The Strategic Importance of Developments in the Sahel


Hannelore Kußerow/Arno Meinken/Nikolaus Scholik

(Translated by Christopher Schönberger, Austrian Armed Forces Language Institute) 

In the medium and long term, the situation in the Sahel, which has been deteriorating for years, constitutes one of the biggest problems for the African continent and for the EU on the opposite coast, or - depending on the point of view - the European nation states. In the course of pertinent studies within the framework of the CNSS (Clausewitz Network for Strategic Studies, at the Führungsakademie of the German Bundeswehr, Hamburg), the authors of this interdisciplinary article intensively discussed this complex range of problems from the perspectives shortage of resources, population explosion, and extremism, as well as their security-political impact on Europe. For Europe/the EU, the developments in the Middle East and North Africa, especially the continuing flood of refugees/migration movements and the concomitant terrorist threat, represent a risk potential which can no longer be negated or pooh-poohed. Beginning with an analysis, grounded in the natural sciences, of the local living and developmental conditions, including the factors population growth and development of terrorist activities in the states of the Sahel, the article serves as the basis for an overall picture, augmented by a security-political analysis of the consequences. It thus convincingly underlines the strategic importance of this area for Europe/the EU and calls for a serious political discussion leading to sustainable solutions in the core areas.

Geographic Situation

Natural Conditions and the Desertification Problem

The countries of the region - Mauretania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, the Sudan, and the north-western part of Ethiopia - boast the highest birth rates and, at the same time, the lowest scores on the Human Development Index.1)

Subsistence agriculture, i.e. farming and cattle-breeding, is the dominant feature of the Sahel economy, providing employment for over 85% of the population2), i.e. 130 million people in July/August of 2016 (DSW 2016).3) The most important resources are water, access to fields and pastures, as well as firewood. The latter constitutes the primary form of energy in the Sahel. Wood and charcoal are the most important fuels, approximately 98% of the rural and 90% of the urban population in the Sahel use these fuels.4) According to a recent study published by the International Energy Agency5) under the title African Energy Outlook, 75% of the populations of Burkina Faso, Mauretania, Niger and Chad have no access to electricity. For Mali and the Sudan it is 50%-75%, and for Senegal 25%-49%.

The amount of (varying) annual precipitation is literally of vital importance for farmers and cattle breeders. After a humid spell in the first half of the last century, the second half was characterised by noticeably lower rain fall.6) Since the 1990s there has been a noticeable, relative increase in the amount of precipitation; but it does not - by a long stretch – equal the amount of rain which fell in the first half of the last century.7)

In addition to grain and fruit, plant-based resources include wooded areas and pastures. Arable land makes up less than 30% (exception: Senegal and Burkina Faso) of the entire expanse of the Sahel states (Image 1) and is increasingly overused. There is also no money available for industrial fertilisers (necessary to supplement natural manure).

In the first half of the twentieth century, French botanists (inter alia Trochain 1940, Aubrèville 1949)8) documented a great floral diversity, made up of manifold varieties and available to the local population as an additional source of food. Krings9) makes special mention of the cultivated tree parks and their fruit tree varieties. Many plant varieties also found use in medical and cosmetic applications. The population managed to survive the two large-scale droughts during the first half of the last century (1908-1914/15 and 1941-1949) without outside help, as the plant resources fed both the people and their farm animals.10) Hunting was used to compensate for supply shortfalls. Up to the 1930s, Sahel big game included various types of antelope, buffalo, elephants, giraffes, lions, hyena, monkeys, etc.

Even in the first half of the last century, i.e. before development cooperation was initiated, the countries - former French colonies for the most part (exceptions: the Sudan and Egypt) - were not as poor in natural resources as they are today. Travel reports penned by Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, e.g. by Mungo Park (in Hoffmann, 1799)11) and Oskar Lenz,12) tell of a rich fauna and flora in today’s border region between Mauretania and Mali. Both authors also noted very good harvests and vast fields of maize in regions where today even the cultivation of millet proves challenging.

The fact that the Sahel is now regarded as a region of poverty and crises must be viewed in connection with factors such as droughts, economic dependence on world market prices (export-oriented crops), and demographics. The desertification problem is connected to these factors.

Here, the term desertification refers to a process, induced by man in desert border areas, which increases a trend towards aridification and leads to desert-like conditions in areas which cannot currently be classified as desert eco-systems (Mensching13), adapted).

According to research carried out by Kußerow in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauretania, Chad, and Sudan/Darfur,14) thinning-out of what was originally homogeneous savannah structure is a key criterion of the desertification process; thinning-out can ultimately expose dunes and expedite their movement. In this context, Reichelt (1987) and Reichelt et al (1992)15) talk of the return of an old desert. What they allude to is the highly arid phase in North Africa (20,000 - 14,000 years before present, Baumhauer et al).16) The term before present (BP) refers to the year 1950.

The thinning-out of the vegetation cover can be climatically and/or anthropogenically induced. Selective extinction of species as well as logging result in a highly fragmented vegetation cover, where only dead wood and/or herbaceous vegetation still hold down the sandy soil. The eroded areas in between are often characterised by soil crusts which can also be marked by algae.17)

Analyses of satellite images of various years (beginning in 1972) make it possible to document and quantify the process of vegetation fragmentation, inter alia via changes in forest density.18) The methodology used is based on visual interpretation techniques (on-screen method) and GIS (geographic information systems) processing.A further desertification criterion is the change in the composition of the flora in the South-Sahelian-Northern-Sudanese transition zones. Terrain analyses and comparisons with historic sources19) document a shift in the vegetation of the area under investigation (Region Canal du Sahel, Mali) away from humidity-loving plants, still extant in the first half of the twentieth century, towards more drought-resistant elements. At the same time, there is evidence of species impoverishment, which sees hardy (pioneer) species proliferating. This development means that the inhabitants of the Sahel are losing their resource basis, which was still extensive in the first half of the previous century.

There are, still, opposing views concerning the issue of desertification; one side20) talks of desertification and even a global advance of deserts (especially UN organisations such as UNCCD in 2016), whereas others question the existence of desertification as a whole21). Recent research bespeaks a differentiated approach, which neither follows the (often rather imprecise) concept of desertification, nor the new greening Sahel paradigm.22)

Desertification processes in the Sahel therefore do not simply mean a southward shift of the Sahel, as postulated by Stebbing23), but desertification takes place within the ecosystem that is the Sahel, started by feedback processes between climate and people. Analyses by Kusserow24) show that the anthropogenic factor must be regarded as the main trigger.

The results of many years‘ research document the dramatic decline of wood as a resource in almost all countries in the Sahel.25) Even slightly higher precipitation has not resulted in a restoration of the savannah to the level it was still - verifiably - at in the 1970s. The Sahel today is the region with the world’s highest birth rates; its main energy source is wood (fire wood and timber). No wood - no food.

In his recent study, Behrend26) discusses the importance of degradation processes and their effects on European security. He identifies four regions (“hot spots”) where environmental degradation has the most powerful impact on European security - the Sahel is number one.

Apart from a science-based approach to desertification, socio-economic components are equally important. Hammer27) discusses desertification as the concurrence of geo-ecological, endogenous, and exogenous factors. He considers exogenous factors to be, inter alia, orientation towards world markets, market price fluctuations, global trade rules, the problem of debt, export-focused production, as well as alien values and technologies. Among endogenous factors he lists, inter alia, politics, trade, population growth, land use systems, and utilisation of resources. Concerning interference ‘from outside’, Krings28) draws special attention to cash crops such as peanut and cotton, which are promoted by Sahel governments and international agricultural companies.

German development cooperation in the 1980s and 1990s also put a premium on promoting cotton. However, it was the calamitous US policy of subsidising domestic agriculture (the Farm Bill, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002) which turned this strategy into a farce. The farmers in Burkina Faso produce cotton three times more cheaply than US farmers, and of much better quality (the cotton is harvested by hand). US farmers would simply not be competitive vis-à-vis the Africans. Because of the subsidies - 4 billion dollars per year, or three times the US aid budget for Africa - US farmers export more than ever before. As a result, world market prices have collapsed.29) Without these subsidies by highly industrialised economies such as those of the USA, but also the EU, the price of cotton could be 13% higher (according to the World Bank).30) The last Farm Bill, signed into law by President Obama in 2014, contained a subsidy reduction for US cotton. It is now estimated to be 360 million dollars per year. In contrast to that, the Farm Bill signed by President Bush in 2002 included subsidies of 2.8 billion dollars for the period between 2003 and 2008 (UNCTAD 2014).

Brandt & Neubert31) show that for over ten years the EU has used dumping to frustrate the creation of a tomato industry in West Africa. Imports of concentrate mean that the countries lose revenue-creating jobs. For recent discussions of decades of disastrous trade policy with African states go to Schumann32) as well as Krupa & Lobenstein33). European agricultural exports of cheap chicken wings, subsidised milk powder, and tinned vegetables (e.g. tomatoes) flood the African markets and destroy the farmers’ livelihoods.34)

According to Krings35), there is evidence that the destruction of subsistence farming since colonial days has destabilised rural social and production systems. In his publication on the theory of global fragmenting development, Scholz36) states that there is a hugely antithetical “fragmenting development” - characterised by a few “islands of wealth” afloat in an “ocean of poverty” (the remaining extensive world segregated by poverty).

Demographics as a Factor

The HDI ranking (UNDP 2015)37) assigns Niger the bottom place, with a score of 188; at the same time the country’s total fertility rate of 7.6% gives it the world’s highest birth rates (DSW 2016). The total fertility rate is the average number of children a woman would bear in her lifetime if today’s age-specific birth rate remained constant during her reproductive years (between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine) (DSW 2016).

The following table shows population projections until 2050 according to the German Stiftung für Weltbevölkerung (Foundation for World Population) (Image 2, DSW 2016).

The special dynamics of population growth is best shown, however, in a comparison between the population densities of 1950 and that of 2100 (projected on the basis of UN information) (Image/Table 2, LEXAS 2017).38)

The disastrous standard of school education is another key problem.

UNICEF has recently drafted a report on so-called out-of-school children. This examines and evaluates, on a country by country basis, the percentage of children above the age of six who do not attend school.39)

With the exception of Chad, the countries of the Sahel can be found among the top twenty countries of the ranking.

- Sudan: 45% (number 4)

- Niger: 38% (number 7)

- Mali: 36% (number 8)

- Nigeria: 34% (number 9)

- Burkina Faso: 32% (number 10)

- Senegal: 27% (number 15)

- Mauretania:25% (number 17)

- Chad: 16% (number 27)

(In comparison with Germany: 0% and number 175)


Political Factors of Influence

The China Factor

With the intensification of Sino-African relations at the beginning of the new millennium, Africa has begun to experience a totally new dynamic, changing the entire economic and political situation on the continent.40) This development is here referred to as the China Factor.

For Mali, the People’s Republic of China has become the most important trading partner ahead of France41), its former colonial master. China is especially involved in large infrastructure projects, which Western investors have neglected so far, i.e. building bridges, dams, roads, and airports.42) The third bridge across the Niger in Bamako/Mali43), the second Niger bridge in Jiamey/Niger, as well as the tarmacking of the road from the Chad border town of Adré to El Geneina, the district capital of western Darfur/Sudan44) might serve as examples. According to Berke45), China realises these projects much faster than Western donors. Chinese petroleum companies furthermore offer low-interest loans for the exploitation of deposits, often in connection with tied supplies and the purchase of Chinese goods and services.46)

The most important body with regard to China’s relations with Africa is the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), established in 2000.47) For the 2012-2015 FOAC period, China allocated $20 billion to the African continent. In 2014, this was increased by $10 billion.48) After the last meeting in Johannesburg at the end of 2015, the Chinese President Xi Jinping promised African states €60 billion in aid for the following three years. The funds are to eliminate the continent’s three biggest handicaps: inadequate infrastructure, lack of skilled workers and lack of financial resources in some countries of the continent.49)

For China, the focus of the African offensive is on securing its economic and geostrategic interests in the long term. Above all, this involves access to mineral resources. Africa, however, is also of great interest to China as a market. Chinese textiles and plastic products have already ousted domestic products.50)

China’s strategy of securing access to energy resources and raw materials is criticised in the West.51) China is criticised for giving priority to its own economic interests, trade development, and competitiveness. Its trading structures do not seem that different from those of the Europeans and North Americans, i.e. raw materials are exported and finished goods imported.52) A further point of criticism is China’s support for authoritarian regimes (principle of non-interference) as well as a lack of transparency regarding contracts and treaties between China and African states.53) On Transparency International’s corruption index China ranks 100, and the World Bank has already put a number of Chinese companies on its index.54)

In addition, many Africans are incensed that Chinese construction companies realise their projects using Chinese labour. This neither helps combat wide-spread unemployment, nor is it conducive to technology transfer. And where Chinese companies do use local workers, e.g. in mining, labour conditions are often dreadful.55) The author also notes that the Chinese are (not only as rumour has it) involved in ivory and rhinoceros horn smuggling, that they overfish Africa’s coastal waters, plunder the rain forests for tropical woods, quite apart from flooding the markets with (often) inferior goods, as well as having largely destroyed the African textile industries, already weakened by European used clothing imports.

In an international study, Dreher et al56) (2014) showed that leading politicians in the African recipient countries allocate part of the Chinese money on the basis of personal sympathies. The regions where national leaders were born, for example, receive considerably more money than other regions.

Authors such as Brautigam57) and Giese58) turn against generalisations formulated by Western media and governments, and stress a more differentiated perspective, which also includes the broader political and financial leeway African governments enjoy. Spross & Mu59) point to a rethink in China’s raw materials strategy. In future, production units at the beginning of the value chain are to be outsourced to Africa. China now emphasises knowledge transfer to Africa and invests in the technical training of African workers.

In his diploma thesis, Lehmann60) examines how members of the Nigerian population currently rate China’s commitment. Although his 18 samples - men from different professions, including construction workers, students, geographers/geologists and craftsmen - are not representative, they provide interesting insights into the Nigerian assessment of Chinese activities in the capital Niamey. Three aspects must be highlighted:

- access to low-cost consumer goods, which is regarded as positive, but complaints of/about poor quality (repairs or new purchases);

- poorer working conditions and lower pay compared to other foreign employers; and

- the preferred recruitment of ‘imported’ Chinese workers.

It is interesting to note, though, that despite imported Chinese labour, there have not been significant job losses, although the impact on the informal sector (street vendors, smaller businesses) cannot be gauged. Fig.3 provides an overview of the significance of Africa for the Chinese development process. The Chinese government’s focus is exclusively on maintaining power, which is to be assured through economic growth and internal stability. This not only requires raw materials and energy, jobs and markets, but also a sufficient supply of food and drinking water, while the country's population continues to grow. It also means more comprehensive and significantly improved environmental protection measures. Increased cooperation with the African continent offers a promising way forward to resolving economic and political difficulties. This also applies to the issue of continuing population growth in China. Migration to Africa can ease pressure on the country's domestic labour market, the food sector, and its energy supply.61) An assessment of the China factor:

In line with China’s interests, its commitments in Africa are primarily driven by energy and trade policy motives. The fact that Western states accuse China of having adopted a neo-colonialist approach vis-à-vis Africa is, in part, understandable and justifiable, especially in the case of countries with rich deposits of raw materials (crude oil primarily) and its selective commitment in this respect. In addition, the trade policy aspect - markets for Chinese consumer and investment goods - is another reason for China's activities in Africa. The weak points of the Chinese commitment can be seen in long transport routes and its extremely weak control, concerning both security policy and reality (especially in the maritime sector), as well as in the fact that the implementation of major infrastructure construction projects is primarily carried out using Chinese workers. Any sustainable developmental value of such projects for the African countries China is involved in deserves, therefore, to be viewed in a critical light.


Salafism, Violent Ideologies, Organised Crime, and the Fight against Terrorism

As of the beginning of 2000, further aspects in addition to the China Factor have become apparent. These include Salafist activities, attacks by extremist groups, and organised crime (OC).

Salafists purport to represent an original, ‘unadulterated’ form of Islam, as it was supposedly practised in the time of the Prophet Mohammed.62) A spiritual return can thus only be achieved by a literal interpretation of the Koran. For centuries there have been conflicts between the Sufi schools in Africa, which interpret the Koran on the basis of local conditions, and fundamentalist groups. Salafism is the fastest growing Islamic school of thought in Africa. Elischer63) sees the main reasons for this to be the ongoing economic crisis and the failure of the African elites.

In an analysis differentiating between Salafism in its original form and extremist forms in the Sahel, Mohamed64) distinguishes between the original form (strongly supported by groups or individuals in the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia and Kuwait), a political variant, and Jihadist/militant Salafism. He stresses the difficulty of separating the pure teachings of Salafism (purist Salafism) from militant thought. Observations made by Kußerow during her last stay in Niger in 2009 show a completely new phenomenon: many women were completely or partially veiled, a mode of dress that was also to be observed with girls only a few years old. It is interesting to note that this change in apparel, in its uniformity something completely new for this country, was observed in the capital Niamey and in the other larger cities, but not in the villages. The picture overleaf shows the type of female clothing which is/was typical in large parts of the Sahel. In addition to the headdress (protection against the sun and to help with carrying vessels/loads), colourful dresses with distinctive shoulder-back décolletés are/were typical of the country.

Upon enquiry, it was established that some women in the neighbourhoods of the various cities had opened Koran schools for women. In this context Mohamed, Münch65) and Elischer point to activities of Islamic groups from the wealthy Arab Gulf states and Pakistan who aim to push back Sufist schools. It is doubtful whether this activity contributes to lowering the birth rate.66) In a study on the demographic challenge Africa faces, the Berlin Institute for Population and Development67) found that high birth rates and development are mutually exclusive.

According to a recent study by FERDI (Fondation pour les études et recherches sur le développement international, 2016) entitled Allier sécurité et développement - Plaidoyer pour le Sahel 68), 40-50% of the inhabitants of six Sahel states (here excluding Sudan) are below the age of 14. The 15-29 age group will continue to grow continuously until 2030 and will then make up 28% of the population. Its lack of financial resources, however, means that this generation will be largely excluded from any economic, political, or social life. Klingholz, from the Berlin Institute for Population and Development69), makes special mention of Niger, which, given that it boasts the world’s highest birth rate, will see its population triple by 2050. He points out that 600,000 new individuals enter the labour market each year, but there are only 150,000 regular jobs. In an interview with Die Welt he posed the following question: “How is this supposed to work?”.

According to the authors of the FERDI study70), the importance of Koran schools, financed by Gulf State donors, increases dramatically in such a difficult situation. The number of Salafist Koran schools is growing rapidly, especially in Mali and Niger, and the traditionally moderate Islam of Sufist origin is increasingly being pushed back. Badly educated, and with little prospect of finding a job, the only way out is to migrate south, but also north and, increasingly, to Europe.

According to Krech,71) the Sahel states are also being destabilised by drugs trafficking and extremist groups. In addition to the two large organisations operating in the Sahel - AQIM (Al Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb) and Boko Haram (in northern Nigeria) - many other groups have sprung up (see Fig. 4).

In addition to revenues generated by the kidnapping of foreigners, AQIM’s financial strength mainly derives from profits from cocaine smuggling. Cocaine is transported from Liberia via Sahel and Sahara states to Europe. The smuggling routes to Europe, which have been used for many centuries, are also employed for international drug smuggling.72)

Tuareg, the security forces, and the Malian government all participate in these deals. Krech (2013) identifies these interdependencies as a massive weakening of state structures and as the groundwork for the crisis in Mali. The 2011 plundering of the Gadhafi regime’s Libyan arsenals by, inter alia, AQIM made the uprising in northern Mali possible. The National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA) received its weapons mainly from AQIM. Other groups involved in the uprising were, inter alia, the Salafist group Ansar Dine, founded in 2011 and manned by Tuareg, and the MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Holy War in West Africa), mainly led by extremist Mauritanians. Schreiber73) provides a detailed analysis of all local and international actors involved in the conflict and analyses the lines of conflict 2012/13.74) Klute & Lecocq75) examine the separatist movements of the Tuareg and discuss the current state of secessionist claims. In their study on jihadism in Africa, Steinberg & Weber76) state that there is no independent jihadist ideology on the continent. The investigations were carried out with a particular focus on regional priorities in East and North Africa as well as in the Sahara region and Nigeria. A causal link is identified between political, economic, and social marginalization and jihadist radicalization. The focus here is on the central governments' neglect of the northern parts of Mali and Nigeria, as well as unemployment and lack of prospects for young men. Steinberg & Weber (2015) conclude that it is the vacuums within fragile states which allow jihadist organizations to act unencumbered.

The Bush administration had already financed military training for the armies of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad in 2002, as part of the PAN Sahel Initiative (PSI). The aim was to provide the governments with the means and know-how to keep under close observation suspicious groups and their movements in the Sahara region and to be able to react if necessary. This was intended to support US interests in the fight against terrorism and, in doing so, ensure the expansion and strengthening of regional peace and security.77) The Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI, ICG 2005) was launched by the US government in 2003. It included Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Morocco, and Tunisia. In 2013 it was renamed Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP 2013).

At present, the International Crisis Group78) views the Sahara-Sahel region as being threatened by, but not being the focus of terrorist activity. At the same time, the ICG warns against precipitate action and stresses the extreme sensitivity of the region in which balanced action is required. Descriptions of the worsening of the situation from 2012 until France's military intervention in Mali at the beginning of 2013 can be found in Hofbauer & Münch (2013), Lacher & Tull (2013), and ICG (2014). The inefficiency of the US PSI and TSCTI initiatives is proven by the fact that the Malian military was unable to control the jihadists in northern Mali in 2012. Without the military intervention of France and other allies, the march into the capital Bamako, planned by jihadists, would probably have been successful.79)

The current development is characterized by a further worsening of the security situation and, in particular, by the further fragmentation of jihadist and other militant groups in Mali. The following groups are active in the Sahara/Northern Sahel region: Al Qaida Maghreb (AQMI/AQIM), MUJAO, Ansar Dine, Al-Mourabitoune, Front de libération du Macina (Katiba du Macina,’franchise Peulh’ Ansar Dine), and, in the adjoining area of southern Sahel/Northern Sudan, Boko Haram. In 2014, the semi-nomadic Peulh formed the Dewral Pulaaku, a non-military organisation to represent their interests. Its jihadist offshoot is the Katiba du Macina, which has been operating mainly in central Mali (Mopti and Segou region, border area between Mali and Niger and Burkina Faso) since the beginning of 2015 and has thus extended the zone of danger and insecurity to the south.80) Fig. 4 provides an overview of the spheres of influence of jihadist groups in Mali and Niger.

In the Long War Journal, Weiss81) reports of two raids in the north of Burkina Faso (September and October 2016). According to a Mauritanian news agency, the ISGS (The Islamic State in Greater Sahara) claimed responsibility. This means that in addition to Boko Haram, which joined the Islamic State as early as 201582), a further Islamic group in the Sahel has committed itself to ISIS.

At the beginning of March 2017, the four large jihadist groups in the Sahara-Sahel region (Ansar Dine, Al Mourabitoune, AQIM and Katiba du Macina) joined forces under the leadership of the Tuareg Iyad Ag Galy. The group is now called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama' at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) and regards itself as part of the international network of Al Qaida.83) According to Weiss84), this merger means that the threatening situation in Mali and other Sahel countries has become even worse.

An interactive map of the raids in the western Sahel with locations and further information can be found in The Long War Journal85). It shows the increase in raids since 2014 as well as the expansion to the south (Fig. 5).

The timeline in Fig. 6 illustrates the Sahel’s historic original state and the developments which result from factors such as the natural space, internal and external circumstances, and the interventions by different players.

Fig. 7 provides an overall view of the Sahel subsistence economy and its various fields of conflict.


Security-Political Conclusions

Status Assessment

The world’s highest population growth (see Fig. 2), which can be found in the Sahel states, is regarded as one key criterion for the fragile domestic situation in this region.

After more than 50 years of international (incl. German) development cooperation, the Sahel countries of Africa are regarded as fragile states (inter alia AA, BMV, BMZ 2012).86) Even the PSI and TSCTP initiatives, funded by the US, were not able to prevent this development. In addition to the realities produced by natural and human factors - desertification, food and birth rates - the security policy factors and their impact on Europe/the EU and its nation states must also be outlined.

The migration issue must be mentioned as a matter of concern here. Reiner Klingholz warns against doing nothing: "If we let things slide, too many people will come".87) Gunnar Heinsohn, economist, demographer and conflict researcher, uses simple arithmetic to present the following problem: "In 2015, Europe up to the Urals is home to about 140 million people under 18. By 2050, there will only be about 130 million. All of Africa today has 540 million, and in 2050 about 1,000 million inhabitants of this age. There are not even enough young people in Europe to provide for the elderly. How can each of these young people then make four or (in 2050) eight Africans fit for high-tech, without which the black continent will not have a future?"88)

What conclusions can be drawn from the point of view of natural sciences?

1. Evidence of desertification processes can be found in all Sahel countries. In view of the dramatic and unchecked rise in the Sahel population, it can be assumed that the three resources woodland, pastures, and arable land will continue to be depleted. Conflicts, which in addition to ethnic and political aspects must always be regarded as a struggle for a share in dwindling resources, will thus be further intensified. This must be taken into account in all geopolitical studies and security-related analyses.

2. Conservation of resources, an indispensable component of functioning subsistence economies, has undergone a worrying decline in the Sahel and must once again play a central role in development cooperation. In addition, the question must be answered as to what alternatives there are to wood, which is a dwindling energy source. Current alternatives, i.e. natural gas (too expensive for many inhabitants of the Sahel), improved charcoal stoves, and solar cookers (hardly used) are not enough.

3. There are also questions as to how fair access to the two dwindling resources of pastures and arable land can be guaranteed. There is not much time left. For 2030, a population of 34.3 million (2016: 19.7 million, DSW 2016) is forecast for Niger. Without a responsible family policy (birth control), changing the fragile state will not be possible. Rather, the Sahel is likely to be further destabilised.

4. In view of trade restrictions and the dependence on the world market, it remains to be seen which alternatives are open to Sahel companies when their own products (cash crops, e. g. cotton) become worthless as a result of external subsidies and dumping policies. It is also unclear how individual responsibility can be expected on the part of African elites if the donor countries allow themselves to be hogtied by their self-imposed obligation to provide funds for development cooperation projects.

5. As a result of the above-mentioned decrease in natural resources, existing conflicts are likely to expand, resulting in further destabilisation. Overall, migration, not least to Europe, can be expected to increase rapidly.


Security-Political Outlook

The Sahel’s security-political importance - not only for the African continent, but also for the European-Mediterranean countries on its border, and thus for the Community as a whole - as well as the interests of regionally and globally active powers clashing there, make up the second part of the status assessment and the subsequent analysis. What factors and interests should be used as a basis for this analysis and the resulting security policy considerations?

1. With the exception of Senegal and Burkina Faso, whose geographical position gives them more culturable land, 70% (6,683,300 sqkm) of the total area of the Sahel states- 7,154,300 sqkm, versus EU: 4,381 sqkm - consist of very sparsely populated desert (nomadic economy and isolated oases cultures). The consequence is a massive concentration of settlements and agriculture in the narrow, southern strip. Average area of arable land across the five Sahel states: 1,948,200 sqkm [CIA Factbook 2015], total population approx. 98 mio [DSW 2016]). In the case of Niger it is only 12.5% (160,000 sqkm) of its entire area of 1,267,000 sqkm.

2. All states in the Sahel count as more or less failed states (from HDI 156 in the best case [Mauritania] to 188 in the worst case [Niger], UNDP 2015) and can neither guarantee domestic order nor homeland security, nor are they capable of ensuring the security of the border areas. Cross-border religious fundamentalism and terrorism have expanded massively in recent years, thus creating an additional, accelerating element concerning homeland security (esp. Mali, Niger).

3. This fragile domestic situation will continue to produce an increased flow of refugees/migration movements from the states of the Sahel to the north, with Europe the main objective. The ongoing state crisis in Libya, and Egypt's internal problems, do not allow for meaningful cooperation with these states concerning orderly registration, temporary housing, identification, as well as due processes regarding an investigation into the status of a political refugee; the EU would, in any case, have to bear the financial brunt of such a scenario. The resulting humanitarian, supply and security-related problems will therefore continue to intensify massively in the coming years, especially for the countries bordering the Mediterranean as well as the Union itself. Since the beginning of the year, the domestic political situation in Libya has worsened further, and the number of refugees aiming for the opposite European coast has also risen sharply compared with the same period in 2016. The EU's attempts to apply the model of the treaty with Turkey, and integrate Libya into a solution providing orderly registration and processing in local camps seems unfeasible, given the aforementioned lack of state structures and of politically reliable contacts as well as the high financial demands (EUR 200 million immediately, 600 million thereafter)89).

4. The interests of the global players (USA, China, the EU) and France - with the exception of Sudan, all the current states are former French colonies and areas of influence - constitute a further factor in the assessment of the security policy situation. The question of raw materials is not of crucial importance so far, except for France-Niger/uranium and oil, Chad/oil, and Mali/gold. It seems as if in recent years the United States has put its economic and security interests on a back burner. The question of President Trump's attitude to Africa and the increasingly difficult security situation on the EU's southern and eastern flanks are further factors of uncertainty. The special attention China devotes to the African continent is also discernible in the Sahel, despite its limited natural resources, and therefore needs to be assessed. Whereas the EU has been implementing a coordinated project concerning the Sahel since 2015, France is the primary carrier of ‘European’ interests in the region, due to the above-mentioned historic, economic, cultural, linguistic and security policy interdependencies. However, as France would seem to be unable to act decisively in the field of foreign policy in the next few months due to presidential and parliamentary elections, and as the economic situation is hardly improving, it is unlikely that the immediate future will witness any consolidation of common European approaches, coordinated with its main partner, the USA, towards a solution of the problem. In addition, for more than a year now, the flow of refugees and migrants from the Middle East via the Balkans and, in some cases, also the Mediterranean has become one of the EU's and, above all, Germany’s major problems.

5. The demographic forecasts for the entire African continent in general and the Sahel in particular constitute a crucial factor in all security policy developments. Although the effects will initially be felt in the adjacent African macro-regions - the Maghreb states in the north and the central African region in the south - they will, subsequently, create further problems for Europe from the south. The Union's new strategy of intercepting the flow of refugees/migration movements outside the Member States in partner countries - Turkey and Libya - and only allowing controlled immigration/refugee admission faces serious problems concerning implementation and reliability.

6. Combining the as-is factors defined by natural as well as political sciences produces a bleak picture of developments in the Sahel over the next two decades. Provided that food and climate conditions - at best - remain unchanged, unchecked and high birth rates will lead to a further destabilisation of state order and a massive deterioration in the living conditions of the population. In addition, religious-fundamentalist terrorism, primarily and almost exclusively Muslim, will increasingly exacerbate the situation. The flow of refugees/migration movements resulting from this could increase to tens of millions during the above mentioned forecast period and would therefore constitute a challenge and potentially destabilising factor of unprecedented proportions, especially for Europe’s south, and subsequently for all states of the Union. Despite the developments in connection with the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the Middle East, its continuing pressure on North Africa/the Sahel, which currently consists of so-called ‘partnerships’ with active terrorist organisations in the region, could develop into an even greater threat to the fragile state systems.

7. It is the governments and political elites of the countries concerned who are primarily responsible for regulating the disproportionate population growth, and for taking into account the relevant natural and political parameters when implementing programmes and measures to address social and structural problems. So far, the efforts of the United Nations agencies, in particular FAO, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNICEF and the Security Council, have been able to alleviate some of the greatest hardships. For decades, bilateral aid programmes as part of national development aid have proven to be only of limited effectiveness and hardly effective vis-à-vis the enduring issue at hand.

Therefore, the task of the member states and institutions of the EU can only be to offer and implement the best possible support for these measures on site through a wealth/variety of programmes and resources. This has been done since the adoption, in 2014, of the Council conclusions in the Sahel Regional Action Plan (2015-2020), in which “[the Council] reaffirms the EU's continued engagement in the Sahel region and its support to sustainable and inclusive political and socio-economic development, the strengthening of human rights, democratic governance and the rule of law as well as resilience, as a response to the multidimensional crisis in the Sahel.“ The plan itemises in great detail the types of action, the donor EU Member States, the recipient countries in the Sahel, and the (EU and UN) programmes involved. However, it is currently difficult to assess what impact these programmes have on the situation and, in particular, on any noticeable improvements in the living conditions of the respective populations. However, they do show the willingness of the EU states to focus on this problem and to provide resources for local solutions.

In addition to the primarily economic and social aspects of the Action Plan, it cannot be denied that Union Member States as well as the Union itself have important security policy interests in the Sahel. France, as the most important former colonial power in the region, mounted two joint operations with former Sahel colonies in the recent past: Operation Epervier (1986-2014), in and with Chad, and Operation Serval in Mali in 2013-2014. Both operations ended in 2014, and as of 1 April 2014 they were replaced by the larger-scale operation Barkhane - in order to continue the fight against Islamic fundamentalists and to strengthen the traditionally weak state leaderships and infrastructures (esp. the army and police forces). With 3,000 French elite soldiers led by the HQ in Chad's capital and supported by the G5 Sahel (Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger), France regards this mission as a cornerstone in the joint fight (EU, Sahel states) against terrorism. Of course, purely national and economic interests are also at stake (Niger is the most important supplier of uranium to the French nuclear industry, especially to Areva, which designs and builds nuclear reactors). At this point, it must be mentioned that in November 2015, at the request of France, the EU was brought into play, and Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty activated. The Council of Defence Ministers of EU member states unanimously agreed to the binding activation of the assistance clause for France. Germany has therefore strengthened its forces in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali also at the request of France, most recently in February 2017.

8. Tackling the increasing influx of refugees on the southern flank of Europe is a humanitarian obligation, but it cannot replace the need to remedy its causes, which lie in the Sahel states. Neither the European (national) states, which are already affected by ever-increasing humanitarian problems, nor the Union itself seem to be really aware of the gravity of this problem and prepared to counter it in the context of a European strategy, which would have to go far beyond the Sahel plan mentioned above. This would, however, require a major change in EU Treaties towards a single political leadership. It must therefore be clearly stated that, given past experience, problems of this magnitude and importance - apart from others on the north-eastern and eastern flanks of the Union - cannot, today and in the near future, be solved by individual Member States or by a Union which is not unified politically.

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19) Kusserow, H., ‘Quantitative und qualitative Erfassung von Vegetationsänderungen. Ein Beispiel aus dem Südsahel Malis‘, Die Erde, 125, 1994, p 35-56.

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35) Krings, 2006.

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53) Hütz-Adams et al., 2014.

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86) Auswärtiges Amt, Bundesministerium der Verteidigung und Wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit, Für eine kohärente Politik der Bundesregierung gegenüber fragilen Staaten. Ressortübergreifende Leitlinien, 2012,, [20 November 2016].

87) Geiger, 2016.

88) Heinsohn, G., ‘Migrationspolitik, Wie soll Europa 800 Millionen Afrikaner versorgen?‘, in, Die Welt, 4 November 2016,, [5 November 2016].

89) cf. Die Welt, 21 March 2017.