Sahel: the search for security

Insecurity and conflict hinder human, and economic development. The Saharo-Sahelian region today presents some of the most daunting global security threats, which seriously undermine the stability and development of the region. The 2012-2013 crisis in northern Mali, though centred in one nation, epitomises the wider, cross-border dimension of these challenges. Here we point to some of the available policy responses towards their resolution.

The newly elected president of Mali, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was sworn into office on 4 September 2013. His election represents the hope that northern Mali’s instability, violence and extremism might be reversed and turned towards democracy and development. In the 18 months before his election, Mali experienced a secessionist uprising, a military coup, the investiture of Islamic Sharia Law in the north of the country and, finally, an international military intervention to oust the jihadists in August 2013.

How is the Malian situation symptomatic of the challenges of the region as a whole?

The difficulty of fostering development and imposing state authority across vast and sparsely populated areas, in weak institutional contexts, is characteristic of the Sahel region in general. The region of northern Mali that encompasses Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, often referred to as the “Septentrion”, occupies a territory twice the size of Germany. With 1.6 inhabitants per km2, its population density resembles that of Mongolia, the least densely populated country in the world. The area has long suffered from economic underdevelopment and insufficient investment, leading to the marginalisation of populations and territories.

The development of criminal networks in the Saharo-Sahelian area has fed corruption and permeated the legal–albeit often informal–economy. Since the early 2000s, the state’s absence has provided an ideal context for the region’s transformation into a major hub for international smuggling of Latin American cocaine and other drugs, arms, cigarettes, and people. Criminal networks have most visibly raised funds by kidnapping foreign nationals.

The expansion of terrorist networks in the area has further oppressed local populations, and discouraged the flow of legitimate currency, whether from investors or tourism. The spread of activities by Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) from Algeria into neighbouring countries, as well as the proliferation of other terrorist and criminal groups in western Africa and the Sahel, motivated the US military to refer to the region as “the new front in the war on terrorism”. And since the toppling of the Gaddafi regime, an influx of arms and fighters from Libya into northern Mali has aggravated an already explosive environment.

The only available solution to these quandaries is long-term investment in development and security mechanisms in northern Mali, and the wider region. Traditionally, given the largely rural population, livelihoods have relied on agro-pastoral activities. Irrigated plains south of Timbuktu provided 20% of national rice production in 2010, and, given the potential for irrigated agriculture, along with stability and investment, the production could be enhanced considerably and northern Mali could reach its potential as food producer for the rest of the country.

For stability to take root, the Saharo-Sahelian areas need to be valorised and inhabited. Pastoral livestock must be placed at the centre of stabilisation strategies. Indeed, pastoralism offers the double advantage of being adapted to the environment and compensating for the weak population density. Itinerant pastoralism does not stop at the frontiers of the Sahel region. Mobility creates complex connections within a much larger zone, including northern and central Africa. It also plays a role in trade relations between the coastal countries and northern Africa, which have considerable economic and political potential.

Trade agreements–such as the one pursued by Morocco with the West African Economic and Monetary Union–can generate more trade in agricultural goods and facilitate North African investments south of the Sahara. They also contribute to the development of infrastructure such as trans-Saharan roads and create a more durable presence and more stable communities. People living in North Africa are on average wealthier than those in Sub-Saharan Africa, but they have infinitely less water, arable and pastoral land. Such agreements are a win-win situation that should be exploited.

Of course, more traditional security-apparatus responses will also be of essence–as long as they are regional in scope and equipped to deal with non-state actors. The Joint Military Staff Committee for Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, as well as several Economic Community of West African States mechanisms already foster co-operation and help share resources. The existing systems will need to be built on and strengthened.

Finally, more stringent international control and scrutiny of money-laundering are needed to track and stifle the flow of funds to and from trafficking. Without access to financial services, criminal networks will necessarily be weakened, thereby posing less of a threat to regional and global stability.


The Sahel and West Africa Club will devote its Annual Forum (28 November 2013, Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire) to the future of the Saharo-Sahelian Areas. The Forum feeds into the elaboration of the 2014 edition of the West African Futures report on this topic.

Past work by the Sahel and West Africa Club on the topic includes:

© OECD Observer No 296 Q3 2013

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