MALI : Geopolitics of the Sahel

Marked by a combination of several internal factors indicative of instability (failed states, terrorism, Tuareg rebellion, trafficking, clandestine migration, extreme poverty), the Sahel faces a new geopolitical context with the rise in terrorist groups.

The Tuareg revolt in Northern Mali represents a tipping point in this. The Sahel is characterized by elements of chaos likely to cause long-term instability in the region, but also in the Maghreb and West Africa as a whole. The African Sahel combines a range of conflicts which, with the slightest spark, can ignite in a chain reaction. In this case, it concerns a succession of internal crises that are part of dynamics transcending national borders. In all probability the situation cannot continue indefinitely. And the Touareg rebellion represents a breaking point. 

The Sahel is a large strip of desert 5,500 km in length, which stretches 400 to 500 km in width and forms a pivotal area of contact and trade which is difficult to control. The Sahel represents the border line, "the transition between the Mediterranean and sub-Saharan Africa". It is characterised by a very harsh climate and is "criss-crossed by trans-Saharan routes dating back to the distant past, comparable to sea routes, over which control must be exerted in order to have control over the trade routes" (Mehdi Taje).

With an ethnically diverse population – Tuaregs, Fulani and Moors – and countries that are poorly organised or administered, the problems endemic to this area can rapidly be understood. When referring to the Sahel, the following countries are included: Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Chad and Sudan. However, in the broader sense, more countries fall within the boundaries of this territory.

The factors of instability

The North-South divide, rooted in history and based on a keen ethnic and tribal awareness, delayed any consensus-based creation of the nation-state that was the legacy bequeathed by decolonisation. The philosophical implications of this question would have far-reaching consequences. Did the Tuaregs accept the post-colonial system that gave the ethnic groups of the South dominance over their lands? Serious walls of misunderstanding, and sometimes hostility, have for a long time impeded progress in creating the true national ownership that is vital to the emergence of the nation-state. Until this issue can be directly addressed, any lasting solution for stability in the Sahel region, and in particular, the crisis in Mali, will be impossible.
What are the main factors that cause instability?

1. The impact of colonialism, which played on rivalries between the different actors to counteract the predominantly Muslim wave sweeping in from the North by giving tactical support to the most vulnerable black populations. Colonialists simply had to take advantage of the antagonisms between the different ethnic groups and the fears of the most vulnerable who sought to escape slavery and raids  to establish and consolidate their dominance. During colonial times, "dormant" enmities, friction and hatred emerged, plunging the Sahel into civil wars and so-called internal conflicts.


2. The political and economic failings of the Sahel states, which showed themselves incapable of assuming the attributes of sovereignty across the whole of their territory. One of the major issues that persists is the need for a clear definition of the borders between states, which currently leaves a space that is considerably under-administered, with extremely poor states barely cooperating with one another. Nomadic populations, terrorist groups and arms or drug traffickers enjoy an almost complete freedom of movement which obviously benefits their activities.

3. Drought and a chronic absence of food security; poverty, economic and social vulnerability and the lack of future prospects for many unemployed young people; strong demographic growth (by 2040, the Sahel population is expected to double, to 150 million inhabitants)


4. The growth in all kinds of trafficking, notably drug trafficking from Latin America, which fuels the proliferation of small arms, terrorism and profiteering by radical Islamists mainly belonging to AQIM,


5. The knock-on effects of the recent war in Libya which unleashed forces (distribution of sophisticated weapons, mass returns of Sahel refugees and armed Tuaregs incorporated into Gadhafi’s army), leading to the awakening of the Tuareg rebellion in Mali.


6. Interference by external powers, beginning with the murky game being played by regional powers manipulating causes of tension to better control the proven and potential sources of wealth (oil, gas, uranium, iron, gold, copper, tin, bauxite, phosphate, manganese, rare-earth elements, etc). Qatar’s support for Islamist groups testifies to the expansion of the strategy already used to target Libya and Syria. The goal of this strategy is to push the political rationale of the Arab Spring to the furthest limit, against a backdrop of the exploitation of regional natural wealth.


7. Radical Islam which first and foremost seems to be a conduit through which organised crime becomes established. The movements claiming to take their inspiration from Islamist movements seek mainly to control routes and trafficking that are prospering due to the flaws leaving the Sahel region vulnerable. In the Sahel, the Salafist threat, which is genuine, as it conveys a political and religious message, is mixed up in all local issues: trafficking, rent-seeking, political rivalries, conflicts of interest between nomads and settled people (Arabs and Tuaregs, Moors and Blacks), the relative influence of the army and the security services within different countries, the appetites of the great multinationals, frictions between states, etc. Islamist extremism is establishing itself increasingly as a final refuge in the face of economic, social and political frustrations and as an alternative to the Western democratic model rejected by inhabitants.

The Maghreb and the Sahel. Entwined fates

The Maghreb and the Sahel form a matrix forged by historical forces and shared thinking; the security of one is closely linked to the security of the other. The eruption of instability in the Sahel automatically threatens the stability and security of the countries of the Maghreb over the long term. The issue of the Maghreb can no longer be addressed while viewing it in isolation from the South Sahel strip. The countries of the Maghreb, which have been in democratic transition or in a pre-revolutionary phase since 2011, are exposed to various threats created by the security vacuum characterising the South Sahel strip, amplified by the Libyan security void.

Algeria, Morocco and, earlier, Libya, developed diplomatic, military and covert measures, each with the goal of neutralising the other. The rivalries run deep, the goal being to take leadership of a Sahel region that is troubled and vulnerable, but at the same time offering great opportunities. All are agreed that building a "Greater Maghreb" is a regional necessity and is imperative in the context of globalisation and the proliferation of worldwide initiatives for integration.


Against a backdrop of crisis in the Western Sahara, Rabat is actively repositioning itself on the international and Sahelian scene, replacing Gadhafi, who had made leadership of the region his priority. The initiatives taken by King Mohamed VI with regard to the fight against climate change (COP 22) and the migratory routes between West Africa and Europe are two clear examples of this. Morocco is thus challenging Algerian hegemony on the southern border by highlighting the limits and contradictions of Algerian strategy in the fight against terrorism.


Algiers, in view of its history, the presence of Tuaregs on its territory and its ambitions, has also been developing a complex strategy for many years. Without denying the presence in the Sahel of a hard core of radical Islamists conveying a political and religious message, and resorting to terrorism and armed violence, a second key pointer, framed as a hypothesis, makes it possible to establish AQIM’s impact within the Maghreb and Sahel regions more clearly. Within the Algerian State are decision-making centres operating according to competing strategies, involved in an internal struggle for power and for control of national resources and illegal trafficking. The Arab revolutions marked a point of change and fuelled the fears of Algerian clans, leading them to develop delaying tactics intended to guarantee their survival. To the East, the Tunisian and Libyan revolutions; to the West, pressure from Morocco over the Saharan conflict; and to the South, the conflict in Mali, leading to increasing militarisation involving the Western powers. Finally, Algeria anticipates that its participation in exploring for and exploiting the energy sources of the Sahel might expose it to hostile strategies on the part of the Western powers. For all these reasons, Algeria sees itself as a citadel under siege.


At the same time, Libya established itself as a terrorist crucible, combined with a sanctuary for the commandos openly threatening the security of the Maghreb and the Sahel. After Operation Serval, the armed elements carrying out a tactical withdrawal regrouped in lawless southern Libya. The terrorist problem has merely been displaced, paving the way for a reshaping of the region over a long period of instability. In effect, the terrorist and mafia-type groups have support within the overwhelmed Libyan hierarchy, which struggles to assert its authority over the vast expanses of the South. The Libyan desert has been abandoned to chaos and to the rule of militias competing for control of the weapons and the trafficking.

Operation Serval also led to a diversion of drug trafficking from Latin America, now following a Nigeria-Niger-Libya route and avoiding heavily-monitored Mali. The future of Libya - close to the hotbeds of tension and vulnerability represented by the Darfur region, the Tubu area, the Islamist fundamentalism of Boko Haram and Egypt - is at the heart of the Sahel-Maghreb equation. In the event of a Jihadist revolt in Egypt, the Southwest of the country could form a new focus of instability extending from southern Libya towards Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria. Contagion is just a matter of time, as insecurity has now spread into the Chad-Nigeria region thanks to a favourable cross-border ethno-religious continuum. Niger is on alert. Finally, the collapse of the CAR and a new manipulation of religious differences between Christians and Muslims expanded the area of crisis and fuelled the sources of tension.


*Cahiers de la Méditerranée - La nouvelle géopolitique du Sahel, une opportunité pour refonder le partenariat euro- maghrébin ? - Aomar Baghzouz

*CAIRN - Crise Malienne : Quelques clefs pour comprendre - Jacques Fontaine, Addi Lahouari, Ahmed Henni

*ICG - Mali central : la fabrique d’une insurrection

*Résolution 1973 du Conseil de sécurité des Nations unies

*La situation sécuritaire dans les pays de la zone sahélienne - Henri Plagnol et François Loncle

*Geopolitique du Sahel - Jean-Bernard Pinatel

*Études Internationales 126 - Dirassat Duwalya

Le Centre du Mali : épicentre du djihadisme ?-  Note d’Analyse du GRIP - Bounkary Sangare