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Dangerous Desert

The Sahel divides the sands of the Sahara from the tropical forests of Africa, the mainly Arab North from sub-Saharan black African nations in the South, and nomadic pastoralists from sedentary agricultural communities. It is home to around 125 million people and one of the poorest and most vulnerable regions on the planet. The Sahel’s population is expected to increase by two thirds over the coming 15 years.

One of the perennial causes of instability in the Sahel is food insecurity. Long standing patterns of drought and desertification have been exacerbated by climate change and rapid population grown while dwindling resources, numerous territorial and political conflicts and poor governance have laid the groundwork for the latest scourge: jihadi violence.

Pascal Maitre has been covering the region for almost 20 years. In 2002 and 2006 he visited the salt mines of Taoudenni, 670 km north of Timbuktu, in Mali. The region was completely ungoverned and awash with rebels of every stripe – from members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Polisario fighters from Western Sahara and Tuareg rebels. Arms, drugs, hostages and migrants circulated freely.

With the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, former Tuareg mercenaries who had fought with the Libyan army returned home to Niger and Mali, bringing huge stocks of weapons stolen from Libyan arsenals. In Mali, these fighters formed the basis of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), a militia which, according to some observers, was allied with AQIM and took control of the whole of Northern Mali in 2012.

While Gaddafi has received funding from the European Union to hold back the thousands of would-be migrants boarding ships in Libya and heading North to Europe, his demise brought about a multi-sided civil war in Libya and a complete breakdown of law and order that allowed traffickers to operate freely.

The town of Agadez, in central Niger saw some 400,000 migrants from across West Africa passing through in 2016 en route to Libya. Located at a crucial road junction one of the main Saharan trade routes, Agadez has since become the main entrepot for migrants making their to Europe and while the Nigerien government has made the transporting of migrants to Libya illegal, the incessant movement continued unabated.

The roads have become more dangerous, with regular abductions taking place along the way, and prices have tripled but the people keep coming. Niger is at the very bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index and with a per capita GDP of just USD 1,200. But the national government, led by Mahamadou Issoufou since 2011, is trying to resist the regional chaos emanating from Islamists in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the on-going civil war in Libya.

Over the past five years, Operation Barkhane, led by French soldiers and comprising forces from Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania has been fighting an intense desert battle with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and other jihadist groups which have retreated from urban centres, widening the battle field across thousands of square kilometres of desert.

Some of the worst fighting has been happening in Mali whose vast northern deserts provide plenty of territory for guerilla warfare. The jihadists have been able to recruit new fighters from pastoral communities, especially among the Fulani, whose fragile co-existence with Dogon and Bambara farmers has been disturbed by complex grievances and disagreements between the different communities that have been exploited by the army and the government in their desperate fight against the jihadists. Ethnic militia that were armed and financed by the government to fight Islamist rebels are no longer under its control, using the conflict to settle other scores.

Islamist violence in the Sahel will continue to destabilise the region, leaving the few oases of relative calm like Niger struggling to maintain stability.
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