“Perilous Desert” Finds Interconnected Threats and Solutions in the Sahara

The publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s edited volume on security threats in the Sahel-Sahara region could not be more timely. As the international community makes the final adjustments for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), and debates how to best address the complex issue of regional stability in West Africa, this collection of articles provides an overview of the challenges and makes substantive policy recommendations.

The book is a collection of seven articles, each addressing a geographic area and analyzing the factors of instability within it, such as Islamism in Mauritania, discontent in the Western Sahara, and organized crime in the Sahel. Despite the title of the volume, the articles do not cover all the countries of the Sahara; Eritrea, Sudan, and Chad are not discussed. The edition’s introduction is an accessible overview of the threats to peace and security in the region, and the book’s conclusion provides policy recommendations to address the threats. Each article stands alone, but taken as a whole, the collection demonstrates the interconnected nature of the countries of the Sahara, the common threats, and potential solutions.

Many of the articles provide analysis of illicit networks which facilitate organized crime and are protected by and reinforced by corrupt officials at both local and national levels. Exacerbated by entrenched ethnic and social grievances, international radical Islamist groups have capitalized on old grievances and provided economic lifelines in regions long neglected by central state authority. This melting pot, or “witches’ brew of problems,” as the editors describe it, produced the most recent crisis in Mali which has both regional and international implications.

The volume begins with analysis of the region’s largest and most influential countries, Libya and Algeria. The first two articles, The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya and Borderline Chaos? Stabilizing Libya’s Periphery, examine the internal security challenges in Libya, the impact of the fall of the Gaddafi regime on Libya’s neighbors, and the implications of this on the Sahel countries, through which the authors highlight the entwined fates of North Africa and the Sahel.

Further analysis of North Africa’s impact on the Sahel is included in The Paranoid Neighbor: Algeria and the Conflict in Mali in which Algeria’s influence on the fighters in Mali and its potential role as a leader in the regional crisis are discussed. The author notes that Algeria has broad experience with counterterror operations; effective intelligence service; close ties to the US; and a capable military, making it a critical strategic partner, albeit a “prickly, paranoid” one. The article argues that Algeria is reluctant to play the regional enforcer; its domestic priorities, a fear of global terrorist reaction (experienced by many Western powers as a result of their declaration of opposition to al-Qaeda’s demands), and distrust of its neighbors keep Algeria’s feet in clay.

This is true to a large extent, but Algeria has shown some leadership away from the spotlight of discussions on military intervention. In 2010, Algeria established, with Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, a joint operational command (CEMOC) and a fusion and liaison unit (UFL) to combat terrorism and criminal networks . Both units are based in Algeria, and while progress has yet to be widely demonstrated, cooperation between the countries in conducting operations, analyzing security threats, and sharing border responsibilities is a laudable model, and the initiative demonstrates Algeria’s willingness to instigate collaboration.

Unlike much of the current literature on the region, the book then turns to consider Mauritania in detail, first by looking at the drivers of insecurity in the country, then the threat of Islamism—of particular interest because Mauritania exhibits many of the factors present in Mali before it collapsed in 2012. The author identifies a vicious cycle of weak and corrupt state institutions, ethnic and social tensions, and the growing radicalization of Mauritanian youth; all elements present in pre-coup Mali. But although the interconnected nature of security and development is touched upon, the role of development is only briefly mentioned.

This is common to all the chapters. The authors do a good job of articulating many of the problems, notably weak governance, organized crime, porous borders, ethnic division, and radicalization. However, collectively, there is little or no mention of the effects of the ravages of climate, underdevelopment, and long-term demographic trends on the Sahara such as the region’s high fertility rates resulting in explosive population growth. Chronic food insecurity, along with the current humanitarian disaster as a result of widespread displacement of people from conflict in Libya and Mali, are also a significant drivers of instability in the Sahara which are not considered by the volume. As of April 25, 2013, the UN reported that internally displaced people (IDPs) were estimated at 282,548; 173,779 Malian refugees are living in neighboring countries; and between 12-18 million people are hungry.

Perhaps surprisingly given the book’s title, discussion of the expanding desert and implications for stability in the region is also omitted. The continued desertification of the Sahara will precipitate greater human migration and deny more livelihoods, increasing poverty in the countries of the Sahara. These factors, along with the political and security issues dealt with in the volume, are contributors to insecurity in the Sahara.

The edition places particular emphasis on the importance of strengthening national institutions in order to address the endemic corruption of officials at the highest levels of government. Through analysis of the administration in Mali and of the former president of Mauritania, Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya, the volume calls for the strengthening of state institutions and commitment to the rule of law; for instance, through the adoption of a new constitution in Libya that strips office holders of impunity for protecting and being involved in smuggling and organized crime.

Notably, however, the policy recommendations provided by the editors broadly ignore the role of regional institutions. They allocate policy imperatives to national governments and Western donor states, but devote little discussion of the role of regional mechanisms such as the African Union and its regional economic communities (RECs). Most recently, ECOWAS has played a prominent role in designs for a stabilization force in Mali and the burden of troop contribution that will fall to its members. By discounting these regional forces, there is a gap in the recommendations made in the book, as lasting stability must include the empowerment and leadership of regional bodies.

Many of the authors identify the ethnic and societal divides within countries as a key driver of insecurity. These were first exploited by their national leadership in order to divide and rule and keep a form of control over volatile regions, but are now also used by international insurgent groups who have manipulated local grievance for their own agendas. In order for security to be built, the volume calls for claims to citizenship to be addressed and meaningful reconciliation mechanisms to be implemented; this would help neutralize the influence of radical Islamist groups who have seized upon local grievances to spread their narrative of terror, and who have enjoyed relative freedom of movement and protection among the disaffected groups and ungoverned spaces of the Sahara. Once again, this would be the natural remit of regional bodies whose existing mechanisms could be used to coordinate cross-border strategies.

By addressing some of the the interlinked challenges to security in the Sahara, this volume is helpful reading for anyone with a need to understand the underlying and current tensions across the region and its geopolitical connections. Its manageable length will be attractive to busy policy makers, but they should not forget the climatic and demographic drivers of insecurity in the region. As well as being a good overview, the volume is useful because it is not myopic about the current crisis in Mali, but places recent events in the wider context of the Sahara.

The conclusion calls for practical steps to reinforce the rule of law and  build professional armed forces, and concludes that social inclusion and true political and economic integration of minority, youth, and religious groups will help assuage the threats. Regional and international coordination is key to achieving this, and many regional and international bodies have incorporated cooperation into their strategies for the region (notably the European Union). These are daunting challenges, but articulated well in this volume.

Fiona Blyth is a research assistant in the Africa program at the International Peace Institute.