06.09.2011

Who Owns the Sahara? Old Conflicts, New Menaces

The conflicts in northern Mali and the region of the central Sahara are increasingly complex. The region has traditionally been a pathway for many illegal commercial activities such as drug, arms or human trafficking from West and North Africa to Europe.

Due to the vast area and its inhospitality, none of the neighbouring states of the central Sahara is able to control its entire territory. This development has created an area without effective regulation and policing and has thus made the central Sahara attractive for terrorists. Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) has gained a foothold not only in North Africa but also in West Africa over the past years. A formerly Algerian problem has become the problem of an entire region. AQMI destabilizes the region, from a security point of view as well as from a political one. These developments hit Mali the hardest because of its particular weaknesses.

The conflicts in northern Mali and the region of the central Sahara are increasingly complex. The region has traditionally been a pathway for many illegal commercial activities such as drug, arms or human trafficking from West and North Africa to Europe. Due to the vast area and its inhospitality, none of the neighbouring states of the central Sahara is able to control its entire territory. This development has created an area without effective regulation and policing and has thus made the central Sahara attractive for terrorists. Al Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI) has gained a foothold not only in North Africa but also in West Africa over the past years. A formerly Algerian problem has become the problem of an entire region. AQMI destabilizes the region, from a security point of view as well as from a political one. These developments hit Mali the hardest because of its particular weaknesses.

For example, Mali is still in the process of resolving the old Tuareg conflict. The installation of special Tuareg units within the Malian army is a positive sign that the 2006 peace agreement is being implemented. Moreover, the Malian state has yet another front to tackle: Its destabilization due to corruption and organized crime on many levels of its state and security apparatuses, both often directly linked to the trafficking of drugs and small arms in the region. In fact, the boundaries between organized crime and terrorism become increasingly blurred and threaten the stability of the Malian state.

While some experts assume that the Malian government lacks the true political will to take action and thus continues with its unofficial policy of staying still, there have been signs of a possible policy shift due to mounting pressure by the US and France. At the same time, the new strategy of fostering political and economic development of the northern regions is a positive step as AQMI cannot be solely fought militarily. This government program also supports putting the peace agreement into practice. The emergence of AQMI has diverted international attention: The focus is now almost exclusively on the terrorist movement. However, in order to understand the complex conflict situation in northern Mali and the region of the central Sahara, and to formulate appropriate responses, all the different conflict lines, actors and issues have to be taken into account because they are interlinked. The conflict is not simply the consequence of a security situation that is deteriorating because of AQMI. The support of western nations has so far focused rather on strengthening the security forces’ capacities of the countries of the central Sahara. This, however, falls short of solving the complex conflict situation. Only an inclusive approach which takes the complex nature of the conflict system into account, and which is supported by regional and international mechanisms, will lead to a truly peaceful situation in northern Mali and the central Sahara.

Annette Lohmann (2011): Who owns the Sahara? Old conflicts, new menaces. Mali and the Central Sahara between the Tuareg, Al Qaida and organized crime.

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Peace and Security Centre of Competence Sub-Saharan Africa

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Dakar - Fann

+221 33 859 20 02

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