Jihadism and coups in West Africa’s Sahel region: a complex relationship

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The political instability and insecurity in some Sahelian states in West Africa has led to the capture of political power by their military in recent times. Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali have all experienced coups.

One thing these cases have in common is that the states are grappling with the threat of Islamist insurgency.

The insurgents are bent on imposing extremist political ideologies that are anti-democratic, including establishing an Islamic caliphate across the region. The consequences could lead to state collapse across the region, as has been the recent case in Afghanistan.

Is there a relationship between jihadism and military coups in the Sahel? There is no easy answer.

Analysts say that while there is no mutually beneficial relationship between jihadist groups and coup plotters, there is a linkage between the increase of jihadism and the protracted insecurity across the region.

What is certain is that the new wave of military coups could dim the prospects of delivering the dividends of democracy in a region already devastated by jihadism.

The complex, evolving relationship between jihadism and military coups in West Africa’s Sahel region is best understood in how the activities of the former preempts the emergence of the latter. This is not to say however that jihadism is a direct precursor to military coups.

Convergence of chaos

The latest coup in West Africa took place in Burkina Faso. It was the third in the country within the past eight months. There was also a recent attempted coup in Guinea-Bissau.

The Economic Community for West African States and the African Union have reacted to the unfolding trends in the region mostly with mere “sanctions” and “suspensions”. These measures tend to further isolate affected states rather than improving transparency and accountability.

A historical deep dive into the Sahel region, where most of these military coups are occurring, shows that most of the states there are confronted by the challenge posed by jihadist groups.

Most of these groups are affiliated with global jihadist groups such Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Jihadist groups in the region include Jamaatu Ansaril Muslimina fi Biladis Sudan (popularly referred to as Ansaru), Jamaat Ahl as Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (Boko Haram), the Islamic State in the West African Province , the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jamaat Nusratul Islam wal-Muslimin.

The underlying circumstances that have led to the proliferation of these jihadist groups across the region include high levels of poverty and inequality. There is also high unemployment, illiteracy and poor governance.

The existence of these socio-economic factors as well as political instability and the challenges posed by climate change in the region have compounded the threat posed by jihadism.

Combined, these conditions have given fuel to jihadism in the troubled region, leaving the affected states in perpetual fragility and weakness.

The obvious result has been the continued incapacity of the affected states to deal with their many challenges.

This has led to repeated tensions in relations between the state and society, which the jihadist groups have exploited in intensifying their recruitment drive.

On the other hand, the activities of these jihadist groups have also mounted additional pressure on the fragile democratic systems across the region.

This encourages state capture by the military, who see themselves as “guardians of the state” and the “last hope” of the common citizen.

Battered but not out

Having to bear the brunt, over the years, of fighting these jihadist groups, while sustaining multiple casualties, has also contributed to disenchantment within the ranks of the military. This was the case in Burkina Faso.

Endemic corruption has further increased distrust between the military and the political elites. Corruption is often associated with the affected Sahelian states in West Africa.

The military often blame corruption among the political elite for the lack of required resources to fight insurgencies.

The military’s ascension to power does not necessarily guarantee a defeat of jihadists. Rather, it creates the tendency for an overly militaristic approach to fighting insurgency.

The approach further entrenches the unintended consequence of pushing the vulnerable into joining jihadist groups, rather than pulling them away from extremist ideologies.

The jihadist groups in the region are likely also to intensify their influence operations across the region – aimed at winning the “hearts and minds” of the locals within their areas of operation.

The continued emergence of coups is likely to be capitalised upon by jihadists as reflecting efforts which are finally yielding desired results – the forced displacement of democratic systems of government. The jihadists could use this as a tactic to get more fighters to join them.

Uncertain future

While the situation across the region continues to look bleak, it is important to note that democracy still stands a chance of surviving.

But wishful thinking alone is not sufficient. If the underlying factors that triggered the spate of violent extremism across the Sahel region continue, the military’s penchant for seizing political power might grow.

The military juntas now in power must urgently seek to establish mutuality with the societies they now rule. It’s a tall order, given that they don’t prioritise the relationship between state and society. Doing so would require giving voice to the concerns and grievances of citizens they rule over.

Failure to do this could result in the same disenchantment the people had towards the ousted civilian rulers, in the first place.

Written by Folahanmi Aina, Doctoral Candidate in Leadership Studies, King’s College London.



Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.