international analysis and commentary

Instability and Islamic extremism in the Sahel: the rise of déjà vu?

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On the one hand is a country fraught by ethnic divisions, crossed by floods of arms and drugs at the crossroad of competing interests, where Islamic factions are taking control of huge swathes of land, trying to impose shari’a as the unifying factor in the face of a helpless and corrupt government.

On the other there is a powerful neighbor that, although nominally interested in regional stability, is afraid of internal fractures and therefore plays on two chessboards, by liaising with the West and fighting terrorism on its side of the border, while turning a blind eye if not actively supporting radical groups in its weaker neighbor.

This is not a description of  Pakistan and Afghanistan, but the resemblance with Algeria and Mali is striking: Algeria is entangled in a decade old competition with another regional power (Morocco); it too, like Pakistan, is afraid that internal divisions stoked by regional developments may disrupt the unity of the country. And both Algiers and Islamabad are military-dominated regimes with a track record of hedging their bets against terrorism by manipulating radical groups in their regions to pursue their own strategic interests.

The Sahel, like Central Asia, shows how fast terrorist networks can expand in the presence of weak governments. Over the last twelve months terrorist activity has escalated in Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria, as well as in the Western Sahara – which had been virtually immune from radicalism until 2011. In Ivory Coast, an alleged plot has just been uncovered between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the supporters of ousted President Gbagbo and some factions in Ghana to create mayhem in Abidjan and the rest of the country.

Moreover, similarly to the Af-Pak region it is not hard to see a web of global interests engulfing the area: France still wields some colonial influence, which is however challenged by new players like China, that has flooded the entire region with large investments and cheap products. The UK is watching on, while the US started its Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative in 2005 that, under the control of AFRICOM (the Headquarters of the US armed forces “Africa Command”, located in Stuttgart, Germany), is designed to confront terrorist networks. Last but not least, Iran also holds strategic interests in the region, and is known to be involved in arms trafficking there (as shown by the seizure of an illegal weapons shipment in Lagos, Nigeria, in December 2010). On top of this, the Sahel is the main entry route for drugs coming from Latin America, as well as for the human trafficking flows from Sub-Saharan Africa to Europe.

In the midst of these worrisome sources of instability, some opportunities for diplomacy arise, too. The disappearance of Muammar Gheddafi has allowed President Compaoré of Burkina Faso to rise to the role of regional mediator much above his country’s relative weight, trying to hammer out a truce in Mali’s North. Yet, Faso’s involvement is in itself revealing of the many intricacies in the background: Compaoré is a Roman Catholic leader in a Muslim area and an ally of Taiwan that does not recognize mainland China. Burkina Faso’s role is therefore trying to reap the benefits of an original foreign policy and “creative misalignment”, in a way reminiscent of Qatar, but it is also constrained by the very situation it’s trying to change. It also needs to balance its act carefully, as anti-government demonstrations by dissatisfied parts of the armed forces took place in Ouagadougou during the spring of this year.

Yet, the main dangers lie not with the inherent difficulty of local geopolitics, that are not new, but with the way the wider international community will deal with them in the wake of rising instability. On the positive side, there is a general understanding that the situation is serious and that delaying action may make the existing crises worse and possibly irreversible. The appointment of Romano Prodi, a former Italian Prime Minister and EU’s Commission President, as Special Representative of the UN Secretary General is timely. His first declaration that he will do the utmost to avoid military intervention brings hope. Also, the EU is thinking about creating a training mission to enhance the possibility for Malian forces to regain the lost ground. At the same time, the current attempt at negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan seems – by analogy – to shape the dynamic of trying to separate AQIM and the Movement for Unicity and the Jihad (MUJAO) in Western Africa from Ansar El Din and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). The latter is seemingly more focused on Tuareg independence rather than religious zealotry.

However, in the same way as the root cause of Afghan-Pakistani rivalry is a long standing border dispute, the main source of tension in the Sahel is the connection between separatist groups inside the various countries and territorial disputes among neighbors, firstly between Morocco and Algeria. Before any intervention on the ground is sketched out, the international community should work harder to overcome its own divisions and choose a sustainable path to ensure success. In particular, while there is a growing sense of urgency, there seems to be no idea at all about what a new regional setup should look like and how the spread of terrorism and the recruitment of new fighters should be cut off.

The only answer would be to fill the vacuum left by Libya with a new scheme for regional development, one where the Tuaregs should be encouraged to play for stability rather than secession, in Mali as well as in Algeria. A solution reminiscent of the Kurds in Northern Iraq would probably be the long-term answer, but that would be workable only with the consent of Algeria and only with the active cooperation of all players towards a strategy of mutual benefit rather than “divide and rule”.

Every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. The current one in the Sahel shows that unless Europe manages to expand to the south the zone of stability it projected to the east, more havoc will come – in the form or radicalism, drug trafficking and illegal migration.