BY GWYNNE DYER
On Sunday, the last of 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops left Mali, ordered out by the military regime that seized power after two successive coups in 2020 and 2021. They leave behind them 310 Blue Helmets killed during ten years, and a country in chaos.
Also on Sunday, the last French troops left the neighbouring country of Niger. They had been sent there to fight the same Islamist rebels who were terrorising Mali. Practically every regime in the region is facing a violent Islamic revolutionary movement based in the northern, desert parts of the country.
French troops also left Burkina Faso recently after two military coups last year. The young Burkinabé officers, like their Malian and Nigerien co-conspirators, found it wise to blame the foreigners for everything that was going wrong, and the three sets of rebels have created a defence pact called the Alliance of Sahel States.
The Sahel conventionally is defined as the countries on the southern fringes of the Sahara desert, with limited rainfall and high temperatures. Most were French possessions during the colonial period, are considerably poorer than most other parts of Africa, and have never had much luck forging stable democracies.
And finally Sudan, the only Sahel country with an economy that rises above subsistence level, thanks to oil and gold, is being torn apart by a country-wide civil war between two rival branches of the armed forces over the division of the spoils.
Six million people in Sudan are internally displaced already, and 1.5 million have fled abroad. Yet nobody is sending international forces in to restore the peace or look after the refugees, not even fellow Muslim countries. Not even rich Arab countries who could easily afford it; they know it’s a lost cause.
All of these countries are semi-desert areas that can only support large populations along two major rivers: the Niger for the more western ones, and the Nile for Sudan. But there’s a limit to how many people they can support, and that limit was reached some time ago.
There’s not enough money coming in so, no matter what it does, the state can no longer provide education, health care, or even security for its ever growing population, and people get more and more desperate.
Then, some of those desperate people turn to extremist ideologies, which in Muslim countries means Islamist fanatics. Islamic State, Sahel Province, founded in 2015, and various rival groups emerge, and various foreign forces arrive to help hold back the tide for a time.
Eventually, foreign rescue missions give up or are driven out, and any remaining democracies are destroyed.
What’s next? Probably, in most cases, the Islamist fanatics win the battles and take over the state. They kill a lot of people, destroy libraries, smash historical monuments, pray furiously, but they will not figure out how to feed all those hungry people. They don’t even see that as their job. Look to Afghanistan.
The rest of the world will shun the Sahel states and seal them off from the rest of the world, just like we have done to Afghanistan. The African Union may try various rescue missions, as it has with Somalia, but, in the end, it will probably give up, too.
Africa is not doomed. Its future, like that of most other places, depends on what it does next. Even Senegal, which is technically part of the Sahel, is not doomed. Having a coastline probably helps, but so does reasonably good government.
But the other Sahel countries probably are doomed. They have a lethal combination of extreme poverty, a high ratio of population to usable land, and a high birth rate that is showing no signs of significant decline. And we are seeing the final days of well-intentioned foreign interventions in Africa right now.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist living in London, England.