Published April 24th, 2020
The Sahara is the large desert area that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea: about 5,000 km from west to east and up to 2,000 km from north to south. North of the Sahara are located the Maghreb states of Morocco (including the annexed territory of Western Sahara), Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. In Egypt, the Sahara is divided by the course of the Nile. Toward the south, it gives way to an arid savannah area, the Sahel. The latter consists of extensive desert areas in the north and increasingly humid savannah regions in the south. It comprises a number of states that include Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan.
The population of the Sahara – predominantly nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples like the Tuareg or the Toubou – construct belonging along local ethno-cultural lines, rather than feeling connected to one of the mentioned states, where they typically account for only a single-digit population percentage, respectively. The borders that run through the Sahara are barely distinguished, and are often transgressed by seasonal migrants or travelling business professionals. Economically, more than half of the desert’s population live off oasis-based commerce, with dates being the most important product. This form of local trade and exchange is the only guarantee for survival in the region. Apart from it, the trade in securities and loyalties plays a key role, while a new and oftentimes informal business sector has emerged of late, which increasingly involves gold mining.
In recent years, the Sahara region has been marked by profound transformations. This is due partly to the decline in oil prices and the resultant crisis of the “Algerian model” of export-financed regional pacification, and partly to the gradual collapse of the Libyan state that has been ongoing since 2011. This has caused a near-standstill of both the seasonal migration from the Sahel to Algeria and the trade in subsidized products from Algeria and Libya. In consequence, migrants from Libya are now entering the Sahara in large numbers, as are militias who are thus boosting the arms industry in the region. At the same time, the collapse of the Libyan regime has opened up new migration routes to Europe.
The map shows the main migration routes through the Sahara. Source: African Monitor
Since the outbreak of the Northern Mali Conflict in 2012, the western route through Mali has been hardly traversable. The eastern route via Khartoum has been closed by Sudanese militias, the so-called “Rapid Support Forces,” funded by the European Union and in the process crucially re-valorised as border guard units.
Meanwhile, Agadez, which used to be a vibrant multicultural city, has become the central migration hub on the route through Niger. In 2016, under heavy European pressure, the government of Niger enforced new laws to restrict mobility and effectively illegalise migration. Today, the hostels and transportation facilities in Agadez lie idle. Although migration to Libya and Algeria does continue, people are now forced to travel by night and to bypass safe itineraries and water points. Death rates on the desert route have risen sharply after 2016 and, according to the IOM, they are now higher than in the Mediterranean.
State presence and militarisation
Adjacent states’ presence in the Sahara is weak and characterised by “remoteness” and a coexistence with clan structures, powerful warlords, a multiplicity of further on-location networks as well as oftentimes disparate governmental interests. Occasionally there are violent interventions induced by the military, whose structures and agendas, on their part, are informed by loyalty toward established local players and traditions such as the high-ranking army personnel, who maintain their own interests in power and profit.
It is thus obvious that numerous military actors are present in the Sahara region, for a number of complex reasons. The huge area cannot be completely controlled by force of arms. In this respect, the United States obtains a beneficial position, as its stabilising missions rely heavily on satellites and drones for recon. Furthermore, U.S. troops maintain a network of bases and outposts – one of which being located off the gates of Agadez, for example – which are air-supplied and largely immune to local influences. In the context of its “war on terror” strategy, not necessarily transparent to outsiders, the U.S. has its specific policy and agenda in the region, which comprises comprehensive surveillance tactics and occasionally the deployment of killer drones. In December 2019, plans were announced to reduce U.S. military involvement.
In turn, Franco-European interventions have been as focused on the military “pacification” of the Sahara as on cultural dominance over, and suppression of, “francophone” Africa, which includes authority over Western African currencies (CFA franc) and Niger’s uranium mines. France currently has 4,500 soldiers stationed as part of Operation Barkhane, while MINUSMA provides some 10,000 soldiers in Mali and the G5 Sahel military joint force are deployed in the regional trans-border zones.
The French troops are heavily dependent on American air reconnaissance, which is all the more important because cooperation with local army units is not free from risks and problems. Thus there is an increasing potential of tension and distrust, especially in the Sahel region, and hostility from the population against the French troops is on the rise.
Monitored by satellites and drones, the people of the region thus attend to their business. They harvest dates and let the migrants pass, they take possession of some scattered gold mines, they seek their opportunity in the national military and they claim better access to medical treatment, to fuel and to grain supplies. It is precisely where European interventions are supposed to control migration movements that they clash with established “connectivity” structures and the traditional mobility of the population. Europe’s fight against migration has destroyed the cautious renaissance of the local economy. Social well-being and development are thwarted under this pressure. Tough leaders will know how to assert themselves under such circumstances, while warlords are gradually taking control of local economies. The resultant, violent entrepreneurship – comprising arms trades, drug deals and human trafficking, while threatening to destroy what remains of interpersonal human affection – seems capable of defying all state interventions and drone strikes.
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Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara. Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012
Julien Brachet, Judith Scheele, The Value of Disorder. Autonomy, Prosperity, and Plunder in the Chadian Sahara, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2019
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