3 April 2012

West Africa: Sahel-Saharan Africa - Global Problems That Require Global Solutions

Photo: UNICEF/Patricia Esteve
A malnourished boy eats UNICEF-provided therapeutic food.


The Sahel-Saharan region is a large, arid area in the deserted Northern part of Africa. It runs from East to West in between Senegal and the confines of Sudan. The population is sparse and very difficult to reach in this strip of land. Today, the region has become a no man's land out of any State control.

There, a zone of lawlessness has been established in which one can find drug traffickers, disappointed members of the Tuareg rebellion, highwaymen, former and heavily armed Gaddafi soldiers and AQIM fighters.

The Sahel-Saharan region is the new Wild West in Africa: in rebellion against any kind of central powers, it has become an area of all hazards. Powerfully disruptive to neighboring countries and - beyond - to the world, it is also a worry for the international community. The latest has felt the danger, but pain to grasp its full extent. Hence, it has not yet found the antidote to cure the disease.

A New Somalia In Mali?

The instability and lack of mature political systems, the drug trafficking, terrorist threats and the fierce competition in mining exploitation are some of the problems that threaten the peace in this region, making its development impossible. Of course, most failures are compounded by the absence of strong states able to fully perform their sovereign functions. They are generally poor countries, badly managed because of corrupt political systems.

The coup that just happened in Mali is a prime example of the instability of the state entities in the region. After twenty years of an "exemplary" democracy, this country is plunging into anarchy. Who could believe that second ranked military may one day have overthrown president Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) and that, two months only before the end of his second and final term? If we add to this the Tuareg rebellion, which is progressing in Northern Mali, the risk to see the country fall into chaos is great. A scenario that is very similar to what happened in Somalia two decades ago.

Thus, despite the appearances and the benefits brought by the establishment of a democratic system, this still needs to be consolidated in our latitudes. The lack of freedom, the absence of a public opinion that can ensure sustainability and the lack of an exemplary leadership especially in relation to corruption are detrimental. The devastating scale of trafficking in general -- and that of drugs in particular-- is a permanent source of instability and lawlessness throughout the Sahel-Saharan Africa.

Because of a more effective control on the traditional ways that drugs transit towards Europe and North America, South American traffickers have decided to create new routes through West Africa. Already, Guinea-Bissau has fallen into their hands. The state services of other West African countries, such as customs and /or emigration, have become so sound financially that this contradicts the very low wages earned by their employees. Almost everywhere in the capitals cities of the Sahel-Saharan region, one can witness districts being built by these new rich whose money comes from cooperating with traffickers.

Another example of this alleged "cooperation": the famous Boeing charged with cocaine that landed in the desert of Mali, in November 2009, at an airport built especially for the occasion. The plane was found burn, but no trace ever of its cargo. No one was arrested either. However, building a track in the desert takes a long time. This could not have been done without the Malian authorities being informed.

Drugs, terrorism and Mining

Drug trafficking generates huge profits. So, in poor countries, it attracts many people and manages to create all kind of complicity. That is happening right now in the Sahel-Saharan States. Especially since the idea of drugs "only" passing by this zone ----that is not intended to "our country"-is being enforced. A most serious threat is the ability of traffickers to corrupt leaders and state officials of the region in order to ensure their support.

In other words, drug traffickers have the financial ability to "buy" states and populations. For a while, Muammar Gaddafi generously distributed petrodollars to the presidents and African leaders in exchange for their diplomatic support. Drug dealers do not require any special efforts from the people who are in charge, except closing their eyes. A growing and safe market... safe enough, anyway, to attract more and more people from all condition! And that's where the danger lies because this phenomenon is growing increasingly in the area, with its immutable corollary: corruption. The latest is the other disease afflicting African countries and undermining all chances for development or strengthening of those entities.

To these threats, one may add the Salafist groups who occupied in the recent years the Northern part of Mali, bordering Algeria. These small groups have established good relations with indigenous peoples. They provide some services and are generous with them. Their estimated number varies in between three to five hundred people. They recruit mainly from the ranks of Mauritanians. Their main source of funding is the abduction and kidnapping of Westerners. In recent years, they were able to raise over 100 million dollars from their criminal activity.

Knowing how to use the media with dexterity, Islamic extremists give the impression to the outside world that they are the only ones to be there, and that they control the situation in those countries. The insecurity they maintain over the lives of Western citizens amplifies their activities. But with the death of Osama bin Laden and the outbreak of Arab revolutions, this movement has encountered more difficulties to recruit new soldiers for the Jihad. Therefore, although still present and active, terrorism in these countries has no real prospects for growth.

Although still a problem for the region, the attention to terrorism is hiding the reality on the ground. Since the fight against this global phenomenon is much more covered by the press, the other -more serious-- problems posed to the region are being overshadowed. For example, programs for assistance and/or training the armies of the Sahel-Saharan Africa may come first hand. An effort that is necessary, but not sufficient for solving, once and for all, the problems of this region.

Finally, there is the mining exploration. Right now, it is developing dramatically since the region contains many deposits. However, in this part of the world, it may happen that small unlisted companies and some large multinationals violate the rules of transparency and moral's rigor. They may agree to contract "under the table" with corrupt leaders. Tough competition leads them to commit more and more (occult) funds in order to win permits for exploitation. Such a practice, unfortunately, helps create new potentates and revive competition for the conquest of power. This is another cause for concern because of the instability it generates.

These destabilizing factors consistently exceed states, insofar as drug dealers, terrorists or mining prospectors do not allow themselves to be stopped at the borders. Therefore, they are always running ahead what allows them to escape detection. This is why the problems mentioned above cannot be separated. They demand a global response from the regional states and their partners.

Also it would be a grave mistake to believe that a single country can face these problems by itself; or that one should focus only on one aspect such as terrorism. The problems of this region must be treated holistically, without exclusion of any state and away from circumstantial bickering

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