Beyond Al Qaeda: As Western Countries Rush into Africa’s Troubled Sahel Region, Are We Once Again Forgetting History?

Copyright Foreign Policy

For sheer sexiness, few news monikers can compete with the al Qaeda label.

This, in a word, is how one of the world’s most remote and traditionally obscure regions, Africa’s arid and largely empty Sahel, has suddenly come to be treated as a zone of great strategic importance in the wake of the recent offensive by a hodgepodge of armed groups, including one called al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, that has threatened the survival of the Malian state and sent violent ripples throughout the neighboring area.

France has responded with alacrity and seeming confusion to the Mali crisis, sending in an intervention force that at first seemed destined to be very small and then immediately ramping up the numbers into the thousands, all while scurrying to enlist regional partners in places like Nigeria, Chad, and Niger.

Paris has exhibited great difficulty in conveying a clear aim or speaking with one voice, saying contradictory things in rapid succession — promising that this will be a limited intervention quickly handed over to the Africans, while vowing to do whatever is required to stamp out terrorist movements in Mali and restore legitimate government.

To understand what is really going on in Mali and in the broader Sahel today, though, it is vital to think through decades of colonial and independent history in the region. And when one does, it becomes clear that, apart from the trendiness of al Qaeda, a relative newcomer as factors go, what is most striking is the remarkable continuity of this region’s crises.

One of my first big stories as a foreign correspondent came in 1983 when freelancing in West Africa for the Washington Post. I made a river crossing into Chad from Cameroon aboard a dugout piroguein order to cover a flare up in fighting between France and Libyan-backed insurgents there who threatened to topple the government of the day.

Less than 24 hours and a helicopter ride to the front later, I observed from a sandy trench as French jets pounded rebel positions in the desert. Their aim was to stop the insurgents’ advance toward the capital, much as it was in Mali last week.

The lifelong geopolitical dream of the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi took many guises, but his goal, at bottom, was always to opportunistically project power southward, across the Sahara and far and wide into the Sahel, a region that for these purposes extends from Sudan to Senegal.

Already in the early 1970s — long before anyone had heard of al Qaeda — Qaddafi had formed an Islamic legion of Sahelian recruits. Although the Libyan leader’s rule was essentially secular at home, he was an opportunist abroad, using Islam and his own peculiar brew of pan-Arabism as both intoxicant and glue for rebellions aimed at challenging the political order left in place by European colonialism. The Libyan leader’s bag of tricks involved annexation (Chad), merger (Sudan) and most grandiosely, pan-African union.

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