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“The Sahel is navigating between Islamo-nationalism, the communalization of jihad and international rivalries” (Dr. Bakary Sambe)

This interview with Dr. Bakary Sambe is the long version of an interview given to the French online magazine Le Point Afrique in early February 2023 which was conducted by the eminent journalist specializing in strategic issues, Malick Diawara. Among other issues related to the burning news in the Sahel and West Africa, this interview deals with issues related to the ongoing political transitions in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Dr. Sambe answers straightforward questions about the perception of security cooperation in the Sahel, the contestation of the French presence and the contradictions of Europe on the issue of migration. He pleads for a better awareness of interdependencies and the topicality of the notion of “collective security” in a world in upheaval.

He also, in the context of the war in Ukraine, returns to the rivalries between powers and the struggle for influence between Western powers, Russia, China and emerging powers of the Middle East in addition to the issues of the dispute between Algeria and Morocco and its impact in the construction of new political and economic spaces at the continental level.

How do you see the political and social evolution of the countries concerned, particularly those of the Sudano-Sahelian strip?

The States of the region cannot escape the global trend according to which governments will be increasingly confronted with the pressure of various demands that they cannot satisfy, a rise in power of civil societies and citizens who are more and more informed and demanding. This explains all the recent turmoil in Mali, Burkina Faso and elsewhere. In addition, the efforts made for democracy and the adherence to the neoliberal economy have not kept their promises of security and development. The populations are rising up against their national authorities as well as their international partners.

The accumulation of problems that have led to institutional crises coupled with security crises has turned the region into a boiler, a pressure cooker that is only waiting for the circumstantial conditions of deflagration whose debris will cause a domino effect that is already of concern to our States and the international community. There is the multiplication of inter-community conflicts, the shortcomings of the fight against terrorism, while with the stigmatization of certain communities and the generalized ostracism, we have already entered the era of a communalization of the Jihad which threatens many States with progressive implosion. While we refuse to change the paradigm in this struggle that is far from being won.

What evolution do you see on the front of radicalism and religious fundamentalism?
Radicalization is no longer solely religious or ideological, although extremist groups like to put an Islamic veneer on all the mobilizing conflicts that allow them to recruit by presenting themselves, from now on, as “legitimate” protectors of marginalized communities in border areas. What is happening in the region is the final phase of a long struggle for influence and competition between religious models. Faced with the weakening of the leadership of traditional Islam in countries such as Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and, to a lesser extent, Côte d’Ivoire, the salafist currents have had the fine strategy of using technological and communicational modernity to better combat social and democratic modernity. In addition, salafism has now imposed itself not as the religion of those who are resistant to social progress, but as the mode of religiosity that recruits the most among the elites.

There is a little visible and under-researched trend of an elitization of extremism and a progressive salafization of Islamic practice in the region. The contestation of secularism in Mali today is made in the name of a demand for sovereignty of thought and an endogenization of modes of governance. This tendency is the result of two factors: the recurrent links between the traditional Islamic leadership and all the successive regimes with a political class that is now largely rejected by a youth in search of meaning and opportunity. There is also the capacity of salafist currents to create discursive spaces of convergence with traditional Islam. They do this through the contestation of the secular model but also through the “defense of values” against what they call the Westernization of society and its “shortcomings” such as homosexuality and the “depravity of morals”.

You have just published a book entitled “Islam in Senegal. Where do the brotherhoods come from? How can they make a difference in a country like Senegal? Can they be a real brake on religious extremism in the current context?
Brotherhood Islam is often analyzed in Senegal as the main bulwark against the radical Islamism that is already shaking several regions of the world and the Sahel. But the problem is that this confraternity model is weak in the eastern border regions, which are the most exposed and neighboring Mali and Mauritania.

We must remain vigilant in the face of recent developments: the disappointment of young bangs vis-à-vis the confraternity discourse and certain marabouts seen as allies and guarantors of successive regimes has favored the influence of salafist doctrines perceived as more modern and committed, such as “theologies of liberation” seducing even the educated elites. At the end of my last book, “D’où viennent les confréries?”, I explain the rise of a form of islamo-nationalism favoured by the cyclical inseparability between the religious and nationalist imaginations at a time when various identity claims are emerging. Paradoxically, today they unite certain members of the traditional left who are regenerating with Salafist movements under the banner of rejecting neo-liberalism and contesting Western domination, which is gaining ground in the region.

Do you see a link between what is currently happening in the Sahel and the issues of the food and health crisis?
Everything is connected. The Sahelian crisis is multidimensional; its resolution will be achieved precisely by moving away from mono-causal analyses. It is no coincidence that in recent years the international community has moved towards the paradigm of a security-development nexus.

The security crisis in Burkina Faso and in the tri-border area of the Liptako Gourma in general has enormous consequences for the movement of populations and the abandonment or extortion of cultivable land. Insecure roads and the control of trade routes by extremist or criminal groups inevitably have an impact on food production and the availability of food in areas that have been severely affected by mass exodus. There are more than 2 million internally displaced persons in Burkina Faso today, not to mention the closure of more than 5,000 schools, not to mention the humanitarian consequences of the massive influx of refugees, with no less than 9,000 already heading to neighboring Côte d’Ivoire alone.

How do you think the situation and the management of the migration issue will evolve in this area?
During a meeting with a European Head of State visiting Senegal, I told him that Europe should take into account the new situation, according to which we have become an international community that is increasingly close because of the vulnerability we share. Terrorism strikes us in Gao, Timbuktu, Ayerou or Tchintabaraden, but threatens you every day in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere in Europe.

Far be it from me to believe in a massive flood of migrants from the continent to Europe in case of a major crisis. Europe believes it has created the conditions – sometimes selfishly and at the cost of its own principles – for a façade of protection against African migration by spending colossal sums on initiatives such as Frontex and other trust funds. But it forgets our interdependence, which is now accentuated by the illusory nature of watertight borders.

The world economy from which it derives the greatest benefit also exposes Europe to various vulnerabilities in terms of raw material supply. It is true that intra-continental migration is far more important than migration to Europe, which continues to barricade itself against Africa, whose natural resources it needs as well as the vitality of its youth. But the latter is less and less willing to accept and challenge the unequal paradigm of globalization where human flows seem to be one-way. You know, this one-way mobility is central to the perceptions of African youth who, in order to challenge a former colonial power, often first attack the visa services of consulates, as recently in Ouagadougou. As if it were necessary to use the very symbol of discord as a means of venting their anger.

With all the upheavals currently observed, notably the departure of French troops from Mali and Burkina, the installation of Wagner,…, what security situation do you foresee in and around the Sahel?
Wagner has never been an actor in regulation or stabilization; in fact, the use of Wagner is a sign of security failure, either assumed or repressed in populism. The famous rise in power of the FAMS, supported by Wagner, in Mali is often against ostracized communities that were more in need of protection than persecution. It is well known that in Mali, in particular, all of these movements – armed or terrorist – are each backed by a tribe, and some of their leaders even have a second hat as a tribal chief. A recent report by the Timbuktu Institute announced in mid-January that a clear alliance is emerging between the signatory movements and the JNIM against the EIS, which could mark a major turning point in the northern regions for the year 2023. This unexpected situation may also rekindle inter-communal tensions, particularly between the Tuareg and the Peulh (Fulani), and increase acts of banditry and other forms of violence.

The official end of the Barkhane operation in the Sahel announced by French President Emmanuel Macron on November 9, 2022, raises questions about the future of the G5 Sahel force in Niger and Burkina Faso, which are still members. The territorial discontinuity of the G5 Sahel following Mali’s withdrawal alone risks giving more space to radical groups in the tri-border area. The future of the G5 Sahel is fraught with uncertainty, as a new alliance of circumstances between Mali and Burkina Faso is emerging that will consolidate Wagner’s presence in the region. In addition, the tense climate between Mali and Niger makes it politically and practically impossible to take a common approach, let alone the necessary cooperation in the so-called “Three Borders” zone. Certainly, Burkina is preparing itself accordingly with a massive recruitment of VDP and a very likely rapprochement with Wagner.

At the same time, Niger is opting to strengthen its national guard through a nomadic component and the support of its international partners, notably France, Italy and Germany, among others. But the truth is that in Mali, the Wagner option and the “all-military” approach have not produced the expected results. On the contrary, in addition to the isolation of the country from its traditional partners and immediate neighbors, serious human rights violations, ethnic and communal amalgamation and the massacres of civilian populations make the situation much more critical than before. With such a situation, there is every reason to believe that Mali is headed for a situation more serious than that of 2012, which will not spare any part of the country and, worse, will quickly spread to neighboring countries.

How could the alliances between Maghrebian and sub-Saharan countries between them and Europe and the United States, between them and countries such as China, India and Russia, while the latter is now mired in its war against Ukraine?

In Europe, public opinion will tend to tire of the war in Ukraine, which is likely to last longer than expected, as can be seen in Germany and even in France, a country that is already paying the price. If Africa does not succeed in taking advantage and playing, in the direction of its own interests, of this unprecedented positioning according to which the strategic tilt of our continent towards one of the blocks can modify the state of the international balance of power, it will be reduced, unfortunately, to a simple theater of confrontation by interposed countries. Syria is the perfect example, and even Mali is heading in that direction. Today, we are in the configuration of an off-shore balancing, a mechanism by which the great classical powers ensure that the strategic shift of the continent, which today can change the configuration of powers on the international scene, will not be at their expense or even better, will be to their advantage.

President Macky Sall’s speech to Vladimir Putin explaining that, from now on, the continent would no longer vote by injunction or by simple alignment is a signal. Today, the situation has changed and Africa, if only its political leadership were to become aware of it, should do better in this new great game. There are at least three reasons for this: First, we are in a divided world where alignments are both multiple and diffuse. Second, the distribution of power is increasingly fragmented with the combined effect of classic powers that are declining, emerging powers that are rising, and a multitude of states claiming middle power status. Finally, and this is the trigger, we are in the context of an Africa that, through the dual effect of an increasingly uninhibited elite and a more demanding population, is seeking to better position itself in the game of international relations.

China has understood this at the expense of Europe and the United States, which are in the process of making a comeback. Russia does not have a clear vision for Africa; the continent serves, for the time being, as a demonstration ground for its capacity to harm Europe, France and the West in general. In this context, Africa is moving, at least in perceptions, from an acquired zone, a simple adjustment variable, to a more comfortable and advantageous zone in which its influence and weight could decide the balance of power on an international scale. It is a pity that the latent war between Morocco and Algeria is fragmenting continental alliances when what is needed is the synergy of efforts required for concerted African solutions. Only the overcoming of this conflict could facilitate a better reconnection of the two shores of the Sahara in the service of an integrated development of the continent.
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Sacré-Coeur 3 – BP 15177 CP 10700 Dakar Fann – SENEGAL

Dr. Bakary Sambe, Regional Director of the Timbuktu Institute – African Center for Peace Studies (Dakar, Bamako, Niamey), a leading regional think tank in strategic studies and experimentation of agile approaches in crisis zones. Dr. Sambe is Assistant Professor and researcher at the Gaston Berger University of Saint-Louis (Senegal).

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