Sahel Sahara: the missing link.

Summer time is the season when rains start to make the desert friendlier and when radicals and their associates feel blessed. In competition, the new hardliners of Daech and the old radicals of Aqim have however many reasons to feel upbeat this summer and next winter. That is unless North Africa two powerful states, Algeria and Morocco, decide to join hands with their sub Saharan neighbors against violent extremism.

A rainy season in the Sahel.

Throughout the Sahel, and despite relatively large international and regional military interventions, radical groups continue to inflict havoc and to spread fear. In addition to the now familiar presence of groups like Aqim and Mujao, there are now Boko Haram and Jund Al Khalifah that have declared allegiance to Daech. They are making breakthroughs in the Sahel Sahara. As illustrated by the recent murderous attacks on N’djamena, Chad capital, Maroua in northern Cameroun and near Diffa in south eastern Niger, no Sahelian state, even those not yet affected, is immune from new assaults.

While sending troupes and sharing information, their external partners should not underestimate that vulnerability. Moreover, those governments that have made ‘’ secret understandings’’ with extremists groups should know that, to them, those deals are by definition non-committal.

Indeed a number of central governments have no effective and credible physical presence over large shanks of their national territories. How then could they be able to prevent elements of radical groups from enjoying this rainy season in recruiting, training and rearming across the Sahara wilderness? Moreover, border populations in those remote areas have no significant benefits in food, health or security from their central governments. There are serious reasons to believe that active, not dormant cells are present in many of the Sahel capitals and large cities. They are well awake and ready for action on short calls. That is true also for lone wolves. For a number of reasons - political naivety, technical deficiencies or compromising business deals, etc - some governments have no contingency plans to have these radicals ‘’deactivated’’.

There should be no surprise if, in a few months, these radical groups come to the open to put increased pressure on the Sahel region. There should also be no surprise if, undermined, one of the Sahel countries falls much sooner as a result of their action.

Meantime, the major democratic countries helping the Sahel face a dilemma. Their public opinions and finances are wary of an overseas long term military presence. Moreover, their civil societies and media are impatient and would like a quick resolution of these far away crises where national troupes are involved. Finally, in addition to military losses and financial costs, foreign conflicts are, through domestic terrorist attacks, increasingly having a direct impact on their citizen daily safety.

These concerns are legitimate in a sense that military interventions generally address only the symptoms not the root causes of civil wars. Among these causes is corruption. Corruption encourages conflicts. At the same time, conflicts encourage the expansion of corruption and worse, a culture of impunity in prosecuting it.

To address the complexity and intricate nature of the Sahel crisis, there is then a need for a new and additional support that would complement and strengthen existing regional and external assistance. North Africa, more precisely Algeria and Morocco, could and should be the providers of that new support.

Where is the link ?

If the Sahel is under threat, the Maghreb, from which that threat has reached the region, is itself in imminent danger. Contrary to conventional wisdom, that is much before the collapse of Libyan regime in 2011. Indeed, when gathering in a friendly environment, Sahelians trace the origin of their present insecurity on Maghreb countries and especially on Algeria’ 1990’s civil war. They also blame the regime of late Gadhafi erratic interferences.

Still, in face of that imminent danger, the two largest Maghreb states, Algeria and Morocco, remain reluctant to cooperate or even to harmonize their security policies to help themselves and their southern neighbors. With their relatively large military means and budgetary resources as well as the cultural, historical and geographic proximity with the Sahel, they have the capacity to help much more significantly than many outsiders to the region.

In its 2013 Report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute or SIPRI, puts Algeria military budget at 10.3 billion USD, an equivalent to 5% of the country Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Moreover, Algeria purchases for 30 % of all arms imports made by Africa in that year. The Report estimates that at least 1.5 to 2 billion USD of that budget is devoted to procurements for the country 350.000 strong military establishment. As far as Morocco is concerned, SIPRI estimates its defense budget, for the same year, at 3.5 billion USD or 3.5 % of the country GDP. The Kingdom imports of arms correspond to 26 % of Africa total’s for 2013. The personal of its security apparatus is of the same level as that of Algeria: 350.000.

The point to be made is that, each of these two countries military budgets is many times larger than the whole combined military budgets of the Sahel countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger or the G 5. Most of these G 5 member states military budgets are either uncertain or generally only for operating expenditures.

Though Algeria and Morocco leaderships deserve credit for keeping peace between their two countries, they can do much more for the region. The reality is however much more worrying. Instead of pooling together their resources to promote stability, they are very often in competition or defiance to each other policies. While Algeria is confronted with the threats and bloody actions of Daech through its regional branch, Jund Al Khalifah, and the long established Aqim, it seems however in no mood to accept, even a limited cooperation, with its sister country Morocco. Once again, to confront violent extremism, the Sahel needs a regional approach with the full joint political and military cooperation between Algeria and Morocco.

Lending a combined assistance to their southern neighbors is key to Sahel stability. It took Algeria more than a decade, and over a hundred thousand dead, to contain its radical activists and stabilize the country after the 1990’s civil war. How long it will take the region to bring stability after the recurrent attacks of Boko Haram, Jund Al Khalifah, Aqim, the Mujao, Ansar Eddine and the Macina Liberation Front? Rebellions in the region have been recurrent for years and most Peace settlements have been reversible. That past is still on many minds including the radicals’.

How long it will take to turn off Daech or to contain the expansion of Boko Haram or to marginalize and defeat both? The aggressive new presence of Daech in, or close to the region, as well as the recent murder of soldiers in western Algeria, call for joint efforts by the two main military regional powers.

In most of Sahel presidential Palaces and political circles, there is an overall consensus that cooperation between Algeria and Morocco, not their competition, would bring the most effective ingredients to the stability of the Sahel Sahara and also to the Maghreb.

But, who will bring the message to their leadership and would they understand?

Written by Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, president