A Region Most Neglected: The Multi-Dimensional Crisis of the Sahel

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People gather at the site of a suicide attack at a Market in Konduga outside Maiduguri, Nigeria Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017. Suicide bombers attacked a camp for internally displaced people and a nearby market in a northeastern Nigeria village, a local official said Tuesday. (AP Photo/ Jossy Ola)

Violence and conflict in the Sahel region have significantly worsened over the past few years. As the number of violent attacks have increased by three-fold in the Lake Chad basin since 2015, and worse still, eight-fold in the Central Sahel region in the same time period,[1] more than 2 million Sahelians have found themselves internally displaced, with another 850,000 seeking cross-border refuge in the past one and a half years alone.[2]

The tension in the region has been exacerbated by the southward expansion of Islamic jihadist militant activities into sub-Saharan Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Nigeria.[3] Besides fighting state-led counter-terrorism forces, violence has also simultaneously erupted between the rival jihadist factions of al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat Al-Islam wa’l Muslimin (JNIM) and the ISIS affiliate Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), as they vie over competing ideological principles and new territorial footholds in the region. As a result, counter-terrorism forces have been building up in the Sahel, with the French-led Takuba Task Force being the latest addition to the existing G5 Sahel and French-led Operation Barkhane counter-terrorism efforts,[4] creating what experts are now calling a “traffic jam of military forces” in the region.[5]

Yet, despite beefing up counter-terrorism forces, the Sahel has experienced a five-fold intensification of jihadist attacks and inter-ethnic violence since 2016,[6] evidently indicating that the counter-terrorism strategy has been largely ineffective in rooting out instability in the region. [7] A key explanation for the ineffectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts is that terrorist militant activities are, in fact, symptomatic of the multi-faceted issue of food shortages (and hence food insecurity), high unemployment, and the lack of basic services available to the local rural populations. With the state largely absent in providing food, lodging, and security due to its inability to penetrate infrastructurally into the outskirts of the rural regions, rural groups have turned towards armed forces for services.[8]

Part of the problem is also driven by climate change. As a semi-arid region heavily reliant on rainfed agriculture, the Sahel is experiencing the world’s most critical crisis of food insecurity of the day as about 80% of its farmland has been degraded by extreme droughts in the past few decades.[9] Additionally, its desertification has not been helped by its rising temperatures—rapidly increasing at 1.5 times the global average—which would take its current average temperature of 35°C up by at least 3-5°C by 2050.[10] With its arable land and water resources literally drying up, new inter-communal conflicts have thus been kindled while forced migration has been intensified in the Sahel, according to Inga Rhonda King, the President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UN ECOSOC). [11]

Moreover, food insecurity and the lack of job opportunities are further exacerbated by the increasing population pressure exerted by an expanding Sahelian population. Due to the high fertility rates between 4.1 and 7.6 children per woman on average in the region, demographic growth rates have continued unabatedly between 2.5 percent to about 4 percent per annum. In fact, the United Nations estimates conservatively that the region’s population will explode from 135 million in 2015 to 330 million by 2050, assuming that fertility rates (unrealistically) taper down to a medium level over time.[12] With a ballooning population, it is therefore unsurprising that competition over already scarce food, resources, and job opportunities have intensified, and will continue to intensify in the Sahel over the next few decades.

The void left behind by the Sahelian governments’ inability to address these systemic core issues thus provides fertile ground for terrorist groups like the JNIM and the ISGS to take root in the region. In the face of evaporating food supply as a result of extreme climate conditions, Sahelians like 17-year old Younoussa find themselves having to choose between joining an armed terrorist or insurgent group in which they would be vastly underpaid and exploited, or slowly starving to their deaths.[13] Acutely aware of the Hobson’s choice that many Sahelians face, shrewd terrorist and insurgent armed groups deliberately exploit this difficult dilemma to forcibly recruit many Sahelians into their armed movements, often against the wishes of the latter.[14] Younoussa, for instance, was visibly saddened that he had to join an armed group in order to survive; he said in an interview with BBC correspondents, “I don’t want to be with an armed group. I want to be with my family again and get a job.”[15] Yet, Younoussa’s circumstances and sentiments are not unique, as many Sahelians find themselves increasingly lured by the prospect of joining armed groups for survival as their livelihood options continue to evaporate rapidly amid an increasingly vulnerable state of existence.[16]

It is within this context that we ought to re-evaluate our approach in the Sahel. With millions of Sahelians trapped in a vicious cycle of conflict-induced vulnerability and climate-induced conflict exacerbation, it is clear that the short-term measures of urgent humanitarian action and counter-terrorism efforts remain an important priority. Yet, these short-term measures are merely symptom-management measures that do not effectively treat the root cause of instability in the region—which is low state capacity and ineffective governance especially in the rural regions. Indeed, with all ten Sahelian countries ranking at the very bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index,[17] the greatest imperative for the Sahel in the long-term would be to promote better governance. This improvement may look like ramping up state capacity and infrastructure through major investments in education, healthcare, population control, and improving food security. It may also come through combating corruption and hosting inter-communal conciliatory dialogues with armed groups in search of a permanent cessation of hostilities, and hopefully, a long-lasting peace. As the rest of the world has pursued their own progress and development, the Sahel has been a perennially conflict-ridden and severely underdeveloped region, leaving Sahelians behind in a state of extreme poverty, violent conflict, underdevelopment, and vulnerability as they struggle to carve out an existence for themselves.


[1] UNICEF, “Sahel Crisis: 29 Million Sahelians Need Humanitarian Assistance and Protection,” April 27, 2021, https://www.unicef.org/wca/press-releases/sahel-crisis-29-million-sahelians-need-humanitarian-assistance-and-protection.

[2] UNHCR, “Grim Milestone as Sahel Violence Displaces 2 Million Inside Their Countries,” UNHCR, January 22, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2021/1/600a92e4125/grim-milestone-sahel-violence-displaces-2-million-inside-countries.html.

[3] Frank Gardner, “Is Africa Overtaking the Middle East as the New Jihadist Battleground?,” BBC, December 3, 2020.

[4] Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris, “Rethinking Crisis Responses in the Sahel,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 22, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/rethinking-crisis-responses-sahel.

[5] Naz Modirzadeh, Richard Atwood, and Jean-Hervé Jezequel, “The War in the Sahel,” Crisis Group, February 25, 2021, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/war-sahel.

[6] Crisis Group, “A Course Correction for the Sahel Stabilisation Strategy,” Crisis Group, February 1, 2021, https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/299-course-correction-sahel-stabilisation-strategy.

[7] Devermont and Harris, “Rethinking Crisis Responses in the Sahel”.

[8] Richard Skretteberg, “Sahel: The World’s Most Neglected and Conflict-Ridden Region,” accessed May 10, 2021.

[9] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The Magnitude of the Problem,” accessed May 11, 2021, http://www.fao.org/3/X5318E/x5318e02.htm.

[10] Skretteberg, “Sahel: The World’s Most Neglected and Conflict-Ridden Region”.

[11] United Nations, “Building Climate Resilience and Peace Go Hand in Hand for Africa’s Sahel – UN Forum,” November 13, 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/11/1025671.

[12] John F. May, Jean-Pierre Guengant, and Thomas R. Brooke, “Demographic Challenges of the Sahel,” Population Reference Bureau, January 14, 2015, https://www.prb.org/sahel-demographics/.

[13] Lyse Doucet, “The Battle on the Frontline of Climate Change in Mali,” BBC, January 22, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/the-reporters-46921487.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Robert Muggah and José Luengo Cabrera, “The Sahel Is Engulfed by Violence. Climate Change, Food Insecurity and Extremists Are Largely to Blame,” World Economic Forum, January 23, 2019, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/all-the-warning-signs-are-showing-in-the-sahel-we-must-act-now/.

[17] United Nations Development Programme, “Latest Human Development Index Ranking (2020),” December 15, 2020, http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/latest-human-development-index-ranking.