A Fight Club Approach to Policy in the Sahel
The Sahel region is a narrow band that reaches across the widest part of Africa, from Eritrea and Sudan on one side, to Senegal and Mauritania on the other. However, to think of the Sahel as a coherent region is problematic. Instead, the transatlantic community should focus on developing an effective policy toward Africa as a whole, through effective communication, less reliance on military solutions, and a greater focus on utilizing the knowledge of experts.
The first rule of developing a policy toward the Sahel is that there is no policy for the Sahel.
Now to be fair this contrarian assertion is not entirely true. Unlike Fight Club there is in fact a Sahel. We can identify it on a map. We can name the (sections of – and this is part of the problem) countries that make up the Sahel. It is a region with a history and, in particular, a geography. And it can be useful to think regionally rather than simply nationally when addressing the countries across that wide swath of Africa.
But the assertion is also not entirely false.
When we refer to the Sahel, we are talking about a broad swath of territory that extends more than 5000 kilometers across the widest part of Africa, from Eritrea and Sudan on the Red Sea, to Senegal and Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean. It occupies more than three million square kilometers, and consists of a relatively narrow band ranging from a few hundred to a thousand kilometers between the Sahara to the North and Savannah to the South.
Historically the region shares some commonalities as a trade and migratory zone, but by the high tide of colonialism the Western Sahel was within the French colonial sphere while the Eastern Sahel fell under the Egyptians and ultimately the British. It is at this point that thinking of the Sahel as a coherent region becomes especially problematic. The post-colonial era and the establishment of discrete nation states further dispels the logic of a trans-Sahel region that requires or can develop a coherent world view to which any particular series of policy prescriptions beyond the most general can apply. The semi-arid region contains similar experiences of poverty and drought, but whether this is enough to sustain regional coherence is questionable, especially as no nation-state is completely within the Sahel zone and each belongs to other sub-regional bodies, such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States, or the Community of Sahel-Saharan States. Or to put it another way, what connects Eritrea and Mauritania in any way that is meaningful to African policymakers, never mind to, say, the State Department?
What should American and European policy toward the Sahel look like? Well, it should look something like an ideal policy for almost all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Not that the United States or Europe have developed a particularly coherent policy toward Africa. Indeed, the biggest part of the problem of what we can vaguely call "The West's" Africa policy is such policy really is like Fight Club – most of the time it does not appear to exist.
This lack of serious engagement with Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole is the real problem. Solve it, and we can make a move toward developing a coherent policy toward those countries that are all or in part in the Sahel. Continue to chase crises and generally take a reactive approach to the continent and its 54 nation states and Africa will continue to be little more than an afterthought in American foreign policy.
In general, the following principles should guide policy toward not only the countries in the Sahel, but across Africa:
- Talk to Africans. More importantly, listen to them. Do not presume to speak for them. And do not assume that non-profit organizations based in and led by people from the United States, UK, or anywhere else speak for the African locals.
- Don't lead with military solutions, and do not presume that the most important issues in the Sahel are related to questions of terrorism or radical Islamic fundamentalism. These are oftentimes American and Western concerns. Policies need to be more visionary and far-reaching. Believe it or not, in the vast majority of Africa, including many parts of the Sahel, terrorism is not one of the ten most important issues people face, never mind being the central issue. America's War on Terrorism has warped foreign policy almost to the breaking point.
- There are experts in academia and other fields who know African culture, history, and politics. Utilize them in developing policies. But do not defer to any given intellectual who might have the loudest microphone or most visible platform.
- Think of policy development like the Hippocratic Oath – Do No Harm. It is sometimes better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing.
None of this is to dismiss attempts to think transnationally nor is it to say that attempts to link policy with geographic zones is not a way forward. It is simply to assert that when it comes to Africa policy the West needs to do better to implement basic Africa-centered principles above all else.
Derek Catsam is the Foreign Policy Association's Senior Blogger for Africa and an Associate Professor of History at University of Texas of the Permian Basin