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“What is happening in the Sahel for the past several months is that terrorists have structured themselves, have installed themselves. It’s not simply a menace for west Africa.”— Francois Hollande

“Roughly one in four children in the world are growing up in Africa,” said Jack Goldstone, a Wilson Center fellow, and professor of public policy at George Mason University

“Malnutrition silently stalks children across the Sahel,”  Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

This week I want to take yet another turn. This pivot will return us back to Africa. It is easy to singularly focus our attention on the Middle East and the proliferation of violence and terrorism in that region. It is important, however, that we not take our eyes off of Africa, especially the region known as the Sahel. It is a region quickly becoming known as “Sahelistan” and “France’s Forever War.” The Sahel is a region that spans from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, the band of terrain that separates the Sahara Desert from the Tropical region of Sub-Saharan Africa. The Sahel countries—Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan—face many challenges, including chronic insecurity, rising extremism, a lack of economic prospects, and poor access to education, employment, and essential services such as water and electricity.

It is the chronic insecurity that will concern us this week. No less important are the other variables, but my experience tells me that when there is no modicum of security, improving all the others will be ineffectual in raising a people out of poverty and underdevelopment. 

The Sahel has become a marketplace of violence. There are myriad factions vying for control and influence, and they are willing to target civilians and military assets to accomplish their goals. It is their ideology that matters, not humans.

How is there more than meets the eye to this story? There is a persistent preoccupation with the Middle East, much to the demise of the people in the Sahel. Resources are spent, human capital is ignored, humanitarian impoverishment is rampant, and radicalization is fermenting and growing as the yeast of violence expands.


One of the things that intrigues me about the Sahel is its easy comparison to Afghanistan as it has evolved over the past 20 years. The major difference has been that it has not been an American engagement, but a French one. Interestingly enough, the French are making many of the same mistakes that the US has for many years in Afghanistan, not due to military incompetence, but due to political indifference and ineptitude.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), “Armed conflicts, dramatic climate change, and little opportunity to receive an education or find a job are an everyday reality for many in Africa’s Sahel region. With the region’s rapidly expanding population compounding these challenges, the hope of a future is vanishing for millions of young people.” 

About 50 million people in the Sahel depend on pasturage and livestock rearing for survival, but the land available to pastoralists is shrinking. This is aggravated by surging population growth that is pushing farmers northward to cultivate more crops. And while adverse climate conditions are sparking violence, proliferating jihadi insurgencies are also creating no-go areas, making a bad situation even worse.

The Sahel

Demographics- “Roughly one in four children in the world are growing up in Africa, By midcentury, it will be about 40 percent. The education, socialization, and stability of young people in this region of the world are going to be the dominant issue for conflicts in the years ahead.”

The population of sub-Saharan Africa, estimated at 920 million in mid-2014, will more than double in the next 36 years. These projected demographic changes will have tremendous consequences for many issues, from agricultural production to prospects for socio-economic development, as well as for the political stability of many countries. The Sahel, in particular, will face the most extreme challenges, compounded by the threat of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, al Shabaab, and other terrorist organizations in the Islamic Maghreb. 

These 11 countries span over 7 million square kilometers and have close to 135 million inhabitants. Some of the larger countries that contain extensive expanses of desert (Mali and Niger) have low population densities of fewer than 20 people per square kilometer. Other geographically smaller countries with access to the sea (such as Senegal) have population densities of 50+ people per square kilometer. Landlocked Burkina Faso has a population density of 65 people per square kilometer. Only The Gambia has more than 150 people per square kilometer. 

Food Insecurity Recurring zones of drought throughout the Sahel have contributed to record levels of hunger. More than 20 million people went food insecure and 4.7 million experienced acute malnutrition in 2014, said De Souza. In 2012, up to 18 million people were at risk of starving across eight countries. The Sahel is particularly vulnerable to rainfall variability, land degradation, and desertification due to its high dependence on rain-fed agriculture and livestock, according to a study by the UN Environment Program.

Here is a rundown of the many trials plaguing countries in the Sahel:

Economic prospects– ”The region’s GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) is relatively low, ranging from approximately US$900 to less than US$3,000 per capita, with the only significant income coming from natural resources like oil and minerals. The World Bank’s 2015 Doing Business report ranks these nations among the least business-friendly, due in large part to their history of political instability. Moreover, the World Bank lists half of the nations of the Sahel as fragile states (low-income countries with weak state capacity).”

Rising extremism– “Extremism in the Sahel poses a real threat to Africa, France, Europe, and the wider world. But the idea that you can simply shoot or bomb extremists into submission completely misunderstands the governance issues that fuel the crisis. The fact that more Sahelian civilians were killed last year by those supposedly protecting them from jihadi attacks than the jihadis themselves, is the most effective recruiting sergeant the extremists could hope for.” 

Jihadist attacks have increased fivefold since 2016 and inter-ethnic violence has ballooned. The January 2021 killings of more than 100 civilians in Niger’s northern Tillabery show the devastating consequences for rural dwellers. Despite a strong push by France, its partners, and Sahelian states to hold battlegrounds and recover lost territory, militants continue to entrench in several rural hotspots as they seek to expand southward.

In February, in N’Djamena, Sahelian Heads of State and French President Macron were lauded for calling for a “civilian and political surge” after having pursued for years a military-only strategy. Lessons learned from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Nigeria show us that counter-terror campaigns that do not put the protection of civilians at their core fail to bring stability. 

Similarities between the Sahel and Afghanistan other than systemic environmental differences. 

  1. lham Gassar, a political adviser to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Somalia, says international partners had been focusing on destroying al-Shabab, not developing a strong state.
  2. As in Afghanistan, there have been widespread accusations of corruption across all the Sahelian states. 
  3. Samira Gaid, head of Somali security think-tank Hiraal Institute, says Somali forces are even less prepared to halt a potential militant offensive than those in Afghanistan. “Somali security forces have not received 0.005% of what the Afghan security forces have received.”
  4. As in Afghanistan, Islamist movements in Africa have flourished in countries where they have been able to capitalize on weak state institutions, a lack of services like education and healthcare, and issues with poverty.
  5. West Africa’s Islamist groups “exist in a climate where the state is weak, but they are weaker than the weak states.” 

Differences- According to security expert Fulan Nasrullah, ”People should not interpret Africa or every other jihadi Islamist group through the prism of what just happened in Afghanistan – the contexts are different but there are a few similarities.” Nasrullah goes on to state that the groups fighting in West Africa are not a cohesive force like the Taliban, but a mixture of various militias whose goals occasionally align, and the global contest between IS and al-Qaeda has increasingly seen their affiliates fighting each other.

I would contest this opinion by Nasrullah. As I discussed in MTMTE Weekly #209, A World on Fire, there has been much infighting in Afghanistan between the forces of the Taliban government’s deputy prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Prime minister Anas Haqqani’s troops.

Perhaps the greatest similarities between the Sahel and Afghanistan are the decisions being made by external foreign forces. The Sahel has been heavily influenced by the European Union, particularly by a former colonial overlord, France. Afghanistan has been heavily influenced by the United States and its NATO allies. Both threw trainloads of money at the problem. Both lost many men and women and many civilians perished in the fighting. Both have been catastrophic failures.

I am not putting all this on the US and France’s shoulders. Insurgents, corrupt government officials, and foreign terrorist influences have played major roles in sustaining this kind of instability. I don’t pretend to sit here in a coffee shop and postulate how it should have been done. My only advice is it might be time to reconsider the approaches to both the Sahel and Afghanistan and look for some new creative solutions. What I fear the most is that the French will simply tire of their Sahelian adventures and just pull out without a thoroughly comprehensive and intentional strategy.


There is a reality that we should not miss in all this. The instability of this part of the world has a very likely possibility to bleed over into Europe and the USA. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the total population is projected to double by 2050, the population of working-age people (from 25 to 64 years) is growing faster than in any other age group.

So if an additional billion people are added to a region that is already suffering from poverty, extremist violence, unemployment, little education possibility, and a high birth rate, where do you think they will go? Will they just stay there and die? Or will they start looking beyond the region into Europe and the United States?

If their eyes are turned outward and they are uneducated with no possibilities of training or work, they will turn to other nefarious ways to obtain what they are looking for. They will seek to survive one way or another.

What I am saying is this: this is not just an African problem, it is a global problem. We can deal with it now while it is manageable or we can deal with it in the future when it is unmanageable and unstable. The question is do we really want to do that to our children and our children’s children?

For further reading on the subject of the demographic impact on the world’s future, read my previous articles in this year, A New Old World and A New Old World Part 2


The Sahel’s challenges are neither simple nor one-dimensional. The obvious question remains, “What can be done?” Progress in the Sahel can be achieved through five main initiatives:

  • Acceleration of the demographic transition.
  • Strengthening existing infrastructures in education, healthcare, security, agriculture.
  • Building human capital (education and health).
  • Improving governance and ridding the region of corruption.
  • Creation of jobs.

The follow-up.

On a lighter note… China’s biggest movie is about how a US Marine division held off 12 Chinese divisions…

‘It’s time to destroy false gods…’, Islamic militants print a headless picture of Lord Shiva…

The feed-back.

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