Making lasting peace in the Sahel

BY KEN OPALO, African Perspective, MAY 11, 2024

There is certainly no silver bullet, but long-term thinking and fidelity to reality-based policies could put Sahelian states on the path to stability.


I: The economic, governance, and security problems in the Sahel didn’t start with the recent coups

Coups beget coups and tend to retard the process of political development. This is especially true with regard to the institutionalization of regularized leadership turnover. For that reason alone, coups are unambiguously bad. Consequently, it is not surprising that most reactions to the recent coups in the Sahel have pined for the situation ex ante. Calls for “a return to constitutional order” have been ubiquitous.

They have also not been entirely accurate. It is true that the juntas have not done any better than civilian governments before them in addressing the problems of insecurity, misgovernance, and economic deprivation. However, intellectual honesty demands accepting that the coups only worsened already bad trends. Violence was already trending upwards throughout the Central Sahel.

Pinning everything bad on the coups may seem rhetorically convenient for those of us interested in seeing the juntas out of power. But it would be wrong for two main reasons. First, what existed before the Sahelian coups were not democracies. Therefore, mislabeling them as such gives democracy a bad name. At best, these were borderline electoral authoritarian systems (and not merely “flawed democracies”). Second, fixating on an imagined democratic/constitutional past continues to encourage intellectual laziness and prevents pivotal actors from thinking clearly about potential pathways forward. Not only does “a return to democratic constitutional order” make little sense, it is also not a silver bullet.

Let’s be clear. The Sahelian states will not elect their way out of their current economic, political, and security troubles. Armed conflicts are not merely the breakdown of democratic processes — as Chris Blattman argues here, it takes a lot for people to start fighting.1 Therefore, it will take a lot more than hastily-organized elections to ensure that future transitions to democratic constitutional order under civilian rule stick. At this point, there’s a need to focus on the fundamentals of establishing order and a serious rebuilding of the foundations of democratic self-government. Importantly, everyone involved must avoid the allure of magical thinking regarding the power of electoralism.

The gravity of the situation demands nothing less. Despite starting from an unconscionably-high base, the incidence of violence and casualties in the Central Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger) have gone up. Too many civilians keep getting killed by both insurgents and government security forces — over 12,000 in 2023 alone. Over 3 million are internally displaced (out of a total population of over 70 million). The repression of dissenting voices has intensified. The juntas have not kept their word on initial timelines to civilian rule (no surprises there).

Meanwhile, the economic situation in the Central Sahel continues to deteriorate. Conflict has destroyed markets and disrupted transhumance and trade patterns. According to the Food Crisis Prevention Network (RPCA), 10.8m people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger are in need of nutrition assistance, with conditions expected to be particularly acute during this year’s lean season (June-August).

Understanding the origins of the current crises is not just academic. It is vital for coming up with a coherent theory of change towards lasting peace and stability. So when exactly did the proverbial rain start beating Sahelian states?

1- Stagnant/declining agricultural productivity over the last 30 years pushed ever more households into penury and exacerbated inter-communal competition over land and water (all of which have been worsened by climate change). This happened in contexts of high poverty rates. Per capita incomes in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are less than 50% of the African average. Households are struggling, even as ever bigger shares of national budgets go to military spending. In 2022 military spending took 12.4% of the budget in Burkina Faso, 11.4% in Mali, and 7.2% in Niger. All three countries were well above the regional figure of 4.8%.

2- Declining state authority/capacity and the secondary impacts on regulation/collaboration with religious leaders created a vacuum that, in some cases, was exploited by extremists.2 The best way to deal with insurgencies is to prevent them from starting in the first place. That requires both coercive and infrastructural state power. Weak states are bad at both preventing conflict onset and dealing with ongoing conflicts. A vivid illustration of this is the fact that states have had to arm communal self-defense units, thereby civilianizing the conflicts and destroying any hope of accountable state-led counter-insurgency.

3- The Sahelian states have also had to deal with the fallout from the destruction of the Libyan state — which made matters much worse for already weak states by reducing the cost of arms, mobilization, and spread of insurgent ideology. Once conflicts were underway, they took lives of their own, with global jihadist ideological cleaves mapping onto localized communal conflicts and politics. Most insurgents and armed communal vigilantes in the Central Sahel claim allegiance to either the Al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) or the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and their offshoots.

4- As I argue in a recent piece in the Journal of Democracy, the Sahelian states missed the wave of transitions to institutionalized politics (including leadership turnover) in the early 1990s. Mali is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Yet even there everything came tumbling down in the 2012 coup as insurgents threatened the capital, Bamako. The general pattern is that endemic insecurity led to imbalanced civil-military relations, in addition to curtailing the institutionalization of civilian politics in countries that had already revealed structural hostility to the transitions that swept much of the region in the early 1990s.

Overall, I broadly concur with Alexander Thurston’s characterization of the post-coup realities in the Sahel:

The Sahel’s coup wave in 2020-23 has brought a substantial increase in political repression while allowing jihadist violence (and other forms of violence) to expand and worsen. Yet the post-coup trends have, in many ways, been a continuation and amplification of pre-coup trends. Violence was growing before 2020 and has continued growing after; political repression and executive overreach were features of pre-2020 politics as well; and Western-led and Western-backed security initiatives were already faltering before the coups. Moreover, the coups were a consequence — not inevitable but, in retrospect, highly likely — of the pre-coup situation and the interlinked failures of Sahelian civilian elites and French security policy.

Again, those of us interested in seeing the emergence of democratic self-government in the Sahel must not hide from this reality.


II: There is a need for clear thinking on how to stabilize the wider Sahel and create space for political institutionalization and economic prosperity


The biggest obstacle to clear thinking about stabilizing the Sahel at the moment is the fixation on electoralism as a magical solution. The junta’s foreign policy choices further inflamed matters (e.g., expelling the French and Americans and getting closer to Russia and China). Under the circumstances, too many pivotal actors have come to view getting rid of the juntas as a means to ridding the region of Russian/Chinese influence (and allegedly highly-effective disinformation efforts) in the region, after which “free and fair” elections will magically solve the problems of endemic insecurity and poverty.

These lazy frames deserve no airtime. State-building, nation-building, political development, and economic development are certainly related and co-evolve, but they also travel on separate tracks (more on this in a future post). The idea that political development should always be the first in the sequence towards achieving all four is not based on any empirical evidence. Prudence requires working on all four fronts and learning to live with imbalanced development. What’s clear, however, is that order and physical security are indispensable inputs towards well-ordered societies, regardless of the sequencing of the four elements above. With that it mind, it’s worth stating the juntas’ key failures:

Civilianization of conflict through armed self-defense forces and loosely-organized paramilitary groups is a bad idea: Sahelian governments ought to centralize coercive state power. That is the only way of controlling the spread of violence. The more organized armed groups exist, the more opportunities will arise for settling inter-group disputes (many unrelated to the current insurgencies) through violence. The civilian death toll will be unbearably high. It will also raise the economic and political costs of demobilizing armed men and unwinding war-time economies (if in doubt, look at South Sudan). All Sahelian states still enjoy enough legitimacy and have sufficient capacity to be the nuclei of centralized responses to the insurgencies (both through negotiations and taking the fight to spoilers).

Reliance on foreign mercenaries is a bad idea: Outsourcing the fighting to foreign armed actors is unwise, regardless of whether they are Russian, French, American, or whatever. Sahelian states must own the initiative and seek to localize all the conflicts. The internationalization of the conflicts introduces strong incentives to keep fighting. Mercenaries want to be paid and to pillage, and don’t care about the civilian costs of their operations.

Foreign states that can rain fire from the sky care about their parochial agendas with little regard for facts on the ground — indeed, such interventions tend to destroy state capabilities and amplify local conflicts.3 Sahelian states that rely on foreign fighters are likely to overestimate their coercive capacities vis-á-vis insurgents and neglect dialogue-driven peacebuilding. And from the insurgents’ perspective, internationalization offers a great recruiting opportunity as it showcases state weakness, lack of sovereignty/legitimacy, and willingness to expose civilians to unconscionable levels of violence.

3- Failure to provide public goods and services, beginning with security, is a bad idea: The ability to demonstrate the dividends of peace is an imperative when fighting insurgencies. Which is why the Sahelian state’s continued refusal to prioritize human welfare as a core part of the peacebuilding process is deeply worrisome (including the targeting of entire communities or ethnic groups for collective punishment). Even in conflict, governments must not abrogate basic administrative responsibilities.

4- The lack of a coherent mobilization effort against insurgents is a bad idea. What is the point of ending the insurgencies? Obviously, ensuring everyone’s physical safety is important. However, the Sahelian states would be best served to craft an overall political mobilization strategy that envisions life on the other side of conflict. This is important because, as things stand, the Sahelian states merely want to contain the insurgents; or defeat them, but without any substantial change in the material conditions for those affected by conflict — basically a return to the pre-2012 era. That is impossible. There won’t be any unwinding of the clock to allow elites in Bamako, Ouagadougou, and Niamey to luxuriate in wealth derived from smuggling gold to Dubai while their citizens wallow in dehumanizing poverty.

There are no easy solutions to these failures. However, it is worth noting that the most important thing at this point is to beat time. The longer the insurgencies last, the more complicated and baked into local political economies they will get, and the harder it will become for governments to impose order and security for all. The idea of waiting out the juntas before any effort can be made to end the insurgencies is ludicrous. The risk of the insurgencies spreading West and South is real. Even as we wait and hope for future transitions to civilian rule, the immediate job of making peace must go on. Two principles ought to drive peace-building efforts:

[1] Building state capacity must be the overriding priority in the short term. One of the consequences of the cartoonish “add elections and stir as a solution to everything bad” fallacy is the widespread willful neglect of the fact that states and regimes are not the same thing (fetishization of elections also impedes serious actual democracy promotion). A mature understanding of democracy requires an appreciation of how stateness steels democracy; and that the relationship between the two isn’t causal (in either direction). To reiterate, states and regimes are not the same thing.

As Janet Lewis reminds us (in an award-winning but still incredibly underrated book), countless rural insurgencies never begin because capable-enough states nip them in the bud. Importantly, Lewis cautions against viewing insurgency as simply “a form of collective action that boils over into violence” (p. 8). In her case study of rebel group formation in Uganda, Lewis shows that the frequency of rebel group formation declined as “the Ugandan state strengthened its ability to access information from localities outside the capital, allowing it to monitor threats emerging throughout its territory” (p. 92).4

In the case of the Central Sahel, state-building ought to be predicated on two prongs: 1) centralizing the coercive response to insurgences as much as is possible with clear command-and-control structure; and 2) empowering subnational administrative units and local communities to pursue political solutions to localized conflicts (with coercive support from the state when necessary). Notice that this approach would be amenable to gradual introduction of electoral processes at the local level, but without sacrificing peacebuilding and state-building on the alter of meaningless ritual electoralism at the national level (see the recent farce in Chad).

Finally, fostering stability in Burkina Faso should be viewed by ECOWAS and other international actors as critical to overall stability in the Sahel. A stable Burkina Faso would be a strong bulwark against the spread of insurgencies further south, as well as being a critical partner state towards peacebuilding efforts in Mali and Niger. The importance of Burkina Faso’s success is also driven by the fact that its historical state capacity and nature of state-society relations on the matter of religion makes it most likely to make quick demonstrable gains and lessons that can be applied to fighting insurgencies in the wider Sahel.

[2] Negotiating with insurgents must be on the table. The strategies of preventing insurgency (especially deterrent coercive and intelligence capabilities), are not always the best at ending them. For this reason, the first and last kilometre of counterinsurgency must always be political. Before deploying coercion, states must always make clear their political intentions and a willingness to negotiate. The same is true at the tail end following the weakening of insurgents militarily. Ultimately, the ideas behind insurgency can only be defeated politically.

On this front, it is curious that the Sahelian juntas have so far done a very poor job of harnessing popular sovereigntist sentiments to make the political case against the insurgencies. No one should be under any illusion that violence alone with end the Sahelian insurgencies. Addressing the many localized conflicts that have been hijacked by international ideologues will require careful local politics. Given the gravity of the situation, being bad at local retail politics and negotiations is not an option — not even for the men in uniform.


III: Conclusion


2024 promises to be a grim year for Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Civilians will remain caught in the middle of violent confrontations between states, state-sponsored vigilantes, and insurgents. It is unfortunately that the human toll of the violence remains neglected due to the singular focus on the juntas and their coups. This is a mistake. The juntas are a symptom and not a cause of the violence. If the region is to cycle out of military rule and coups, its states must become stronger and capable of guaranteeing civilian security. States and regimes are not the same thing.

There is an urgent need for clarity in how we go from here to lasting peace and stability. That requires brutal honesty about causes and effects of observables. Getting rid of the juntas and institutionalizing civilian rule is an ideal goal, but it does not follow that doing so will solve the problem of insecurity. In any case, endemic insecurity will always make any such transitions precarious. Which is to say that solving the problem of insecurity — by boosting state coercive and localized administrative capacity — should be a much higher priority than it seems to be at this moment in time.


1- Christopher Blattman (2022) Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace, New York, NY: Viking

2- See Rahmane Idrissa (2017) The Politics of Islam in the Sahel: Between Persuasion and Violence, London, UK: Routledge; Sebastian Elischer (2021) Salafism and Political Order in Africa, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Alexander Thurston (2020) Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

3- Nathaniel Powell (2021) France’s Wars in Chad: Military Intervention and Decolonization in Africa, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

4- Janet Lewis (2020) How Insurgencies Begin: Rebel Group Formation in Uganda and Beyond, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CEMAS Board.