel, a military force drawn from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger was formed with France’s backing. Despite the 14,000 strong UN contingents and French troops, the situation continues from bad to worse.
The Malian crisis is such a huge mess that has spilled over to the rest of the other countries and today, what obtains is an alphabet soup of terror groups and bandits, each fighting for dominion in the Sahel. UN reported that the conflict has left more than five million children in need of humanitarian aid.
A big part of the problem is that the UN peacekeepers put up a show of force but the mandate doesn’t allow them to seek out and eliminate the armed groups. There is also the accusation that, just like the case of Libya, many foreign powers are there only to protect their own economic and political interests and nothing else. They have been accused of deploying the budgeted resources in providing comfort to the foreign troops, instead of helping in the war effort. In frustration, Mali now wants to bring in the Wagner group, a Kremlin backed group of mercenary fighters. This latest attempt has triggered a war of words with the French government who is vehemently opposed to the idea of a subterranean Russian incursion.
The question remains, where is Nigeria in all these? There is no doubt that the crisis in the Sahel and the catastrophe we have had to contend with in the Lake Chad basin, fighting Boko Haram and terror bandits is one big continuum, yet the “giant of Africa” has no seat in the table where her fate is being decided. The question is: when will Africa grow up to own her problems instead of going cap in hand each time, begging for help from some “benevolent” uncles, in the most appalling show of naiveté. Of course, we know that most of the foreign players in many cases have purely sinister motives or at best are driven by selfish interests. But truth remains that blaming Africa’s woes on others is a fad that has gone on for far too long. If you don’t get your act together, be rest assured that somebody is going to eat your lunch.
Notable scholars and public intellectuals from within and outside the continent have built a whole career drumming in our ears, how the west under-developed Africa which to a large extent is true. But isn’t that like chastising Amazon for Wal-Mart’s dwindling market share or for causing a retail apocalypse that led stores like Sears, Blockbuster, Radio Shack to shutter their doors? That’s what the competition is expected to do. No rational humans will help you rise above them so you can challenge their authority, take pre-eminence and lord over them. Aside from offering a history lesson, how has the narrative of victimhood helped in changing Africa’s narrative for good? The cold truth is that Africa and indeed the entire black race has got to do the hard work and heavy lifting needed to rise above the ashes and take her pride of place among the committee of nations. That is what China, India and other civilisation have done. That’s what Africa needs to do.
The Sahel once hosted the great Malian empire that produced the legendary Mansa Musa, reputed to be the richest man in history. The historic city of Timbuktu is remembered as a seat of great civilisation, world famous as a centre of international trade. The Sahel before the recent crisis, used to attract tourists for the annual art and music festivals and even hosted Motor sport. Then you ask, when will those days be back and I am not even referring to the return of the great kingdom. I am guessing that we may have to wait, till the cows come home.
•Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Centre for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]