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Sahel: What to look out for in 2021

By The Africa Report
Posted on Monday, 8 February 2021 18:07, updated on Wednesday, 17 February 2021 13:37

lake chad
Small part of Lake Chad borno state on 5 September 2015 (Sani Ahmad Usman / Wikimedia Commons)

Young men and women have stark choices growing up in the Sahel: that band of scrub and desert above the West African coastline but underneath the Sahara.

As Lake Chad slowly evaporated over the past decades, it took centuries-old farming techniques with it. That environmental catastrophe is feeding into a governance crisis also decades-long in the making.

Terrorist groups often make the law in rural areas of the Sahel. Sahelian states like Mali, and the states of northern Nigeria, are unable to project power and security for their citizens across their vast, sparsely populated territories.

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Islamic State in West Africa Province, a splinter group from Boko Haram, is suspected to be behind the massacre of 100 Nigerians in the northern state of Borno in November. Armed men on motorcycles arrived as farmers were harvesting their crops.

‘Boko Haram receives tax from farmers before they can harvest. Farmers have to pay Boko Haram. The massacre was a message to other farmers that may be willing to trust the Federal Government’s protection over Boko Haram,’ suggested Twitter user @dondekojo. This recalls the 10% cultivation tax that Taliban fighters enforce on Afghanistan’s opium farmers.

African negotiators will gather at the COP26 climate summit in Scotland in November 2021 to press the continent’s case on the climate front. Measures to protect farmers’ livelihoods would be welcome as part of a wider ‘Marshall Plan’ for the region that would boost civilian administrators, the police presence and infrastructure spending.

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Focusing on one region or one aspect of the crisis is not working: Chad’s withdrawal of troops from a regional security force to bolster the domestic front has coincided with a resurgence of Boko Haram attacks in northern Cameroon.

And while Mali is getting more inter­national attention due to its military coup, Burkina Faso continues to lose control of its territory. The year ahead will give mediators and policymakers the chance to develop bolder strategies and build up the momentum needed to get the Sahelian crises higher on national and international agendas.

This article is available as part of the print edition of The Africa Report magazine: ‘Africa in 2021 – Who will be the winners and losers of the post-Covid era?’