The Sahel marks the separation between the sands of the Sahara and the tropical rainforests of Africa, passing from Arab communities to black communities, from Muslims to Christians, from pastoral nomads to sedentary farmers. The Sahel is home to 125 million people, some of the poorest and most vulnerable on earth, and within the next fifteen years, the population will increase by 60%.
This is a region suffering from food insecurity, as well as political instability and uncertainty. The ever worsening crisis is the result of climate change, unprecedented population growth, the loss of natural resources, and a dramatic state of the economy and employment, plus territorial and political conflicts, in particular with the spread of jihadism.
In 2002 and 2006, I went to the salt mines in Taoudenni in Mali, 750 kilometers north of Timbuktu, in the midst of a no man’s land, a vast area where no state power or authority prevails, where there are no armed forces or controls of any kind. Here is the intersection of the paths travelled by Algerians with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, fighters from the Polisario Front fighting against the Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara, and Tuareg rebels. Here is a land for every type of trafficking and dealing: arms, hostages, migrants and the main trade which is drugs.
In 2011 with the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, the situation became more critical. A thousand Tuaregs with the Libyan armed forces returned to their home countries; most were from Mali, some were from Niger. They returned armed with their weapons, and with more from the vast stockpile of the Libyan army which – as extraordinary as it may seem – had not been destroyed.
Libya was receiving funds from the European Union to carry out coastguard operations for Europe, but after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, the gates to Europe were flung open and waves of migrants came in from West Africa, crossing Niger, heading to the city of Agadez, with as many as 400,000 in 2016. Thousands of migrants died, and are still dying in the Ténéré Desert in Niger, and in Libya and the Mediterranean Sea.
Today, with pressure from Europe on people traffickers and their illegal trade targeting migrants, the ambition has been to make Agadez the border point stopping entry into Europe. But the human trafficking has not stopped; it has simply gone further underground. The routes traveled are now more dangerous; prices have trebled; the journey is much harsher and the risks much greater. Niger is ranked last according to the Human Development Index of the UNDP and is endeavoring to stand up to threats surrounding it: Malian Islamist armed groups to the north-west, Toubou militia to the east, Islamist groups based in Libya to the north-east, and Boko Haram to the south-east.
France has 4,500 troops and major military capabilities carrying out intense warfare around the borders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, in a hostile desert region which now harbors the IS in the Greater Sahara and al-Qaeda. The jihadists have realized that the only way of holding out against such force is to leave urban areas and extend their battleground. Gradually the crisis has shifted towards the center of Mali, a vast expanse of ungoverned land that has become one of the main focal points threatening security in the Sahel. Many herdsmen have joined the jihadist movement, in particular the Fulanis, and are now fighters with Nusrat al-Islam.
The once delicate balance between Fulani herdsmen, Dogon and Bambara farmers, and Bozo fishermen has been upset. The army and the government, who are said to be taking advantage of the rivalry between these communities, now claim to be combatting the jihadists, while actually arming and funding the militias, and have lost all control over the different parties behind the violence.
The jihadist movements are now spreading throughout the southern Sahel and towards Burkina Faso, threatening the entire region of West Africa.
Pascal Maitre is represented by MYOP in France, and by Panos Pictures internationally.
Courtesy of Pascal Maitre / National Geographic.
Report published in National Geographic Magazine (July 2019).