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by SOS Sahel UK (via Flickr)

The Sahel, a complex cocktail of crime and politics

Karlijn Muiderman | 26 August 2015

Despite the presence of peacemaking powers in the Sahel region, criminal groups continue to refuel regional conflict. Although visibly expelled by military action from the UN and France, criminal groups like al-Mourabitoun and MUJAO often continue to exist along complex networks of influence that are deeply embedded within Sahelian societies and political system. Waiting for a new chance to contest power, these groups operate covertly within the seemingly remote and ungoverned territories of Sahel, where a diverse set of criminal, political and social rulings allow them to stay in control. That was the key message of Bøas’ and Raineri’s presentations at the European Conference on African studies (ECAS) in Paris. In order to enhance the impact of future interventions, they advocate alternative approaches that observe the way in which local society and politics are constructed.

Representations of the Sahel as a marginalized and ungoverned territory must be nuanced, according to Morten Bøas (NUPI) and Luca Raineri (Sant’ Anna University). In a panel with the captivating title ‘Crime, coping and resistance in West Africa and the Sahel’, they presented their latest research findings at the ECAS. The research demonstrates that the Sahel is not at all ungoverned, but an arena proliferating with power disputes between criminal networks and politicians. With their results, Bøas’ and Raineri have an important message for the UN  confirming the conclusions of the High-Level Panel that recently reviewed the UN’s peace operations. The HLP’s outcomes suggest that force can only be meaningfully applied in a peace operations context if it is part of a political strategy to achieve peace. National actors should address the underlying drivers of the conflict and meet the interests of the population as a whole.

'Illegal' has become the norm

In order to examine how these networks operate, Bøas researched the situation in Mali. The country’s security situation has been unstable for many years (more on this in our Sahel Watch programme). In the wide, deserted areas of the Sahel, nomadic groups like the Tuareg survive by trading goods over transnational networks. Over the last years, trafficking trades have flourished within traditional contraband networks, with the involvement of organized criminal networks across the region.  ‘Illegal trade’ has become inherent to the daily survival of the local economic system and is therefore not perceived as criminal within society. The population participates in the trade,  benefitting from the illicit economy and the protection the smugglers provide for them. Raineri exemplifies the societal impact of these prosperous effects: the status Tuareg society bestows upon being a smuggler is higher than that of a government official.

These intertwined attitudes mark a newly emerging landscape, according to Bøas. Criminal organizations rely on local and global networks, employing  branding as an integral aspect of their strategies, displaying an identity that adheres to the population they are representing (such cases include the website of the MNLA, or IS on twitter]. They are ruled in networks, more fluid and mobile, and consequently are more difficult for  international interveners to grasp.

Politicians get their piece of the pie

National governments understand very well that they cannot fight these mobile networks, Raineri adds. So they would rather protect the illicit trade in order to receive a piece of this pie themselves. They would rather facilitate the networks than contest them;“If you can’t fight them, you might as well keep them as friends”. The geographic challenges of the Sahel´s lurking political power, financial rewards and threatening acute social tension are factors that quickly add up to a solid motive for partnering up with such criminal networks. 
The most prominent example of involvement of national governance in criminal activities in the Sahel is border control. Raineri illustrates the problem with the following case; the Sahel has one checkpoint for approximately every 60 kilometers and, in some areas, one for every 300 to 400 kilometers. This means smugglers will always be able to bypass border control. 

While government officials should suppress illicit trade, they are in fact assisting smugglers, sheltering them and providing fuel and water. Many smugglers that have been caught have not been put on trial. Moreover, many traffickers are involved in politics. As a result, in recent years Mali has been cultivated as a transit country for drugs and migrant smuggling from West Africa to Europe (drug flows pass via Mali from Latin America to Europe despite the fact that it requires a large detour of the route, and that, being non-coastal, Mali is not a logical transit country).  There is thus an illegal business friendly environment in which networks can easily operate. The researchers emphasize that, in local politics, the mantra is that wealth and power is not rooted in the soil but in what is transported over it. 

Getting politics into peacemaking

Such a complex criminal environment causes a major challenge for international security interventions. These interventions do not tackle these issues in their current form. According to the researchers, they look  too narrowly at violent attacks of criminal networks and their (online-) communication.. The strategies of the UN and other interveners are too inflexible to address the fluid way in which smuggling is embedded within Sahelian politics and society as a whole. 

A second problem is the short-term nature of interventions and the lack of a proper exit strategy. The reality for the local population is that interveners will leave, but the criminal networks will remain part of everyday life. Once interveners leave, violence re-emerges (waterbed effect). This happened, for example, after the end of the French military operation Serval in Mali,  when violence re- emerged in the north of the country. 

Within our knowledge programme Sahel Watch, Mabel Gonzalez has touched upon this issue before. Gonzalez made a strong plea that fighting narcotics and terrorism simultaneously with militarized and repressive strategies, fails to acknowledge the complex and evolving links among illicit economies and networks of violence and corruption. In this light, effective approaches to tackle networked insurgencies in the Sahel should start with a more structural analysis of the political economy in the Sahel. Such an analysis should integrate the illicit distribution of goods and people, the institutions and individuals that influence its course and its impact on society.

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Photo credit main picture: by SOS Sahel UK (via Flickr)

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About the author

Karlijn Muiderman

Former knowledge broker and coordinator of Sahel Watch and the Migration Trail

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