Neocolonialism and terror in the Sahel

Neocolonialism and terror in the Sahel
  • PublishedJune 25, 2014

On 21 May, the government mobilized 1,500 troops and launched an assault on Kidal. Within hours, the ill-trained Malian forces were in flight. By nightfall, Tuareg had taken control of almost all towns in Northern Mali other than Gao and Timbuktu. 

With Mali’s government and army humiliated, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon ordered a cease-fire while France announced a postponement of its eastwards deployment of troops across the Sahel. In the meantime, Washington said 80 US troops had been sent to Chad to help search for the Nigerian schoolgirls seized by Boko Haram.

Secondly, drug trafficking (mostly cocaine from South America) is once again flourishing. It is questionable whether it was more than even marginally disrupted by the Malian “crisis” of 2012. The net result is that drug trafficking, mostly through Gao and then eastwards through Niger and Libya, has again become a threat.

Thirdly, there are major and credible “terrorist” threats to destabilise Chad. These stem mostly from intelligence “chatter” that Mokhtar ben Mokhtar (MBM), the leader of the al-Mourabitoun “jihadist” organisation that emerged at the end of 2012 from a merger between the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and MBM’s own Masked Men Brigade, may be planning to open up “terrorist” operations in Chad.

There are at least four reasons for france’s military expansion across the Sahel

The fourth reason is the expanding threat posed by Nigeria’s Boko Haram to several other countries in the region, notably Niger, Cameroon and Chad. Boko Haram’s atrocities have been getting progressively worse since May 2013, when Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan finally lost patience with Boko Haram, declared a state of emergency in the country’s three north-east provinces of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe and let the army off the leash, ordering it to crush the movement. 

That has not happened. With each passing massacre, Boko Haram has shown up Nigeria’s ill-equipped and ill-trained army as not fit for purpose. Niger, northern Cameroon and parts of western Chad all face the increasing threat of instability and “terrorism” from the influx of both refugees and Boko Haram militants from northeast Nigeria.

In Niger’s eastern Diffa region, there were a number of border incidents and skirmishes in early May between Nigerien forces and suspected Boko Haram insurgents, with at least a dozen suspected Boko Haram members being arrested. So far, Niger’s policy has been to try and stop Boko Haram crossing into Niger rather than openly confronting them. According to UN sources, some 50,000 Nigerians have now sought refuge in Niger.

France’s militarisation of the Sahel looks as if it might herald the start, if it has not begun already, of the region-wide conflagration that it has long been predicted would overwhelm the Sahel. It could be ignited further at either end of the “strip” by the recommencement of fighting in the Kidal region between Tuareg rebels and the Mali army or by actions by or against Boko Haram further east.

There is insufficient space here to explain how this vast tract of Africa has descended into this catastrophic state of affairs. Nevertheless, a few determinant factors can be highlighted such as the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003, to justify the launch of the GWOT in Africa. This has led to the destruction of thousands of local livelihoods. 

Donald Rumsfeld’s fabricated “corridor of terrorism” has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as more terrorist groups, notably AQIM, have implanted themselves more firmly in the Sahel.

Their “terrorist” activities, mostly hostage-taking for ransom and drug trafficking, were undertaken with the collusion and “protection” of high-placed elements in Mali. These activities exacerbated local political tensions and became increasingly entwined with local Tuareg unrest and rebellions in Mali. 

The NATO-assisted overthrow of the Muammar Al-Gathafi regime in Libya in 2011 had dramatically damaging consequences for the Sahel, especially Mali, which were not foreseen by NATO.

In addition to thousands of long-term migrant workers and mercenaries in Gathafi’s army having to return to the Sahel, the region has become flooded with arms looted from Gathafi’s many arsenals leading, to a potentially unpredictable and dangerous situation. 

*Professor Keenan, a noted author and expert on the Sahara, is a Professorial Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

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