West Africa: The 'Independent Entrepreneurs' of the Sahel

23 September 2020

Through photos taken over a decade, The Dynamics of Dust provides a rare look into the lives of people in the Sahel and their dreamy desert landscapes.

The contours of the Sahel crisis seem to grow more concerning and defined every year. In most popular depictions, light shines on the forces of good and evil - the Sahelian states vs. Islamist terrorists - locked in an epic struggle for terrain, hearts and minds. One side is backed by valiant Western democracy, the other by blood-soaked apocalyptic cults.

Images do much to reinforce this narrative. Since January, troops from France and the central Sahel countries Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have surged to confront the so-called Islamic State in their tri-border area. Reporting on the debut of the campaign, France24 and wire agencies showed the Sahelian heads of state - Emmanuel Macron at the centre or clenching his fist in the foreground - projecting unity and authority as they vowed to recover ground lost to terrorists.

But more quietly, this surge coincided with violence by security forces against civilians on an unprecedented scale. Brutal images circulated privately. WhatsApp messages showed bodies that state forces had disappeared and beaten: a foot rising from a mass grave in western Niger; scarlet welts on the hollow chests and backs of displaced persons security forces had beaten in a raid on a camp in northeastern Burkina Faso. These images, widely shared among people in the Sahel, retold the conflict narrative from the point of view of its front lines. For populations living here, state forces could be the blood-soaked killers, and the terrorists fighting them off the protectors.

The Dynamics of Dust, a new book by Swiss photographer Philippe Dudouit, captures this nuance. It sketches a Sahel inhabited by fluid actors who belong to neither terrorist groups nor the state but fluctuate in the vast space between. His images were shot over a decade of slow travel to iconic warscapes in southern Libya, northern Mali, and northern Niger. They provide a rare and intimate look into the lives of those for whom conflict is a means of material, cultural or ideological survival, and the dreamy desert landscapes in which they operate.

Dudouit first travelled to the Sahel in 2008 on an assignment to photograph rebel groups that had seized parts of northern Mali and Niger. He had no idea that the region would become his focus for the next decade. Dudouit had shot rebels in Kosovo, DR Congo, Macedonia, and Côte d'Ivoire and was interested in how photography could form a bridge between disparate movements. The Dynamics of Dust begins with shots from this period as two rebel groups - the ADC and MNJ - plot and patrol areas captured from government forces. There are portraits of gristly commanders and young recruits in rose-coloured turbans. The state appears only in ghostly absentia, like the Malian army base at Abeibara captured by rebels in 2008.

By 2012, two dynamics had transformed the cat-and-mouse tussle between states and rebels. Fundamentalists with links to Algerian and transnational extremist groups who had developed strong local support networks went on the offensive. Meanwhile, the NATO-backed uprising in Libya had toppled the Gaddafi regime, leaving southern Libya stateless and unleashing a maelstrom of weapons across the region. Dudouit's networks gave him unparalleled access as a new phase of conflict began.

Extremists seized northern Mali, turning police stations in fabled places like Timbuktu into sadistic sites of "Islamic" justice. Dudouit travelled to Kidal and Tinzawatene in Mali's far north that year and photographed rebels. Ten months later, a French-led military intervention wrested back control of the north's urban centres.

The conflict then changed yet again. In 2015, a rebel alliance and the Malian government signed a peace deal built around decentralisation, integrating former rebels into a reconstituted national army, and economic development of the north. But implementation proved difficult. Five years later, very little has progressed.

At the same time, trafficking and migration became the major markers of conflict. A surge of arrivals on European shores led to attempted crackdowns on smuggling networks in the Sahel. Dudouit's photo "stranded migrants" shows dozens of young men abandoned in northern Niger, desperate yet defiant against a dust-washed blue sky. Meanwhile, drug lords with ties to both extremists and states kept sending cocaine and hashish east across the Sahara, especially via the Salvador pass, a Martian stretch of rock-cropped desert running between Niger and Libya. In "Salvador Pass area" (2013), a single Toyota crosses the traffickers' tracks flanked by singed plateaus.

Although his travels and networks make him more expert than most (I know no specialist who can say she has been to the Salvador pass), Dudouit consciously avoids supplying a narrative, which he sees as a trap detracting from the immediacy of daily life. His images show people and places refreshingly free from projection. It is coy but also insistent that he labels gun-toting men with no rebel affiliation "independent entrepreneurs". Indeed, perhaps the strongest images are the portraits where men stare straight into the camera, more subject than object. For no one sees himself as a trafficker, terrorist, or migrant - some are pursuing dreams, others opportunity, far more simply survival. That Western narratives of the Sahel are overwhelmingly populated with these caricatures is a worse indictment of the narratives and the values that produce them than of the inhabitants of this region.

Today, the parameters of the conflict are once more transformed. Extremist movements have resurfaced as rural insurgents in a protracted battle against Western-backed state forces. Borderland civilians are caught in the crossfire. Once relatively confined to northern Mali, the epicentre now comprises parts of three countries. As time passes, the bloodletting expands further into each.

Time and the terrain do not seem to be on the side of the states who, with European encouragement and funding, are securitising their borders. So far this has led more often to confrontation, abuses, and withdrawal than control. The 18 August coup in Mali, which came after months of protests in Bamako, shows the extent to which states are struggling to govern even their centres, let alone their outer reaches.

Dudouit's book is a timely reminder of the challenges borderlands pose to Saharan states. It suggests that encountering these on their own terms may provide new forms of access and openings.

The Dynamics of Dust is published by Edition Patrick Frey (2019). Find out more here.

Hannah Rae Armstrong is a Dakar-based writer and policy analyst with more than a decade of field-based experience in the Maghreb and Sahel regions.

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