Unwinding the tangled Sahelian knots

Unwinding the tangled Sahelian knots
  • PublishedFebruary 29, 2024

Nigerien /French Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan stood conventional European anthrophony on its head when brought in local researchers to work on projects. The result was a far more realistic portrayal of African societies than had been hitherto the case.

The 82 year old anthropologist and writer is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Marseilles. He is also Emeritus Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and associate professor at Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey where he founded the master of socio-anthropology of health.

He has produced a vast volume of work on The Sahel region and is considered the world’s leading expert on his subject. His collection of articles have been compiled into a book L’Enchevêtrementt des crises au Sahel.: Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso (The entangled crisis in the Sahel: Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso) published last year by Khartala.

In this conversation with Hichem Ben Yaïche, he looks at the roots of the crisis in the Sahel and reflects on other matters Africa.

What are the factors that have led to the current situation in the Sahel?

It’s such a difficult, complex situation that it’s hard to reduce it to a simple scenario and say, ‘Here’s a linear story.’ I would say that the agro-pastoral crisis is at the root of all the crises because the agrarian and livestock system is at the end of its tether.

This is what is fuelling the employment problem – hundreds of thousands of young people have no work, either in the countryside or in the towns. This problem has never been taken seriously and has not been rigorously addressed either by national governments or by international institutions.

Young people are a potential source of insecurity. They are recruited by jihadist and insurgent movements. At the same time, the political elites are discredited by their unwillingness to solve the problems; the same applied to the civil authorities before the onset of military regimes. These new regimes have led to a crisis involving the army’s ability to defend the country from the jihadists and in its appetite for power.

Your analytical method is based on observation of the reality on the ground. Explain your approach.

First and foremost, my analysis comes from a very collective dimension. I am indebted to all the researchers, young and not so young, who have worked with me in Niger since we set up a social science laboratory – the very first in Africa. We have carried out many collective surveys.

The mass of data is not what I personally collected. It was an innovation to make anthropology a collective activity. Until then it was basically an individual activity.

With our network, we made effective research happen in Africa. It was also a form of scientific militancy, so that African researchers could play in the international top divisions, and not the local fifth divisions. It was scientific militancy on behalf of African research.

I arrived in Niger whilst quite young and by chance. While I was there, I started to speak the local language, which I felt was a prerequisite for serious work. You can’t work in a language that isn’t the mother tongue of the people you’re talking to.

I went on to work in several different sectors. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide range of subjects, including religion, Nigerien traditions, the history of colonisation as seen by the colonised, and the legacy of slavery as seen by the descendants of slaves. This gave me the opportunity to understand the diversity of these crises, whereas other anthropologists, for 10 years or so, had focused on a single theme!

 Historically, the Sahel was central to the salt routes, the date routes, and the knowledge routes. It was a crossroads of many civilisations. All that has been swept away…

Yes, that’s clear! The very history of the Sahel, right up to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the colonial conquest, was one of incredible openness to the world. In Mali, with the arrival of the Moroccans in the Middle Ages, we see what the Sahara once was – a fabulous open and commercial space.

We see the failure, fraught with consequences, of colonisation that did not consider the interests of the peoples and local populations. This has left some very painful memories.

I’m not talking just about the colonial conquest, for example in Niger, where the infamous Voulet-Chanoine column massacred thousands and thousands of people in its path. The worst was the indigénat system, which was abominable. (Indigénat was a set of laws creating, in practice, an inferior legal status for natives of French Colonies).

The colonial administration was nothing like what it was in France. It was extremely despotic. Colonialism slowed down modernity rather than creating it. French colonialism relied heavily on the administrative chiefs who were under its boot. They were fundamentally conservative.

The colonial period was more a period of holding back modernity than a period of introducing modernity into our societies. Then came independence. France was obliged to grant it because of its defeat in Algeria, which inflamed the feelings of the colonised towards France.

During the first 10 years after independence, the single party system favoured by many countries failed to deliver on their promises. We then moved on to periods of military dictatorship, which were just as catastrophic as the one-party regimes.

Then came the transition to democracy, which has sometimes been described as a Western imposition. This is not true – democracy was the product of student and trade union struggles. It is the struggle of sovereign peoples against military dictatorships and despots.

Finally, it ended in the failure of development. We always wonder why countries that went through difficult pre-colonial periods, such as Senegal, Niger, Chad or Benin, have a strong ‘family resemblance’ today. It is because they have gone through the same colonisation, the same development industry, the same dependence on development aid, and so on. This suggests that the political elites have not fulfilled their mission satisfactorily.

In reality, states are like empty shells. This has exacerbated society’s shortcomings. Does this point to a failure of development strategies?

Yes, if you take, for example, the major development goals, particularly the fight against poverty, they have failed. Jobs crisis? I don’t think I can separate poverty from unemployment, because employment is the fundamental element in the fight against poverty.

The issue of public services is also a failure. Public services have lost their quality and gained in expansion. For example, structural adjustment programmes have had catastrophic effects on schools and health services.

Finally, the dependence on aid; this has been perpetuated over the years. In a way, even if development operations have had tactical successes, they are at the heart of these three strategic failures, which remain visible dead ends.

How can we root out jihadism in the Sahel?

Today it’s quite clear that half of Mali and half of Burkina Faso are under the control of jihadists who dictate their rules; that also accounts for 10% to 20% of Niger.

What’s more, the jihadist movement is beginning to establish itself in the north of Côte d’Ivoire, in Ghana, Togo and Benin. That’s a lot of territory and poses a major threat. Jihadists thrive on all the mistakes and failings of the past and present. They take advantage of the failure of schools, for example.

In Nigeria, Boko-Haram curses the ‘white man’s’ school. With a lot of justification because in fact, Western origin schools now only train unemployed people in poor conditions, with classes of 80 pupils each and double shifts, morning and evening, supervised by low-level instructors.

For the jihadists, the Western oriented schools distract Muslims from their tradition, their culture, their religion, and their faith. This is a very sensitive issue. Today, the local elites send their children to public schools; state schools are for the poor. It’s a dumping ground.

Every crisis strengthens the jihadists. The school no longer represents a significant symbol for them. It is an example of crisis and depravity. We are faced with this situation: a crisis in education, a crisis in public services, a crisis of confidence, a social crisis, a crisis in employment and a financial crisis.

It is among the unemployed that jihadists recruit their fighters. They give them money, Kalashnikovs, motorbikes and, in a way, a job. Let’s not forget the crisis affecting Islam. Salafism appears to be a theology of a return to the Middle Ages and a rejection of innovation. This is shared by the jihadists. Salafists and jihadists are not from the same camp, but they share the same theology and ideology. They are all trying to propose an alternative to the current democracy.

Democracy itself is in crisis, and democratic regimes are showing their limits and many flaws, with rigged, truncated, and stolen elections… Leaders are largely corrupt, and no one trusts the ballot box.

How can we find African solutions to get out of this quagmire?

There are several elements to this problem. Firstly, the military issue. It is clear that jihadism cannot be defeated by outside forces. The war cannot be won with foreign troops. The war will only be won by national armies that are capable of winning it and winning the hearts of the people.

But the armies themselves are feared by the people – they are repressive, with unprecedented violence and major blunders. We need to arm the people to fight the jihadist insurgency. This military aspect of the fight against jihadism involves different methods in an asymmetrical war.

Secondly, public services (schools, clinics, courts, police) must be maintained in the areas we want to recover from the jihadists. This is a political dimension.

Thirdly, we need to organise negotiations with the jihadist groups to stop the violence and silence the weapons.

In this situation, which is not the best configuration, I don’t know at all whether to combine the optimism of the citizen and the pessimism of the researcher. Today, the latter outweighs the former.

Is there a risk that this crisis in the Sahel will spread to other regions?

That’s one of the questions I was asking myself. A certain resilience on the part of society gives some grounds for optimism. Faced with their ills, societies are managing to reinvent a new way of life. We see this in Niger where, despite economic and political sanctions, the people continue to live relatively well.

In your book The entangled crises in the Sahel  : Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, you talk about Operation Barkhane, the French military force in Mali. Has the security and military approach aggravated the situation?

The first operation, Serval, was deployed in Mali when the Malian authorities feared that the jihadists would take control of northern Mali. They feared that they would attack Bamako. The arrival of the soldiers of Operation Serval was greeted with enthusiasm by the people of Mali.

What damaged relations was the day the French soldiers refused to allow the Malian army to enter the town of Kidal in the north of Mali. Public opinion turned. After that, there was very little cooperation between the two armies. Nobody knew why Operation Barkhane remained operational. It didn’t work much with the Malian army, but it did work with the Tuareg rebels.

Then Barkhane was accused of supporting the Arab Tuareg militias and giving them aid.This reinforced the suspicion that France was supporting the Tuareg independence fighters. Barkhane then found itself in an uncomfortable situation and was driven out of the country.

In Niger, France decided, after the departure of Operation Barkhane from Mali, to operate under the control of the Nigerien military. Former President Mohamed Bazoum wanted this military cooperation with Barkhane, but in the meantime there was a coup d’état against him.

We have all now understood that foreign intervention cannot resolve the jihadist issue in Africa, and that seems to me to be fundamental.

You are both French and Nigerien. How do you feel about the rejection of the French in Africa?

France clearly wants to be the self-proclaimed policeman of Africa! In this respect, we must recognise that the accounts of colonisation have not been settled. France did not acknowledge its mistakes for a long time. In the French parliament, there are still MPs who want to sing the praises of the ‘positive aspect’ of colonisation in Africa. This is a form of trauma for some African countries. And a source of insecurity for others.

We can also add Françafrique, which has left behind bad memories from the period of colonialism. Support for certain heads of state, military interventions and shenanigans are all issues that explain the rejection of France. In the same vein, it is important to include in this assessment the failure of the development that France advocates for African countries. Basically, these are the development failures of the West.

That said, in all the scenarios, France’s role is overestimated; the history of Africa over the last 60 years has been written with Africans and by Africans, and not necessarily by France.

The African players since independence are not just puppets, ghosts, or victims of France. Over the last 20 years, France has become a secondary player. It has lost much of its prestige and resources. France’s Official Development Assistance is no longer significant; China has taken over.

Two forces believe that France is still powerful: France itself (and its leaders) and the anti-French demonstrators!

The world is part of a geopolitical and geostrategic multipolarity that weighs heavily on Africa. What will be the fate of Africans in this new game of influences?

For 60 years, international aid was linked to Western aid. All the UN mechanisms were largely driven by the West. Today, the world is multipolar involving the BRICS+, the Gulf States, the EU countries. Western aid is no longer central.

And the new players are no choirboys! Each country has its own strategic, political, and economic interests at stake. Western aid donors had geopolitical ulterior motives, and so do the new players! The very principle of multipolarity is excellent. If it opens new opportunities, so much the better! If students learn Mandarin rather than French, it would be a shame for France, but not for Africa.

What are the factors that need to be taken into account if we are to hope that Africa can set in motion the virtuous cycles of its emergence?

In my personal experience as a researcher, what still leaves me optimistic is that we have been studying things for 20 years – lots of things that weren’t working: schools, the health system, security forces that didn’t provide security… We have made diagnoses without any complacency, without censorship or self-censorship. We met people of dedication and integrity, doctors, carers, teachers, school heads, police commissioners, company directors, employees, and farmers.

It was also a form of scientific militancy, so that African researchers could play in the top international divisions, and not the fifth local divisions.

These people make me optimistic, whatever the elements that come from the political superstructure (political turmoil and storms). In Africa we always have people who want to make things work, people of goodwill. Brilliant creators, artists, talented young people, and craftsmen who are very attached to their craft.

At the level of the political elite, we need the equivalent of these admirable exceptions that we have met. We need reformers who will change the paradigms and improve the situation in Africa. There are always external reformers who try to do the right thing, but they are doomed to failure. Only reformers from within will change things.

Transcription by Mamadou Bah.

Written By
Hichem Ben Yaïche

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