Not just migratory flows: the situation in the Sahel region is much more complex. Francesco Strazzari and Luca Raineri explain why the proposal of hotspots in Libya is not feasible

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:55:17

Today, jihadist radicalization and local conflicts proliferate in the vast territory immediately south of the Sahara. European countries would like to curb migratory flows by moving border control to this region. But the political condition of the States of the area makes this hypothesis highly risky, if not impracticable.


The Sahel is an area as delicate as it is little known, where a strong jihadist presence has developed. How important is the extreme political, economic and social fragility of the region for the existence of this phenomenon?

Radicalization, and violent extremism as its maximum consequence, are not only present in the Sahel, but are expanding. Our research, based on the existing literature on the subject and on field work calls into question an explanation that would seem intuitive, namely the role of poverty in fueling a desire for revolt in one of the regions of greater social deprivation and greater fragility worldwide. This explanation does not hold in front of the empirical proofs of the field, even according to the local communities themselves. In fact, there are many more affordable, more remunerative and less risky opportunities than jihad. For example, the area is rich with artisanal mining, i.e. mines that are accessible without expensive machineries. Moreover, Sahel allows a circular migration to Algeria and Libya, with safe – although seasonal – economic opportunities. In this region, jihad does not necessarily guarantee enrichment: the jihadist groups present there do not possess sophisticated tools, nor the ability to gain substantial wealth. The local communities themselves define jihad as a “volunteering with some benefits:” you do not receive a salary, but rather benefits such as the firearms license, a motorcycle as well as other signs of recognition. For these reasons, this economic cause is not persuasive, especially since other non-jihadist armed groups in the territory, dedicated to various forms of more profitable banditry, act in substantial impunity – guaranteed by their participation in peace processes (see the example of Mali), and enjoy a certain recognition, unlike the jihadists, ambiguously called “les gens de la brousse” (“the people of the bush”).


What other factors come into play?

Ideological radicalization does not seem very plausible. According to this perspective, an inclination towards jihadism is due to the presence of radical preachers in the region, of training and indoctrination centers and of Wahhabi mass media. In reality, jihadism is weaker in regions of greater exposure to radical preachers (mainly active in urban environments, rather than in peripheral areas). Many jihadists or their family members openly declare that they have never attended a Quranic school and have no intention of adapting to a puritan or rigorous morality. Jihadism seems to represent a branding technique to gain legitimacy, rather than an ideological or doctrinal ambition or competence.

There are other motivations which are somewhat more convincing linked to conflicts over access to resources. It is a problematic phenomenon where different concepts of ownership and a plurality of governance regimes (pre-colonial or colonial) collide in an overall situation of scarcity of resources and multiplication of the population. However, this phenomenon cannot be generalized across all the territories in question. In some of them the clear radicalization and the consequent presence of jihadist groups is disconnected from conflicts over access to resources which depend on the ethnic or multi-ethnic compositions of some regions.

In most of the research that has been carried out to date, however, data emerges systematically: it is the perception of the abuses – more or less founded – committed by the State or by organisms linked to the public governance that actually pushes people to take up arms. This “abuse of power by the State” is by far the most present and uniform motivation, while other elements that have to do with knowledge of sacred texts, the approach to radical elements, factors involving individual family situations, the economic reasons mentioned above, and so on, are less frequent.

In conclusion, and from our point of view, studying the phenomenon of radicalization in this part of Africa is more a matter of considering the political dynamics (mobilized groups, communitarian features, social roots, etc.) that question the sustainability of the State rather than studying the sphere of individual consciousness.


You have mentioned the fragility of local States. Recently, there has been much talk about the creation of hotspots on the southern border of Libya to manage migratory flows before they reach the Mediterranean shores. Is it a truly feasible proposal?

It is apparent that we are facing a progressive externalization of the European border towards the African continent. At first, the border was moved out of Italy because “we do not want dead bodies on our beaches;” then, from the Mediterranean, because it is uncontrollable; then, from the African coast, because the Libyan government is against it. Now, they want to move it to the south of Libya, completely forgetting that the area is part of the Sahara Desert. There seems to be an attempt to move the problem in a less observable and even more obscure area, without taking into account what happens in these regions, not least the clashes among militias constantly changing sides. To give just one example: the Fezzan (a desertic region south of Libya, Ed.) is the stage for fights between the Tuareg, the Toubu, the Awlad Suleiman tribes... Moving the border there is unrealistic, a boutade, especially because Italy would unavoidably encounter France if the border is moved towards Niger, and France no longer wants to share control with the Italians. Whoever claims that the migration issue can be confined between Agadez (an important center in Niger) and the Libyan-Algerian border by building a containment and dissuasion device has no idea of ​​the distances and costs (humanitarian, logistic and political) such an operation would entail. Not to mention that those who receive the key of this gigantic device will sell it as soon as they can...


Which other scenarios can you imagine?

It is crucial to understand what the priority of the West are in order to protect the geopolitical order of this region, in a framework that is characterized by scarce resources. We are currently witnessing the militarization of North Africa and the Sahel. What will come next? If we decide to keep the “useful parts,” what will be of the “useless” areas? Are we willing to come to terms with forms of political legitimacy that we consider deplorable (such as “moderate jihadists” and other similar oxymorons)? Let us imagine areas of the desert where some uncontrolled forms of political legitimacy or preaching are allowed to run free. What would happen then in terms of political order? We could find ourselves in the situation where migratory flows will still go through these territories, while our interests will not. For this reason, the West must choose its battles.
The relationship with Niger is emblematic: it represents at the same time the State-gendarme for the West in its fight against terrorism and the country in which some migratory routes intersect. In pressuring Niger to hinder the flow of migrants, there is the risk of blowing up a whole series of alliances and connivances, which are regrettable but are keeping the country balanced. If Niger were to “explode,” the main local military support in the fight against jihadism would end...

Further, if the perception of State abuses is the most plausible explanation for the jihadist phenomenon, it is evident that the more the West – aiming, among other things, at containing migrants – arms those States whose actions are perceived to be arbitrary, the more it exposes itself to the risk that this perception increases, with even more negative consequences.

Finally, a clarification on long-term circular migration: let us not forget that about 85% of those who emigrate from Africa choose to remain in Africa. This internal migration, in the Sahel, is a source of economic resilience: when it stops because the borders are militarized, one of the few chances of survival will be taken away from those people. More than one interviewee in our research said, “We have taken the road not to take up arms; if they do not let us take the road ...” This is the real point to reflect on.


Text translated from Italian