For civilians living in isolated communities in the Sahel, violence is twofold. From the militaristic approach, violence against civilian populations is often conducted with impunity during security operations, while from an economic standpoint, widespread unemployment and the absence of basic social services have left many in poverty and feeling resentful towards their governments.
Many young people in the region now join armed groups for financial gains, rather than any fundamental or cohesive ideology.
Yet the failure of the militaristic approach in fighting insurgency in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Nigeria is underplayed in public discourse, and we witness increased military budgets and foreign intervention being proposed as solutions over the years.
What is even more under-discussed however, is how economic policies from the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF, World Bank) have created the economic conditions for radicalisation.
The foundation for these economic vulnerabilities was laid decades ago when the Bretton Woods institutions imposed the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPS) on various countries in the developing world.
Conditionalities for loans largely included economic reforms such as currency devaluation, cuts on public spending, and increased charges for public services. Over time, these policies pushed more people into poverty, widening the inequality gap and the informal economy with it, and rendering many people unemployed.
Studies have shown that several responses to the failure of neoliberal economic policies have been accompanied by social and political conflict, at a much higher scale.
The manifestation of these conflicts is what we witness in the Sahel today, where militant groups have taken advantage of unemployment and wealth gaps which are more extreme in the region, to establish themselves as key players in the informal economy.
Despite attacks against civilians in the artisanal gold mines of Burkina Faso, there are reports that some local miners have shown a growing preference for the social and financial protection offered by armed groups.
The artisanal gold mining in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger is estimated to be worth at least two billion dollars, with over two million people directly or indirectly involved in the informal gold trade across the region.
In Northern Nigeria, research has shown that decades of de-industrialisation, educational disadvantage and limited service provision has led to a situation whereby university graduates are gradually pushing those who had no opportunity to acquire university education out of the informal economy.
The unemployed graduates generally have more capital and better contacts, which makes it difficult for the uneducated to compete with them in the informal economy.
Boko Haram militants have also relied on economic failures to recruit young and unemployed citizens by promising financial support and social protection. Despite their name which implies resentment for Western education, Boko Haram’s recruitment strategy is rooted in job scarcity and exclusion of the less literate, not necessarily religious teachings.
Those who have suffered the economic marginalisation are more vulnerable to the group’s recruitment drive. In the Lake Chad Basin, ISWAP militants have set up state-like structures by occupying strategic islands and fishing villages in the area, creating ‘safe’ access for locals to generate income, and then taxing them for protection.
This strategy has only been successful for the militants because of the weak government presence, which is visible in the lack of social services as a result of austerity measures regarding public spending.
For many communities, the presence of their government is most visible when military convoys travel through, or air strikes are conducted near their settlements.
Militant groups have clearly understood the linkages between economic failures and radicalisation, and are working to leverage it.
From ISWAP to JNIM and Boko Haram, these groups have since evolved to build their own political and economic structures within the growing informal economy, effectively taking control of some areas.
Addressing economic inequality remains a crucial component of counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel region.
For effective outcomes, governments must shift from prioritising the fantasies of a market economy to a more holistic approach which prioritises social welfare.
Donor institutions also require radical reforms towards promoting inclusive economic models which will help governments in vulnerable countries in the provision of social services like healthcare, education and microfinance.
It is imperative that the Sahel countries reject any economic solutions from multilateral institutions, which reinforce the status quo.
Credit: Mubarak Aliyu
Mubarak Aliyu is Political & Security Risk Analyst focusing on West Africa and the Sahel.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of The African Exponent.