SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA is indeed a troubled zone. Terrorist incursions within the regions of Africa have become a continent-wide crisis that shows no sign of immediate decline, one with potential of consuming the entire continent. Its impact on nations is becoming ever so glaring on the social, political and economic fronts, placing lives and businesses at risks and having the grim prospects of grinding Africa to a halt as indices of development are on the downward spiral. The story of insecurity in the Western part of Africa is particularly troubling, with countries in the Sahel becoming breeding grounds for terrorists that have upended peaceful coexistence and economic cooperation between countries within the Sahel region initially, but now extending beyond that belt. The Sahel, which occupies a vast portion of the West and Central Africa, is a region under threat. In the West and Central Africa, there is a spread of terror attacks that have become intractable, especially in countries within the Sahel. Concerns of rural and urban populace on security have increased as their multidimensional impacts have grown exponentially. In some cases, these have consumed some regimes, leading to the overthrow of some countries’ political leaders as insecurity became one of the strongest excuses for military takeover.
Between 2020 and now, three countries’ democratic leaders within the Sahel have been toppled and replaced by military leaders. One other died in a battleground while going after those described as rebels. Mali’s elected president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, was toppled in an August 2020 coup d’état, led by Assimi Goita, who named Bah Ndaw as a replacement. Ndaw was later replaced by Assimi Goita himself in another coup d’état in May 2021 since when he has been declared interim president and head of government in Mali. Like a domino effect, the president of Guinea, Alpha Condé, was captured on 5 September 5, 2021, in a coup d’état in the capital, Conakry and was replaced by his Special forces commander, Mamady Doumbouya. Few months afterwards, on January 23, 2022, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré of Burkina Faso was removed from office in a coup d’état and replaced by Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba who was later removed in another coup d’état on September 30, 2022, after just eight months over his alleged inability to deal with the country’s Islamist insurgency. Damiba’s successor, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the country’s interim leader is presumably and currently the world’s youngest leader, at 34 years of age. Idriss Déby Itno, Chadian military officer turned politician,was a president who met his death on April 19, 2021, during his pursuit of rebels who could well be described as terrorists.
Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali are currently in turmoil from the onslaught of terrorists. Consideration for Mali is particularly important for a number of reasons. Trouble in that country has a lot of implications for West Africa. Mali, a landlocked country, is easily one of the largest countries in West Africa and the eighth-largest country in Africa by expanse of land. The total land area of the country is 1,220,190 km², currently inhabited by 21,648,647 people, based on the latest United Nations data. The population density in Mali is 17 per km², with vast areas of the country, particularly the rural areas, uninhabitable because of harsh weather and absence of infrastructure. On the contrary, Mali’s few urban communities are inhabited by 44 per cent of the country’s population, with the remaining population living in far-flung areas under sparse government presence, creating a vacuum that is exploited by the armed insurgents and Islamic militia that have become an existential problem and nightmare for the civilian populace and government. The challenges posed in terms of logistics, surveillance and security in a poor country such as Mali are thus glaring.
Mali, in comparison with Nigeria, provide some clear insights. Nigeria’s total area of 923,770 km² is 75 per cent of that of Mali whereas the population of Mali is 10 per cent of Nigeria’s and is less than the population of Lagos State in the Southwestern Nigeria. Military personnel and manpower needed for ensuring and sustaining internal security and territorial integrity are clearly a major problem for Mali and are in short supply for a country considered very important as one of the four countries considered to be the epicentre countries for violent extremism in West Africa. In reality, the burgeoning insecurity and increasingly violent attacks committed by terrorist groups within Mali, the emergence of self-defence groups in the centre as a result of inadequate government protection as well as internecine hostilities all clear show that the country still needs foreign military support to fend off the various threats within its territory. BTI Project, a think tank, disclosed that the democratisation process in Mali is perpetually being restarted, partly in reference to events since August 2020 coup d’état, which it described as demonstrating the bankruptcy of the Malian democratic system.
The Malian population, according to BTI Project, had hoped to see social, economic and security improvements due to democratisation. But they seem disappointed as the political and security reforms necessary in the country have not been implemented under the circumstances in which the inability of political actors to find solutions to the population’s concerns has led to the deterioration of the socioeconomic situation and has dealt a blow to Mali’s national unity. Unfortunately, internal rumpus and local geopolitics are complicating Mali’s security challenges even more. What had a semblance of some regional will to counter the terrorist threat is suffering some setback now as a result of the attitude of Mali’s political leadership. An alliance, known as the G5 Sahel Joint Force or G5S (French: G5 du Sahel), formed on February 16, 2014 but set up as an institutional framework for coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security matters in west Africa in 2017 to fight terrorism and the trafficking of drugs and people in the region, now suffers serious setbacks.
The alliance was meant to foster regional cooperation and address security threats in its member countries, notably Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Although the initiative is being supported financially and technically by France, there are reasons to wonder whether such a support could continue and for how long. In addition to possible prospects of donor fatigue from France, Mali’s demographics and economy could create greater insecurity challenges in the future. With the median age of 16.3 years and 67 per cent of its population estimated to be under the age of 25 in 2017, a poor country such as Mali is likely headed for trouble with greater unrests and more criminal ventures prompted by poverty, dysfunctional legal system and other evidences of failed state.
It is unrealistic to contemplate mass prosperity in a country troubled by such negative economic impacts of terrorism of the magnitude of an estimated $1,126.5 million between 2007 and 2019. It is also more of a delusion to expect a sudden turnaround of national fortune in a country with a total of 68.3 per cent of the population living in multidimensional poverty and 76.1 per cent living on less than $3.10 per day (2019) and half of the population, or 49.7 per cent, living on less than $1.90 per day. Many of the young men under these circumstances are potential recruits for terrorists and violent extremism. The cause-effect relationships are straightforward and the prognosis is simple, from the negative impacts of the multidimensional crisis on Mali’s economy. The country is easily one of the poorest countries in the world, based on the U.N. Human Development Index. Its serious socioeconomic difficulties are inextricably linked to its high rate of population growth, high rates of illiteracy and unemployment, especially among the youth.
The inability of government to expand education opportunities for adults, especially in the secondary and higher education sectors, or in vocational training circles, all have negative implications for Mali’s future in a knowledge-driven world economy, as the government does not seem to prioritise non-formal education for the two-thirds of adults who are illiterates. The lack of protection for the preponderant informal economy in Mali discourages legitimate investments with prevailing official corruption weakening official mechanisms and institutions established to combat the misappropriation of public funds.
Prominent voices have expressed concerns about the actions and pronouncements of Mali’s military junta in recent times. Of note was the alarm expressed alarm about the recent departure of Mali from the region’s security architecture. The decision of Malian transition authorities to withdraw from the G5 Sahel and its Joint Force on May 15, earlier this year, is a major setback to the fight against terrorism in West Africa in general and Mali in particular. Mali reportedly pulled out after it was disallowed from assuming the leadership of the group. In addition, the G5 Sahel, expected to tackle terrorism head on, has not convened a high-level political meeting since November 2021 despite the urgency of their tasks that require regular engagements. It is also important to point out the unique challenge of uprooting terrorism in Sahel where terrorist groups are often deeply embedded within communities without reliable data and information and without sophisticated surveillance and tracking technologies to aid appropriate targeting and to minimise collateral damages. It has been recognised that if civilians fall victim to counter-terrorism operations, those efforts will only undermine trust in the state.
ECOMOG type of interventions some three decades was against conventional armies, not against insurgents and terrorists. It is necessary to inquire as to what led to the failure of such a military intervention force within the West African sub-region, especially when their actions were found to have violated military interventionist roles. Counter-terrorism interventions in West Africa have therefore remained problematic for a variety of reasons. According to the International Centre for Counter-terrorism (ICCT), the security landscape has taken a new turn across the Sahel. “During the first six months of 2022, in an area already ravaged by numerous interconnected armed conflicts and jihadist insurgencies, figures show a dramatic increase of violent attacks. The epicentre of this crisis is the tri-border region between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. It is now spilling over towards the Gulf of Guinea, particularly in Togo, Benin and Ivory Coast. Civilian populations in particular are paying the price for the growing violence, with internally displaced persons reaching into the millions in the Western Sahel.
The “wave” of military coups d’état across the Sahel over the last two years is calling to question the security strategies and the whole system of intervention deployed in the area during the last ten years. After nearly a decade, the failures of ECOWAS mechanisms on West Africa’s territorial security are now evident. The ECOWAS Counter Terrorism Strategy (ECTS), adopted in February 2013 by the Authority of Heads of State and Government to address the militant crisis in the region, has not made any effort or progress in its overall implementation since its approval. The deteriorating state of security in West Africa is therefore worrisome and something urgent needs to be done. The member countries need to wake up as the region is gradually but steadily losing control to the terrorists, some of which are intent on state capture. A West Africa that is ruled by terrorist government is a bad dream that must not only be wished away but must be fought against. Terrorist trouble looms, but the reality must not be allowed to come to stay.