Sahel and islamism: protest against profiteers

The less than effective foreign interference in Africa in the fight against Islamists is meeting with increasing resentment from the local population.

French soldiers in action against Islamist terrorists Photo: reuters

Demonstrations against foreign intervention troops. Looting of a UN base. "Anti-imperialist" day of action. In Mali and Burkina Faso, the two states on the front lines of the war against armed Islamists in the Sahel, a phenomenon is making itself heard that is not new, but is now massively pushing its way into social discourse: a nationalism from below against the internationalization of the "war on terror."

The reasons are obvious. Nowhere in the world are so many foreign intervention forces stepping on each other’s toes. In Mali alone, there is the UN blue helmet mission Minusma, the French counterterrorism operation Barkhane, the multinational intervention force G5 Sahel, the EU military training mission EUTM Mali and the EU civilian reconstruction mission EUCAP Sahel Mali.

In Burkina Faso, there are G5 Sahel and French special forces, as well as in Niger, where there are also special forces from the U.S. and EUCAP Sahel Niger, as well as German Bundeswehr trainers. Niger is also the bridge to the war against Boko Haram in Nigeria. One could add the permanent French troops in Côte d’Ivoire as well as in Chad, and from Senegal to Benin stretches the logistical network without which all these forces would not be operational.

Add to this the countless private contractors and the armies of military advisors, military trainers, experts and lobbyists, and the entire West African Sahel is now a gigantic playground of know-it-alls. They all at least keep the luxury hotel industry alive and spend considerable sums, the outflow of which may serve as proof of Europe’s increasing attention for its unstable neighboring continent. This is how Africa policy works today, and it doesn’t work.

A gigantic playground for know-it-alls

Anyone who witnesses the profiteers of the "security business" on a daily basis will eventually start asking questions. The daily newspaper Le Pays in Burkina Faso, one of the wiser papers in the region, recently summed up the questions this way: The interveners would profit from the chaos and therefore only pretend to want to defeat the jihadists. Inefficiency and dishonesty are their game: They fought much more resolutely against the "Islamic State" in Iraq and Syria, so why not against much weaker opponents in Mali and Burkina Faso?

The argument that "imperialists" are fomenting Africa’s chaos themselves in order to exploit it is a familiar one. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, too, there is a widespread belief that foreign countries need local warlords as a pretext for the right to interfere. For the Sahel states, Le Pays analyzes, "One can legitimately argue that the imperialists are in cahoots with the armed groups, with the aim of further undermining our states to justify their presence.

This sentiment is about to reach populations beyond the organizers of ‘anti-imperialist days.’" In the official discourse, the international community is helping the hard-pressed Sahel governments fight the bloodthirsty Islamist hydra.

In experienced daily life, much of the violence is related to old conflicts between neighboring populations whose traditional relationships with each other have been shaken by economic crisis, climate change, and political upheaval. In tense times, anyone, whether preacher, merchant or community leader, can bait, radicalize and incite people against each other – and say it’s because of the terrorists.

Colonial history not forgotten

Islamists and foreign interveners confirm each other’s ideological hostility. They do not care about the problems of the people in whose name they claim to fight. They ignore local structures, traditions and customs as well as local economic cycles and historical contexts. It would be worth examining more closely the extent to which the new conflict areas of the Sahel overlap with those whose colonial subjugation was bloodiest at the end of the 19th century.

It was precisely in this part of Africa that French generals, encountering mobile warlord empires with an Islamic stamp, often brought the local population to its knees by force. Today, the French great-grandchildren of the conquerors are fighting terror among the great-grandchildren of their victims. The French may have forgotten their colonial history, but the Africans have not.

Colonial systems of injustice with population exchanges in the form of forced expulsions and the settlement of supposedly loyal peoples from elsewhere remain a root of numerous conflicts throughout Africa to the present day: one ethnic group denies another the right to land or offices for historical reasons, while the other takes up arms. Where such conflicts persist or erupt anew, they have usually failed to build a postcolonial state with its own postcolonial legitimacy.

They all at least keep the luxury hotel industry alive. This is how African politics works today, and it doesn’t work

This is the case for most of the former French African territories, where no liberation movement ever won power, but colonial administrative structures continued. Burkina Faso, with its revolution of the 1980s, when the short-lived young military putschist Thomas Sankara preached a return to one’s own strengths and values, is the great but unfinished exception. There, at least, a self-confident political culture has survived and is now speaking out.

The longing for their own strength is immense today in all Sahel states with their young, impetuous, mobile and inventive populations. They will emerge from somewhere – their own heroes who can find their own way against terror and carry their own positive narrative into the world.