By Mick Wallace MEP.
The Sahel region consists of those countries lying to the immediate south of the Sahara Desert, stretching in a strip from the west to east coast. The region is semi-arid, part desert, part savannah and it links the Sahara to more fertile lands further south.
From colonialism to independence in the early 1960s, followed by financial imperialism, to the NATO invasion of Libya, this has been a troubled, unstable, poor region for a long time. It could have been different.
The NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 was a disaster. Strongly advocated by the UK, France and the US, the invasion was supported by most European governments, including Ireland – so-called “humanitarian intervention” was still a popular dish.
The US and its allies destroyed a functional state, plunged its economy into ruin, handed the place over to warlords and fanatics, and doomed the entire region to chaos, displacing millions. Libya was awash with arms which ended up in the hands of jihadist groups, many of which made their way south to the Sahel region.
With the jihadis making their mark in the western Sahel, the Europeans, working with some local leaders, reacted to the new reality on the ground by forming the intergovernmental cooperation framework called the G5 Sahel in 2014, consisting of Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso.
France’s ‘post-colonial’ influence
Why were Europeans so interested in the region? Despite these countries gaining their independence 60 years ago, the Europeans never really left. From 1960 to 1991, France conducted more than 35 military interventions in 16 African countries, usually with the intention of protecting weak rulers against domestic opposition – rulers that protected French interests.
France continued to wield substantial influence in the region through a network of patron-client relationships. France offered political, military and financial support and in exchange, these nominally independent rulers accepted France’s right to be consulted on major policy decisions, influence over defence and monetary policy and, most importantly, granted it privileged access to raw materials. Around 75 per cent of French electricity comes from nuclear power and most of the uranium it uses comes from this region.
And little has changed of late – France has invaded African countries five times in the last ten years. It invaded Libya and the Ivory Coast in 2011, and Mali and the Central African Republic in 2013. France began its Barkhane operation in the G5 Sahel in 2014, which continues to this day. Despite some early success in 2013 and 2014, things have been deteriorating since, even with the large presence of troops – 15,000 from the United Nations force and more than 5,000 French troops.
The problems are many. The countries of the Sahel tend to be dominated by semi-arid pasture land to the north and decent agricultural land to the south. The poorer land in the northern parts is populated mainly by Muslims, while the wealthier farming land in the south is occupied by Christians.
There are large parts of each country that the central government fails to control, mainly the poorer areas, where the jihadist groups are allowed to flourish. They are then able to attack the good farming areas at will, and retreat back to their safety zone.
The governments lack funding, are disorganised, and often corrupt – many rotten deals are done with western companies who get much of the mineral wealth without having to pay a fair price. Most of the financial help coming from Europe is of little help as it is primarily allocated to Security and Military Operations, rather than bolstering good governance. So when a jihadist group is able to set up in a remote region of Mali or elsewhere and literally provide public services to that community, set up schools and military training facilities and protect the area, it seriously undermines a central government that lacks the resources to provide good government.
Added to this, climate change is having a big impact on these countries. Many of the fighters that join with the jihadis are farmers that see climate change reducing their prospects of making a living from the land.
As the OECD report from February 2020 highlights, “in all these cases before and after intervention by Western powers, no steps were taken to alter the dynamics of inequality and the unequal distribution of resources and power in these countries”.
All of these countries are still suffering from the legacy of colonialism – from the exploitation of their natural resources by foreign mining corporations and fossil fuel companies, to punishing tariff regimes and the fallout from having to compete in the global agricultural goods market against deeply subsidised cheap goods from the northern countries.
The also suffer from the fact that transfer mis-pricing and tax secrecy jurisdictions funnel trillions of dollars each year out of Global South economies and state coffers, and from the exploitative and crushing debt repayment conditions on loans, often taken out by dictators that never used any of that money for the public good. Without the funds to provide state services and infrastructure, winning hearts and minds will remain challenging for these governments.
Western companies may still be successful, for the moment anyway, at extracting mineral wealth at a cheap price from the region, but European efforts to bring stability to the region have failed. As a result of all the chaos in the region, the EU is now seeing refugees and migrants moving North in search of making a peaceful living, using the anarchy of Libya as a launching pad to the Mediterranean and European mainland.
This is a huge political issue for Europe where right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiment is rampant at present. Europe has a problem with taking responsibility for its role in the destruction of these countries – from providing airbases like Shannon to the US military, to the selling of arms to anyone that can pay for them, to the financial imperialism that sees many of the western powers exploit all they can, regardless of the impact on the people and the environment. The truth be told, we reap what we sow.
Mick Wallace is an Independents 4 Change MEP for Ireland South. Follow him on Twitter @wallacemick.
Top image: French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the 500 French troops posted in Niger in 2017. Photo from Reuters.