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The Sahel Region: A Troubled Land of Turmoil and Conflict

  Recently, armed conflicts between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Sudanese paramilitary Rapid Support Forces surrounding Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and several other major cities have attracted widespread attention from the international community. The conflict has caused huge property losses and casualties, triggering humanitarian disasters. Against the backdrop of reconciliation in the Middle East, the armed conflict in Sudan has triggered more thinking about the situation in the region.
  The epitome of turmoil and conflict in the Sahel region
  In fact, if viewed from a larger geographical scope and a longer historical dimension, the current armed conflict in Sudan is just the epitome of turmoil and conflict in the Sahel region for many years. The Sahel region is located between sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghreb region of North Africa, spanning the entire African continent and including countries such as Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Eritrea . Since the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010, the security problems of most countries in the region have gradually spilled over, and conflicts have occurred frequently, resulting in great constraints on economic development.
  The situation in Mali has been in turmoil since 2012 when armed conflicts broke out among the tribes in northern Mali and the military staged a coup. Although the country’s overall situation has improved after France’s intervention, domestic problems have not been fundamentally resolved. Around its domestic political arrangements, Mali was sanctioned by the West African Community in 2022; and due to the intervention of the “Wagner” group, Mali and France parted ways, and France withdrew from the peacekeeping in Mali for more than ten years. Burkina Faso has two coups in 2022 and frequent terrorist attacks. It has now become a highly active area of ​​terrorist activities in the Sahel region. In Chad, the situation has been in turmoil because the country is in a period of power transfer—the former national leader Déby died, and his son Déby Jr. took power. Although the political situation in Niger is somewhat stable, it has experienced two (unsuccessful) coups since 2021 and faces the threat of terrorist attacks. In the past ten years or so, Sudan has first staged a separation between the north and the south, and then fell into a civil war. The situation in the Sahel region has been turbulent for a long time, resulting in a very backward economy. The per capita GDP (GDP) of the above countries is less than 1,000 US dollars, ranking among the least developed countries in the world, while the per capita GDP of South Sudan is only about 300 US dollars .
  Even more pessimistic, the turmoil in the Eastern Sahel has merged with security issues and diplomatic conflicts in the traditional “Horn of Africa” ​​region, with the Ethiopian civil war, the dispute over the water resources of the Nile between Sudan-Ethiopia-Egypt and Maritime security issues in the Red Sea are intertwined, further deteriorating the security situation in the “East Sahel-Horn of Africa region”, jeopardizing the security and development of Africa and the Middle East.
  Colonial history caused economic separation
  The frequent turmoil and conflicts in the Sahel region are not unrelated to its harsh natural conditions and the turbulent political environment in North Africa. Even in Africa, the Sahel region is a region with relatively poor natural environment. Low and uneven rainfall, overgrazing and deforestation have further deteriorated the environment, and climate change has made the region’s already unbearable natural environment even worse. At the same time, the rapid population growth in the Sahel makes the region extremely sensitive to changes in the external political and economic environment. The major geopolitical turmoil more than a decade ago, the economic stagnation caused by the new crown epidemic in recent years, and the rise in international energy and food prices caused by the crisis in Ukraine have further exacerbated the instability in the region.
  In fact, the conditions for development in the Sahel region as a whole are not without merit. Two of Africa’s three major water systems pass through the region. The Niger River and its tributaries flow through Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, and the Nile River flows through Sudan and South Sudan, bringing abundant water resources to these countries. Many countries in the Sahel region also possess mineral resources, such as gold, iron, uranium and other non-ferrous metals, as well as oil and natural gas. The political turmoil and economic backwardness in the Sahel region have an important relationship with the long-term fragmentation of the region.
  As we all know, the African continent has suffered from Western colonial rule for a long time in history. During the period when Africa was under colonial rule, in order to compete for spheres of influence and “territory”, Western colonists did not divide the borders of African countries according to the local historical, humanistic traditions and economic ties, but instead separated them geopolitically. The Sahel region is also a confluence of languages, cultures and religions. The national liberation movement after World War II made the “colonial border” of the region obtain the legal status of a “nation-state” border, which in turn stimulated the internal language, tribe and religion. The “politicization” of religious difference. Various political disputes in the Sahel region today, including the civil war in Mali, the partition of Sudan, and the independence of Eritrea, actually have linguistic and tribal roots. In countries with divided national consciousness, the lack of basic political basis for building a unified market is one of the important factors causing the stagnation of economic development in the region.
  Colonial history has also had an important impact on the economic separation of the Sahel today. Historically, the Sahel region roughly formed a French colony (the country west of Chad) and a British colony (Sudan and South Sudan), and Eritrea was once an Italian colony. Today, countries west of Niger are part of the Economic Community of West Africa, Chad is part of the Economic Community of Central Africa, and Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea are traditionally part of East Africa. From the above, the colonial history of the Sahel region has made the economic integration of the region difficult today.
  At the same time, there are many landlocked countries in the Sahel region, which also restricts the economic development of the region to a certain extent. The arbitrary separation in the colonial era created too many landlocked countries in the Sahel region. After the Cold War, the independence of Eritrea and the division of the former Sudan created new landlocked countries. In the era of globalization, the constraints on economic development of landlocked countries are obvious. At present, apart from some landlocked countries in Europe, there is no other landlocked country whose per capita GDP has reached US$10,000. Senegal and Mauritania, which both belong to the Sahel region, have significantly better political and economic conditions than other countries in the region because of their access to the Atlantic Ocean. Compared with coastal countries, resource development and commodity transportation costs are higher in landlocked countries, and it is more difficult to attract international capital and participate in international trade. Without effective economic integration, landlocked countries cannot enter the international industrial chain. Especially in the Sahel region, the large number of landlocked countries also makes the coastal countries lose the hinterland that can provide resources and population, which can be described as a lose-lose.
  The separation of colonial history and economic structure has caused and exacerbated the problem of a single economic structure in the Sahel region. The economies of these countries are often dominated by backward agriculture and animal husbandry, supplemented by mining, economic efficiency is low, and they are easily affected by the natural environment. Geopolitical fragmentation makes it impossible to carry out large-scale economic planning, extend the industrial chain, prevent local labor from participating in the global division of labor, and make it difficult for agricultural and resource-based products to be further processed and add value. The inefficiency of resource development will lead to fierce competition for limited natural resources among countries in the region, which will “resonate” with differences in languages, tribes, and religions, further deteriorating the security situation.
  The Western world cannot provide effective solutions to the security and development problems faced by the Sahel region. For a long time, the U.S. policy toward Africa has focused on developing bilateral relations, and on issues such as aid and anti-terrorism. Although European countries have a certain interest in integrating the economic development of the African region, they are all influenced by the language and political connections formed during the colonial era. For example, the UK’s African policy prioritizes the development of relations with the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations in Africa, and France also gives more preference to French-speaking countries because of its concept of “Francophone Africa” (the “Sahel Group of Five” promoted by France only includes French-speaking countries), and Germany, since it has no colonies in the Sahel region, is cautious about investing resources in the southern Mediterranean coast under the European framework.

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