Patrolling a mirage: the challenges of border security management in the Sahel

Peace & Security,Sahel Watch09 Nov 2015Afua Lamptey

The fragile security situation in the Sahel region has been aggravated by evolving threats including violent extremism, transnational organized crime and the proliferation of arms. The porous borders, governance deficits and environmental challenges have undermined effective control of the Sahel’s frontiers, which begs the question: Can Sahelian borders really be effectively patrolled or is border management within this predominantly desert region a mirage?

The Sahel is characterized by a vast stretch of 3,860 kilometres of unfriendly, undeveloped desert regions, a harsh climate and scarce water. Recurrent droughts have forced various Sahelian nomadic groups to migrate to more friendly climates, posing further challenges to human security. Migrants from remote rural areas can be found in the capitals of Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso, causing new problems with urban sanitation, hunger and crime.

Absent governments in a troubled region

Communities throughout the region continue to grapple with disputes over natural resources, armed violence, corruption and trafficking. The migration of mercenaries following fighting in the Libyan crisis has contributed to growing instability in neighbouring countries, particularly to, for example, the Tuareg uprising in Mali in 2012. This instability in Libya also contributed to an increase in the trafficking of arms and illegal goods in the region. The difficulty of patrolling the borders has led to terrorist organizations operating transnationally with relative ease. The activities of al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram continue to pose serious threats to state and human security in the Sahel.

Consequently, 1.5 million people from Nigeria have become refugees in neighbouring countries since May 2013, as reported by Amnesty International. Additionally, a study done of border security and management in the Liptako-Gourma border regions between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso revealed that, despite the strong trust in the government, security concerns are first addressed using traditional conflict mitigation mechanisms, and the authorities (who may be present, but are largely unresponsive) are approached only as a last resort.1 This shows that the governments of these countries are unable to effectively control their remote border regions and utilize or prioritise border communities in addressing transnational challenges.

A gap between policy and implementation

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has formulated policies in a bid to control the security challenges encountered. These include the protocol relating to the prevention, management and resolution of conflict, the ECOWAS Conflict Prevention Framework, the ECOWAS Convention on Small Arms and Light Weapons and the ECOWAS Common Approach on Migration and Counter Terrorism Framework. All these have sections devoted to cross-border initiatives, the strengthening of border controls, migration and counter-terrorism. In addition, ECOWAS calls for coordination and collaboration by relevant state agencies in the sub-region to reduce threats emanating from the borders. The response by governments to implementing these provisions has been mixed due to a variety of factors, prominent among them are lack of political will and resources. This has resulted in a gap between policy and implementation.

While these laws indicate an awareness of the challenges on the ground, in reality not much critical capacity or resources have been developed or devoted to make them operational. State agencies at the border points are often ill-trained and unaware of the laws on critical border issues. Additionally, Sahelian states have habitually not prioritized development in border areas. This has created an enabling environment for organized crime networks and other sub-state actors to operate, mix with the people and provide the services that the state is unable or unwilling to provide. As a result, communities become tied to these new actors and may not share information with state agencies.

A complex issue in need of strategic direction

There are many further aspects that make the issue of border management complex. The arbitrarily demarcated borders of the colonial era mean that people from the same ethnic group are often divided by political boundaries. This has affected mobility and encouraged the use of unapproved border crossings for familial and economic activities. Moreover, the work of border security officials is hampered by logistics and poor government remuneration, creating avenues for corruption. Further, a survey conducted in 2014 revealed that only 32% of security providers in selected border communities in three countries in the Sahel have received training on border management and security.2 Finally, the recurring challenges of the region arising from poverty, inequality, disposition to conflict and the complexities of securing the borders have had an effect on the ongoing migration crises of people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

Nonetheless, despite forces such as globalization and rising transnational violence, borders remain relevant for the territorial sovereignty of states and play a pivotal role in global peace and security. This is because borders demarcate the responsibility of governments towards their populations in a defined territory. These responsibilities must be regulated through effective governance processes, principally through state and rule-based regional cooperation.

Governments across the region can start addressing the border crisis by:

  • developing national border management policies across the ECOWAS sub-region, as has been done in Benin and Senegal;
  • inculcating relevant legislation and ethics, and increasing the border security training programmes of state agencies to boost professionalism; and
  • prioritizing the development of infrastructure in border areas by governments to reduce reliance on, and threats from, sub-state actors.

The borders of the Sahel are vast and difficult, but not impossible, to manage effectively, with the right strategies. The right balance of rule of law and development at border areas is critical in addressing many of these challenges.


    1. Danish Demining Group, 2014. Border Security Needs Assessment. Liptako-Gourma region: Mali, Burkina and Niger.
    2. Danish Demining Group (2014) Border security needs assessment: key findings. For more details see: