Europe is worried by terrorist threats and migratory flows and seeks help in Libya, Niger, Mali and Chad. But what happens along those boundaries?

Last update: 2022-04-22 08:57:05

The Saharan space, which until the last decade was usually characterized disparagingly as a zone of limited geopolitical interactions – to the point of being considered just a buffer zone – is today a major concern for Europe and world governments.



Therefore, it is urgent to understand what has contributed to transforming a vast desert region into a magmatic volcano with dormant tensions that propagate rippling effects capable of destabilizing Africa, Europe and the Middle East.



Even more so, the main hypotheses on the table appear to be dramatically in contrast with each other: Is the Sahara a largely depopulated and non-governed area that offers remote and inaccessible hiding spots to transnational terrorism, as U.S. strategic documents at the top of the Global War on Terror hubris suggest? Or is it the controversial frontier of an area that is undergoing an unrestrained demographic explosion, where the war for the few natural resources is becoming increasingly ferocious and violent, as those who monitor contemporary migratory flows fear? In other words, is the Sahara’s problem the excessive emptiness or the excessive void?


The inability to decide between the options hides an only apparent dichotomy. Both hypotheses indeed share a fundamental solidarity of views that set the argument, starting from the Sahara environmental peculiarities in order to explain the region political dynamics in naturalistic terms, abusing mechanical and even hydraulic metaphors (push and pull factors) that have strong colonial echoes (ungoverned spaces or terra nullius).


Setting the problem in these terms is misleading. Between the level of natural sciences and that of social sciences there is an epistemological hiatus which requires us to explain politics with politics. The European observer is easily stuck in an illusion of perspective that prevents him from looking closely at Africa’s political specificities, and appreciating its most important variables.

We are not talking about the risk of falling into the opposite excess, embracing uncritically a (misleading) culturalist perspective that believes that “Africa” is ​​impossible to read through our explanatory models, that the continent is the exclusive domain of anthropologists, even better if gone native searching for mythical archetypes.



The Sahara was for a long time at the edge of colonial and post-colonial territorial reconfiguration. If we look at the great desert like a dried up ocean, as Hegel suggested, we notice that the coastal states’ capitals are all along coast lines, both in the Northern areas – in the Mediterranean area of North Africa – and in the southern areas – along the strip of land called Sahel, which in Arabic means precisely coast orshore[1].



Thus, the Saharan regions have long remained at the territorial and political edges of the development of the Weberian states imported by European colonization and sanctioned through the declarations of independence through the second half of the twentieth century.



Such arrangements have further agitated the mutual mistrust between “metropolitan” and Saharan populations, resulting from the combination of distinct traditions alternative economic production - systems, and perceptions of ethnic divergences highlighted by differences in skin color, depending on the latitude. Stuck in the middle, the inhabitants of the Sahara are often seen as blacks in North Africa, and as whites in the Sahel – in any case, as strangers.



It is no coincidence that regional toponymy is a list of synecdoches, where the assumption of the part for the whole translates in an eloquent manner the alienation and disorientation, in the literal sense, of the Saharan entities, although they are often present in most of the regional states’ area: Algiers is closer to London than to the southern boundary of the state bearing its name, as if it were a mere backcountry; the Niger River crosses only the extreme south-western area of the homonymous state; the name Mali alludes to a pre-colonial kingdom rooted in the extreme south of today's state; and to reach the north of Chad you need to travel several days with a jeep from the lake that gives the name to the entire country.



In regions where the modern state brought structures and services only a century ago – imposing its own law but compromising with local tradition to ensure stability – authoritarian regimes of the first wave of independence attempted assimilation through forced sedentarization and deportation, triggering centrifugal forces throughout the Sahara basin, from Mali to Chad, from Western Sahara to Niger.



In this way, confirmation of the weak cohesion of new states along with shortage of material and symbolic resources (necessary to ensure projection of Whestphalian prerogatives over such vast territories) have progressively led Western elites to promote replacement of the independent and centralized state project with an informal social contract capable of accommodating various regional sensitivities and their centers of power.



Although this trend can be observed across the region, every state within the Sahara has developed according to its unique political and economic specificities resulting in peculiar arrangements and outcomes, especially in states most exposed to the dynamics of insecurity which has swept the region, namely: Mali, Niger, and Libya.




In Mali, the authoritarian regime of Moussa Traoré, in power since 1968, was overthrown in 1991 by a popular uprising, to which the Tuareg revolt in the North of the country gave a substantial contribution.



With the end of the Cold War, during what was called the ‘third wave of democratization’, the new 1992 constitution of Mali aimed at rebuilding the country’s stability starting from participation and administrative decentralization. This new institutional order, however, has ended up perpetuating and consecrating the dominant role of traditional authorities, since the Northern tribal leaders – such as Tuareg, Arab, and Peul – have actually been co-opted in managing state power.



The political recognition obtained in exchange for tribal docility guaranteed local notables substantial impunity in non-legal activities, including personal management of development aid funds, smuggling, land-grabbing and imposition of “traditional” taxes, a de facto form of extortion.



A sort of informal social contract has therefore cemented the alliance between public authorities and traditional chefferies in the framework of the widespread patronage networks, thus leading to the hybridization of the newborn democratic regime.



Niger has a similar trajectory. Here as well, the military regime in power was forced to succumb in 1991 under pressure from the civil society and rebellions of the Tuareg in the north.



Likewise, even in Niger, the process of pacification and democratization has not been free of redistributive practices that include cooptation, though unlike in Mali rebels benefitted rather than tribal leaders. Additionally, an unbalanced distribution of revenues from uranium extractions from major mines in the North demonstrates a peculiar characteristic of the Nigerian case.



Finally, in Libya, the year 1991 is also considered to be a watershed, albeit in a less visible way than in Mali and Niger: the United States claimed the first allegations of international terrorism, which brought the U.N. to declare an embargo against Muammar Gaddafi's regime the following year.



The Libyan colonel then sought help from his African neighbors by leveraging the petrodollars stored in the banks and taking advantage of the situation to tone down his pan-Arab politics in order to foster the integration of Amazigh ethnic minorities, particularly the Tuareg, by simplifying the citizenship process. Beyond symbolic acts and rhetorical proclamations, Gaddafi secured the fidelity of the tribes in the peripheral areas of the country, co-opting them in the defense apparatus, and sponsoring (to be understood as: controlling) their involvement in trans-Saharan trafficking of fuel, tobacco, drugs and migrants. In this context, tribal ramifications on a regional scale allowed communities protected by Gaddafi to flourish, thus securing their loyalty.



These examples illustrate a wider trend from the late 1990s and early 2000s. As increasing accessibility to GPS technology and all-terrain vehicles has made it easier to reach extremities of the desert, the entire Saharan region has become entrenched in a dense patronage network, both political and commercial, which effectively links capitals along the “Sahara Coast” to the peripheral regions of the central desert. The latter, in turn, reconnected other regional states’ capitals beyond the desert exploiting the economic gap between the Mediterranean area and the Sahel to North Africa: Mediterranean oil revenues guaranteed pricing power and commercial attractiveness effectively subsidized products from the Sahel and North Africa and  maintained a system of borders kept permeable to tribal and patronage exchange networks.



In other words, the remarkable pro-capita wealth of Libya (also applicable to Algeria and Morocco) contrasted with the dramatic poverty of the Sahel states have created a deep-rooted supply-and-demand mechanism, which resonates with the world economy along the lines of regional and international traffic.



Thus, despite the appearance of marginalization and political inertia, it is precisely in the Saharan regions that the resources needed to consolidate informal social contracts, which ensure consensus on local hybrid political orders, are extracted: production of uranium, protection of oil assets, diversion of development aid, and especially the economy of smuggling.



This is the origin of the problem of the construction and integration of post-colonial states, which for a few years guaranteed relative stabilization to the region. And lazily, analysts have ended up assessing the Sahara a geopolitically peaceful region.


The 2011 shock

 In 2011, however, a concurrent series of exogenous shocks led to the collapse of this precarious balance. The informal social contracts which cemented historic blocks in various states of the region were wiped out, exacerbating the inherent contradictions of the Saharan governance system, and catalyzing a reaction in which the current instability is the product.



Gaddafi's regime was overwhelmed by the wave of Arab revolts originating from  neighboring countries, which lacked the fundamental military contribution of the oil monarchies of the Gulf and NATO.



The collapse of the Jamahiriya affected Mali: men and weapons from Libya, including Tuaregs who were now orphans of Tripoli’s political protection, co-opted the sense of local dissatisfaction with a Malian regime in which the pervasiveness of corruption in every sector of public life had emptied the democratic shell of any meaning.


Over the past two decades, the alliance between traditional authorities and Malian public authorities has mortified the economic initiative and the political representation of the new emerging middle class; leading to a new social polarization that creates opposition between elites and a so-called social cadets, i.e. segments of the same group that remain at the margin of distribution mechanisms and patronage.



It is in this perspective that one needs to interpret the revolt: beginning with the Tuaregs, the 2012 Bamako coup, and finally (and above all) the progressive radicalization of ever-larger segments of the population in the north and the center of the country, exasperated by the corruption of the government and disillusioned by the ability to renew a so-called democratic regime.


In this context, Niger anticipates Mali’s trajectory to be reproduced spectacularly. However, the major oscillations of the price of uranium contributed to the corrosion of the social pact built in 1991-92.



On the one hand, the substantial increase in the value of uranium in the 2000s exacerbated the appetites of local, regional and international actors, fueling both another Tuareg uprising and the military coup in 2010 leading to the deposition of President Mamadou Tandja, guilty of having called into question the substantial French monopoly over former colonial resources.



On the other hand, when the new President Mahamadou Issoufou took power in 2011, based on a new constitution and a new electoral law, the Fukushima disaster collapsed uranium’s global course. Thus, Issoufou was forced to differentiate between the country's economy and the political cocktail at the base of his consensus, and decided to count on ascending merchant (and trader) classes.



The consecration of an unprecedented historic block follows. Thanks to the solidity of this alliance, Niger succeeded in absorbing the shock wave of the nearby Libya’s conflagration. On the other hand, the stability of Niamey's regime was more directly dependent on the trans-Sahran smuggling economy’s laws.



In recent years, Niger has become the key juncture of regional trafficking of drugs, weapons, gold, counterfeit medicines and migrants, connecting Africa to Europe and the Middle East. This shows the contradictions of Brussels’ ambition to align local states and the construction of a regional security model that extends the European border into the heart of the Sahara, in order to isolate Europe from the threats of terrorism and migration, presumably overlapping.



In Niger, restraining the traffic of migrants is likely to challenge the status quo and undermine the foundations of the social alliance that has allowed the country to achieve precarious stability in a region of deep turmoil.


Niger is indeed surrounded by countries that are living internal conflicts (not only Libya and Mali, but also Nigeria and Chad), where instability favors the rooting of jihadist groups. For the latter, paradoxically, the European war on migration, carried out through dubious local security forces, could provide a further opportunity for social rooting.



The long wave of upheavals in 2011, largely imported from neighboring regions, destabilized the social pact that had secured the hybrid order of the Saharan area over the last two decades. Democratic aspirations of wider population segments, both in a relative and an absolute sense, have collided with the limited capacity of the patronage networks in power, whose legitimacy has since been eroded by profound socio-economical changes and rapid urbanization (the birth of Saharatowns), to absorb and allocate.


On the other hand, the proliferation of arms sparked by the Libyan crisis has favored the paramilitarization of the political confrontation and the further fragmentation of centers of power. In this context, the pervasive intrusion of outsider actors (firstly, Europe) is likely to promote governance models that are not consistent with local needs, relying on delinquent institutions that might end up aggravating rather than resolving existing tensions.


Threats to stability

In perspective, beyond the contingencies of the breaking news, it is possible to identify at least three factors that threaten the creation of alternative balances in the medium term. First, the Tuareg populations have been greatly defeated, though still largely armed bycurrent political redefinitions, and today it represents a particularly difficult tile to fit in the mosaic of a solution for a lasting peace.



Secondly, the inability of the Algerian regime to express a political renewal raises understandable apprehension. The social pact forged in the blood of the civil war of the 1990s weakened the winds of change from the Arab Springs. And yet, the re-election of Abdelaziz Bouteflika to a fourth term since 1999 was the eloquent illustration of a frozen political equilibrium, whose limited hopes for the future are clearly visible in the president's precarious health and the collapse of oil prices.



A transition crisis in the largest, most armed and most populous country in the region could lead to a much worse scenario than the one in Libya today. On the other hand, if a painless transition were possible, it probably would have already happened.



Thirdly, the redefinition of domestic and regional political orders opens an unprecedented space for jihadist political Islamism, especially al-Qaeda, which is expanding in the Sahel while in the Maghreb it is undergoing reorganization, protecting its forces and waiting for the right opportunity.



In this context, the more or less revolutionary discourses and practices of a “reformist” Islam (as is often locally designated tellingly in Europe as radicalism) offer a language able to delegitimize the authority of the classes in power and claim to actually be an answer to local calls to put an end to corruption and impunity.



Respect for fundamental human rights and the promotion of good governance, in short, are not a negligible luxury, but the essence of cautious politics aimed at countering the so-called radicalization. However, the European Union's external action seems to orient itself towards other, less ambitious priorities, showing a political short-sightedness which we are likely to regret, inside and outside the Sahara.


Text translated from Italian
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[1] Unitary Sudan clearly represents an exception. However, its belonging to the Sahara region is controversial, because it sits at the heart of the Nilotic system longitudinally oriented.