Maghreb security challenges are intrinsically intertwined with Sahel instability. Both the Sahel and the Maghreb face significant security concerns, magnified by the regions’ indelible interconnection. Maghreb geopolitical hostilities and power relations are echoed in the Sahel, while the hybrid security crises erupting throughout the Sahel become push factors, ultimately weighing heavily on the policy agendas of North African countries and the EU as well.
Residual identity discontent is among the root-causes of unresolved grievances in the Sahel, breeding security challenges and complicating efforts to restore peace. The rise of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS), composed of ethnic groups including Tuaregs and Haalpular, benefits from the ethnic injustices and community conflicts in areas like Burkina Faso, north Mali, and Niger. The result is interest-based non-state alliances, within which some seek protection, others harbor terror, and others direct anger at the state authorities. In the Sahel, years of regional policies disenfranchising vulnerable populations have fostered revenge-seeking practices against any incarnation of a presumed enemy.
Since its 2013 military intervention in north Mali through Operation Serval, renamed Operation Barkhane in 2015, France has maintained a strong security presence in the Sahel. More recently, the French led-EU Takuba Force joined stabilization operations in the area. But these efforts have struggled from a lack of vision and sustained high casualties, and witnessed thousands fleeing heightened terror and community violence since their intervention. While the Sahelian security situation continues to deteriorate, the French military presence triggers domestic criticism at home.
A year ahead of France’s 2022 elections, French President Emmanuel Macron seeks to convince French voters of the success of Operation Barkhane. Macron showed enthusiasm in the N’Djamena Summit, lauding the role of other EU countries and the engagement of both Morocco and Algeria in Sahel security plans. However, the mass protests against the French military presence in Mali in January 2021 underscored the urgency of finding a lower-cost security approach. Being at the forefront of involvement in the Sahel has put France in challenging domestic and regional situations, ultimately affecting French strategic interests. Either way, securitization overlooks the entrenchment and multidimensionality of security crises. French reliance on allied countries from the Maghreb ignores the fact that each of these countries has its own foreign policy choices.
Meanwhile, a contradictory security paradigm exists in the Sahel where international securitization overshadows local concerns. The western security vision relies on the resonant discourse of the global fight against violent extremism. This vision characterizes the Sahel as a rear base for the actions of violent extremist cells in Europe, diverting attention from the underlying western goal of maintaining a monopoly on access to natural resources. Eclipsed by this dominant narrative, an increasingly significant local vision—equating security with economic development—spreads rapidly in Sahelian communities. True security in the Sahel is jeopardized by these equivocal geopolitical schemes.
Given this divergence between the local aspirations and the strategic plans of major powers, the disconnect in center-periphery relations forcefully compounds grievances in countries of a region already weakened by numerous security challenges such as drug, arms and human trafficking, and the intensification of kidnappings and terrorist attacks. The ungoverned peripheries in the Sahel countries are a breeding ground for a new sense of belonging created by non-state groups with infamous cross-border appeal. These groups provide new "identities" to peripheral populations, whose marginalization becomes an opportunity for an alternative sense of community to emerge. Tackling the identity question in the complex and heterogeneous environment of the Sahel is a difficult task, as any one-sided attempt to address the problem will necessarily be imperfect.
Rebuilding peripheral communities’ trust in central governance should be a cross-cutting priority for both national and international programs responding to Sahelian instability. This demands transforming not only the global narrative on the Sahel, but the Maghreb as well. Migration, for instance, remains the top concern for EU countries. EU states impose the outsourcing of migration deterrence and control on their southern neighbors through unbalanced cooperation or dominated partnerships. However, the objective of curbing migration flows stays unreachable without shifting EU attitudes towards the real forces driving this irregular human mobility. For example, the securitization of migration from Niger to Europe illustrates the challenges in reframing these ill-founded policies beyond visa restrictions and border controls.
Migration is only one of today's global challenges, like climate change, affecting rich and poor countries alike. Policies addressing migration should consider the fact that the Sahel, the epicenter of climate change impacts given its extreme climatic conditions and its uniquely vulnerable populations, has for decades witnessed strong population growth, pervasive poverty, and food insecurity. Indeed, with the livelihood of a majority of its population directly dependent on natural resources, the impacts of climate change on resource availability and food security in the region could prove to be dramatic. The herder-farmer community conflicts in Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso are escalating due to competition over exploitable land and water sources, which combines with other factors influencing vulnerability: corruption, weak governance, and the shrinking influence of central governments—incapacitating existing security instruments and undermining all attempts to sustain peace in the Sahel.
An incubator for a number of perceived threats, over the last decade, the Sahel space has become defined as integral to the future of stability of both the Maghreb and of European neighbors. Both Morocco and Algeria have more to gain than to lose—if they can find common ground to ensure a regional integration of the Maghreb while keeping pace with global changes. What should be disturbing to these countries, and to Europe, is the extremist groups lurking in the vast swathes of the porous south, and the illicit circuits of survival in the Sahel. However, the complicated Moroccan-Algerian relationship has generated a deadlocked regional block—a barrier to meaningful regional engagement from two of Europe’s most important partners in addressing Sahelian threats. Crippled by the geopolitics that continue to heat up the Western Sahara conflict, the Arab Maghreb Union fails to deliver on its promised security roles, especially in the Libyan crisis. Bringing peace to Libya will undoubtedly mitigate violence in the Sahel; contingent upon structural changes on the ground, including the withdrawal of mercenaries and troops that might subvert national unity and muddle the interim government’s endeavors to put an end to the longstanding war.
An insecure Sahel or unstable Maghreb on the EU’s doorstep is understandably a top European policy concern. However, the patronizing attitude from the EU—notably France and Germany—toward southern Mediterranean countries discourages any endeavors to pursue common security goals. Instead of perpetuating the same tired paradigm of “imported security,” there is a necessity to leverage local potentials and change the neo-colonial narratives and the embedded hierarchies between Europeans as peace producers and locals as peace subjects. The peripheral populations in Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Mauritania have received “imported peace(s)” for decades and now at the crux of the security concerns in the Sahel, if empowered, these states have the greatest potential to precipitate regional stability.
Mohammed Ahmed Gain is a professor of Cultural and Identity Studies at Ibn Tofail University (Kenitra), and President of the African Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation. Follow him on Twitter @gainmedah.