With arms flows from Libya declining, military barracks and poorly controlled national stockpiles are being targeted.
Terror attacks on military outposts in the Liptako-Gourma area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet are increasingly ambitious and complex. Their frequency and the damage inflicted on defence and security forces is worrying, and raises questions about where the terror groups are sourcing their heavy weapons.
A few weeks ago, the Danish government announced it would submit to its parliament a request for the deployment of two medium lift helicopters AW101 and about 70 military personnel to the Sahel region as part of the French-led counter-terrorism operation “Barkhane.” Once the deployment is approved by lawmakers, as appears likely, Danish assets would join the operation in late 2019.
This announcement has received little attention, but it is significant — both for the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel region and for the future of European defense cooperation. It provides an insight into a new approach to the project of building European defense, one that does not necessarily rely on the structures or complex institutional settings of the European Union, but instead focuses on pragmatic and operational cooperation between states.
In January 2013, Hamadou Kouffa led Islamist forces from northern Mali south toward Konna and Diabaly, an act that precipitated an African and French intervention eventually driving the militants out of entrenched positions. Two years later, Kouffa reemerged on the international scene at the head of the newly founded Macina Liberation Front (Front de Libération du Macina, FLM). Since January 2015, Kouffa’s group has claimed responsibility for several attacks in central Mali, including assassinations of local political figures and security forces, as well as the destruction of an ‘idolatrous’ mausoleum.
In its goals and methods, FLM resembles other Islamist terrorists operating in the Sahel and Sahara, such as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). What makes the FLM different is the attempt to rally nomadic Fulani herdsmen to its cause. Kouffa, a Fulani marabout, communicates to FLM members in the Fulani language, and the name Macina harkens back to a nineteenth-century Fulani state based in central Mali and governed under Islamic law.
The blueprint for the Great Green Wall is nothing if not ambitious. Quite Canute-like, it would seem.
The aim is to plant a forest of trees about 15km wide, snaking some 7 775km from Senegal on the Atlantic to Djibouti on the Red Sea – crossing another nine Sahelian states on the way – to halt the southward march of the Sahara into the Sahel. This elongated forest would cover about 11 662 500 hectares.
The idea was originally conceived by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005 and enthusiastically embraced by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. In 2007, the African Union Commission (AUC) took it up as the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative (GGWSSI). Obasanjo seems to have borrowed the idea from China, yet the Chinese precedent is not entirely encouraging. Its bricks and mortar equivalent failed to keep out the Mongolian hordes from the north in the 13th century. And China’s Great Green Wall – launched in 1978 with the aim of creating a forest of trees 4 500km long – has also not stopped the southward drift of the Gobi and other deserts, despite the planting of about 70 billion trees to date.
Northern Nigeria’s grain trade, which supplies almost half of the Sahel’s cereals, has slowed severely, while abnormally high prices of staple grains across the Sahel are causing serious food security concerns in this chronically vulnerable region.
The areas most at risk are southeastern and central Niger, which are highly dependent on Nigerian grain flows, as well as northern Nigeria and northern Benin. Chad is somewhat protected from the dynamic, as it produced a healthy harvest in 2012, says FEWS NET.
World Food Programme (WFP) market analysts report that grain supply is low in many of the main markets across the region, and that fewer traders from Niger and elsewhere are crossing the border to re-supply in Nigeria. Cross-border trade is significantly down in Nigeria’s Maigatari market (near Zinder in Niger), Illela (near Tahoua), Jibya (near Maradi) and Damassack (near Diffa), according to WFP.