By Donnelly McCleland

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday [16 February] ruled out an immediate reduction of French troops battling Islamist militants in West Africa’s Sahel region, saying a rushed exit would be a mistake. Mr Macron and a group of five African allies — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — were taking part in a meeting to discuss their fight against the violent jihadist insurgency across the Sahel region. The French president had hoped for more engagement on the ground by his main European ally, Germany. But after the so-called G5 summit, which Macron joined by video link, Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said that Berlin would not send soldiers into additional military operations in the Sahel region. (DWDeutsche Welle-News)

Deepening crises in the Sahel

The United Nation’s emergency relief coordinator Mark Lowcock said in October 2020: “Nowhere scares me more than the Sahel, I fear the region is very close to a tipping point.” He cited a deadly mix of poverty, fast-growing numbers of displaced people, shoddy local governance, dwindling resources, an increasingly inhospitable climate, and violent organised groups as key contributing factors.

More than eight years since the beginning of the armed conflict (the insurgency in Mali in 2012 is often seen as the ‘starting date’ of the crisis, though the underlying issues in the Sahel are decades in the making), hardly a day goes by without an armed attack, the explosion of a mine or abuses against civilians. Almost 7,000 people died due to worsening fighting in 2020, according to data by the Armed Conflict and Location Event Data Project. In late January, the United Nations warned the “unrelenting violence” had internally displaced more than two million people, up from 490,000 at the start of 2019. Fighting terrorism has proven to be extremely difficult in the Sahel region, especially since most governments face the enormous task of providing security to vast desert areas. Poverty, high unemployment, poor governance, and rapid population growth often provide fertile ground for recruitment by jihadists.

An article in the Mail and Guardian (16 February 2021) notes: “An internal report to the US congress, published in early 2020, said the US was no longer aiming to ‘degrade’ violent extremist groups in the Sahel, but to merely ‘contain’ them, after what the UN described as a ‘devastating surge in terrorist attacks’ against civilians and military targets. Deaths from such attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger increased five-fold between 2016-19. And in June last year, the UN warned that jihadist groups were exploiting uncertainty caused by Covid-19.”

Counter-terrorism operations have been deeply criticised for having an over-militarised policy, local troops abandoning the tactics they received through international training, trainers having poor cultural and tactical awareness and there being little to no oversight of partner country’s human rights violations.

Assessment of current approaches

Lowcock, of the UN, said: “Solutions being tried [in the Sahel] are both inadequate in scale and lop-sided in composition: too high a proportion of the effort on security and humanitarian need, and too little on the underlying causes of the problems.” Despite counter-terror assistance, and the tens of thousands of local and international troops deployed across the Sahel, extremist groups in the region – such as Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and Boko Haram – continue to drive the fastest-growing Islamist insurgency in the world. As a result, there is extensive discussion about the effectiveness of the predominantly military/humanitarian approach to the Sahel crises.

International Crisis Group (ICG) earlier this month called for a “course correction” in France’s approach in the Sahel, noting that many of its international backers – and even some French officials – are “disappointed” by the results of Mr Macron’s strategy so far.

The United States Department of State (Washington, DC) issued a statement at the opening of the G5 summit on 15 February, acknowledging the challenges and need for reassessment of current approaches and important aspects to consider going forward: “Tactical counterterrorism work is essential. But on its own, we know it is not enough. Instability and violence are symptoms of a crisis of state legitimacy. Historical social grievances, a lack of accessible public services, and exclusion from political processes – particularly for minority or marginalized communities – all of these erode the legitimacy of governments in the eyes of the people. Beyond a security response, the path to lasting stability lies in providing services and economic opportunities, protecting the rule of law, and engaging communities in decisions that affect them. It also lies in pursuing justice for human rights violations committed by security forces, with transparent investigations and real accountability.

Professor Kwesi Aning, Director of the Faculty of Academic Affairs and Research at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Ghana, says: “America’s unending fascination with ‘terror and extremism’ has meant dictators have learned to couch their narrative and relationships with the US within a discourse of preventing terror”. He goes on to stress: “But, people can’t eat ‘military interventions.’ Helping provide drinking water, clean energy for cooking, education for girls, all the ‘basic needs of ordinary people’ … would cut the counter-terrorism budget by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Alternative approaches

There seems to be a definite clarion call for a new approach, but not one that simply throws everything out that came before, but rather a reassessment, an honest consideration of what ‘works’ and what does not. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) produced a report in December 2020, “Rethinking Crisis Responses in the Sahel” which rigorously examines various approaches and assumptions and draws some insightful conclusions. A vital aspect they say is ‘political will’ since counter-terrorism operations alone do not automatically translate into stronger governance. They suggest that international partners should “recalibrate the pace of counter-terrorism operations, ensuring that these efforts are effective and that they are being advanced in tandem with governance reforms and efforts to strengthen public trust.” The report points out: “Achieving inclusive social change will require restoring trust between major stakeholders and inviting a broader segment of Sahelian society into the peace and governance processes.” The CSIS suggest ‘A Governance-Focused Approach’ – with a rebalancing of counter-terrorism initiatives and an invigorated focus on governance, democratisation, and public trust. They suggest involving “governance accountability programmes, civic education training, and provision of support to civil society and faith-based institutions.” Another pertinent recommendation worth mentioning: “The international community should also explore options for incentive-based conditioning, such as increasing funding or participating in matching funds when governments take steps to govern responsibly, to protect civilians, and to commit to ceasefires. Similarly, it should work with the region’s leaders to ensure that their core political constituents benefit as much as the restive populations do.”

In light of the recommendations mentioned above, it is heartening to see the formation of ‘A People’s Coalition for the Sahel’ – a group of civil society actors from the Sahel, with backing from across Africa and internationally. The Africa Report published their full manifesto on 20 July 2020, which states: “Our objective is to help promote the priorities – the ‘People’s Pillars’ – that we believe should guide any response to the crisis in our region.” There are four stated ‘People’s Pillars’: one – put the protection of civilians and human security at the heart of the response in the Sahel, so that better protection is provided for all people affected by the conflict, without discrimination; two – create a comprehensive political strategy to address the root causes of insecurity; three – respond to humanitarian emergencies and ensure that aid is responsive to development; and four – combat impunity and ensure access to justice for all.


According to the Pew Center: “If demography is destiny, then Christianity’s future lies in Africa. By 2060, a plurality of Christians – more than four-in-ten – will call sub-Saharan Africa home, up from 26% in 2015.” Sub-Saharan Africa is the region south of the Sahara Desert. The Sahel region (geographically a region that is ‘sandwiched’ between the Sahara Desert in the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south) is often referred to as the ‘fault-line’, separating the ‘Muslim north’ from the ‘Christian south’, making it a highly strategic region for the African Church, and the broader Body of Christ. If one considers the tremendous growth in the Church in Africa – in 1910 there were two million Christians in Africa and today there are an estimated 650 million (with about 200 million of those being evangelicals) – then it should not be surprising that the spiritual battle for the Sahel region is so intense, or that there is such a tangible physical manifestation of this spiritual battle.

There is definitely a focus from the Church in Africa to be instrumental in bringing about godly change to the continent. In 2015, the Association of Evangelicals in Africa (AEA) launched an initiative called “The Africa that God Wants,” aimed at building on the African Union’s ‘Agenda 2063’ (a blueprint and master plan for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future).  The idea being to “develop a biblical vision espousing ‘The Africa God Wants’ based on the gospel and the ability of the Church to lead in the transformation of policy and societal engagement, discipleship, and reaching the unreached in Africa and beyond.” Similarly, it is encouraging to see that the ‘All Africa Conference of Churches’ (AACC) is listed as a signatory of ‘A People’s Coalition for the Sahel’ (mentioned above). The AACC is a continental ecumenical body that accounts for over 140 million Christians across Africa. It is the largest association of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox and Indigenous churches in Africa.

This is a crucial time for the Church in Sub-Saharan Africa to come alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ in the Sahel to see an impactful change in the region.

Prayer points:

  • For the G5 countries and their international partners to hear the deep concerns of citizens in the Sahel, and for them to incorporate them into more effective approaches to the current crises
  • For the Church in Africa to play a pivotal role in being ambassadors of reconciliation and peace to this volatile region
  • For the larger Body of Christ to stand with the Church in Africa in waging spiritual warfare against the “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12)



Image:  REUTERS/HANS LUCAS/ Frédéric Pétry