A Complex “Near Abroad”

The Euro-Atlantic economic and security system, which can be summarized with the EU and NATO, also looks towards the southern shore of the Mediterranean. These two organizations have gradually expanded their cooperations with the nations bordering the Mediterranean coast, establishing different architectures and programs of dialogue, economic and security cooperation.

For the EU the ENP (European Neighbourhood Policy) developed since 2004 is geared immediate neighbours both to the east (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) and to the south (Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Tunisia). As of 28 June 2021, Belarus has suspended its membership in the Eastern Partnership. Libya and Syria currently do not fully participate in the ENP. NATO established the Mediterranean Dialogue was launched in 1994 and include Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt (it includes also Israel, Jordan and for Libya there is the open door, if it wants to join).

However, the progressive extension and worsening of the political, economic, social and security situation in the nations south of the countries bordering the Mediterranean, and for the same countries on the southern coast obliged these two organizations to enlarge their attention to an important and large part of the African continent.

The “near abroad” concept and vision for EU and NATO, consequently expanded from Maghreb to its neighbouring region, Sahel. Both are affected by a grid of problems, fractures and opportunities and it is an obliged choice, a painful necessity in order to reduce potential damages.   

The Maghreb (in Arabic, “the West”) is a geographical and political region that includes five countries: Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco Mauritania, and the disputed territory of the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara. The Sahel (“the edge” or “the limit”) is a geographical region that extends south of the Sahara Desert, through ten countries: Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Both spaces add up to almost 9 million square kilometers, more than twice the size of the EU. This are count more than 550 million inhabitants with a 3% of birthrate. In its social structure, with different intensities, the concept of tribe or ethnic group still prevails. The majority religion is Islam, which in some countries coexists with animistic practices.

In these regions there are failed States, such as Libya, and others are marked by internal conflict, such as Tunisia; there is regional rivalry between countries, both from the political and diplomatic point of view as well as security (Morocco and Algeria); in other territories the presence of terrorist organizations is stable (Mali or Nigeria) or there is political instability (Burkina, Niger or Mali); certain nations suffer almost endemic famines (Sudan, Eritrea or Ethiopia); some countries are places of transit or origin of irregular immigration flows to Europe (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Mali or Niger). And in all of them, the democratic standards, to a greater or lesser extent, are lower from Western standards. Many of these nations have natural resources that should favor their economic development and are of special interest for Western industry and economy. The risks and threats related to this area of the planet are a recurring object of interest in successive national security strategies, as well as for NATO and EU.

In this enormous region, terrorist activity with a jihadist ideology is together with other instability elements such as illicit trafficking, political instability, famine, forced displacement of the population, irregular immigration networks and poor and weak governance. In the dynamics of jihadist terrorism, it is a constant to use regional conflicts as training grounds for future terrorists who will end up acting in Western countries. These groups spread their propaganda through social networks to ideologize people who finally join the jihad in conflict zones or in the Western countries where they reside after legal and/or illegal migration. In the region there are economic resources of interest but physical and legal insecurity hinders legitimate business activity in the region.

Currently, the Sahel countries with the highest terrorist activity are Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Mali has more than 1.2 million square kilometers and a very low population density. The country and the populations in the north and south show notable differences both ethnically and culturally. As a result of the agreements of the Berlin Conference of 1884, artificial borders were imposed in Africa that separated ethnic groups and cultures, a process that also affected Mali. Traditionally the population of northern Mali (Arabs) has not felt identified with the policies of the Government of Bamako (Black dominated). The fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya triggered the return of numerous Tuareg fighters to the north of Mali and the reactivation of initiatives to advance towards the independence of the northern regions gathered around the self-proclaimed state of Azawad. The Malian forces where not in condition to control the situation and the area of fighting was used by jihadist armed groups to occupy part of the territory. The Bamako government’s inability to control the country led it to request international aid. In January 2013, the “Serval” operation began—led by France—, which in July 2014 was renamed “Barkhane,” extended to Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and concluded at the end of 2022. In 2013 the EU launched a military training mission for the Malian forces called EUTM-Mali, which would end in 2024, and two civilian missions, EUCAP Sahel Mali and EUCAP Sahel Niger, whose mandates will end in January 2025 and September 2024 respectively, and giving the strong hostility of Bamako, the first one is probable that will be not renewed. For its part, the UNSC approved by Resolution 2100 of April 25, 2013, the establishment of the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a peace enforcement mission that had aims to pacify northern Mali and is concluded, on the request of Mali (and the withdrawal of the “blue helmets” is ongoing and it would be completed at the end of this year). All these efforts did not overcome the threat, which at the contrary licked to Niger and Burkina Faso. After the last military   coup in Mali, on May 24, 2021, social and government rejection of Western troops—especially French ones— has increased. The final thing is that all the international presence is on the way to leave the country and the current government is relying on the mercenaries of the Russian company Wagner to combat terrorist groups and the anti-Western feeling spread in Burkina Faso. While the Tuareg groups maintain an agreement, certainly precarious, with the Government, while the jihadist-based armed groups have been congregating around two major groups: the Support Group for Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State for the Greater Sahara, which count on several thousand militants with the capacity to occupy territory and control the population through terror. Attacks on humanitarian aid convoys or MINUSMA columns and bases are frequent. The first and most obvious consequence of terrorist activity, not only in Mali, is the growing IDPs both to safer areas of the country and to Mauritania and Senegal, where these refugees live precarious life.

Irregular immigration is another of the risk factors that can affect the security side. This is not necessarily caused by immigrants, but by organizations that stimulate and control illegal trafficking: specialized structures, linked to other criminal traffic, that obtain great benefits and disregard the risk of losing their lives to which they expose immigrants. Irregular immigration can entail other risks —such as the increase in social unrest as a consequence of massive arrivals—which is why it is a phenomenon that can be easily used as an instrument of political pressure, like it was done by Morocco against Spain in occasion of the hospitalization in that country of the leader of the independentist movement of Western Sahara, POLISARIO in May 2021. And, in some cases, it constitutes the gateway to Europe for jihadist terrorists.

Down to Maghreb, as above mentioned, there is Sahel; this area includes countries with important differences in their economic structure and natural resources. However, they are all among the LDCs. The region has been facing multiple challenges for years —such as political instability and insecurity—, added to the economic and health crisis caused by COVID-19 and the increase in energy and food prices, a consequence of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

In the case of countries in which around 80% of the population depends on agriculture and livestock —with the exception of Nigeria—and where the primary sector represents between 20 and 45% of the GDP, the climatic conditions and the expanding desertification, are factors which challenge any option for growth. Some of these territories are rich in natural resources, including the rare earths. This is the case of Chad, where more than 90% of exports are fuel, rare hearts and precious metals, or Niger, where 80% of exports, directed to France and the UAE, are concentrated in uranium—Niger is the third world exporter of this mineral. The case of Ethiopia is significant: it has significant gold and tantalum reserves. Despite its natural wealth, as general view, the benefit obtained affects the governing leadership, linked in some cases to foreign interests, and the population does not get an improvement in their income.

On the other hand, the industrial sector is very limited, mainly linked to agri-food sub sector, with a low demand for labor with the notable exception of Nigeria’s petrochemical industry in consideration that the country is the largest producer in Africa, representing the 80% of the national export (as comparison, in Chad, income from the exploitation of natural resources constitutes almost 22% of GDP; however, the oil sector generates 80% of these incomes).

The services sector presents various degrees of development in the Sahel, with the exception of Nigeria and Senegal (for this country is tourism the leading subsector).

Trade relations are concentrated in the export of hydrocarbon (oil and gas), rare hearts stones and metals (particularly gold). In addition to commercial exchanges between neighbors, the relations that the Sahel countries maintain with China, India, US, Switzerland, UAE and EU (particularly with France, Belgium and Spain). However, there are important barriers that hinder the arrival of investors: insecurity, legal and tariff obstacles, high installation costs caused by the enormous expenses in electricity and protectionism against imports.

The region’s population structure is typical of developing countries: due to the high birth rate and low life expectancy, there is a high percentage of young people.

Undoubtedly, a characteristic common to the countries that make up this geographical area is the situation of poverty in which a large part of the population lives. In the Sahel, between 30 and 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day. Extreme poverty is especially concentrated in rural areas, where the population depends on agricultural or livestock production, subject to climatic fluctuations. The percentage of the population living in rural areas is especially high in countries such as Chad (77%) or Mali (53%), which explains the significant economic dependence on the primary sector and the difficult access to basic services, such as education or health, a situation that leads to high levels of illiteracy and high mortality rates.

In addition to the problems mentioned, there is increasing demographic pressure on certain areas of the region, caused by internal displacements caused mainly by armed conflicts.

The Maghreb occupies an extensive area that includes densely populated coastlines and desert and unpopulated areas that end up bordering on the Sahel. This circumstance produces a double territorial imbalance —between the coast and the interior and between the countryside and the city— which has triggered an exodus to the cities, whose services have been overwhelmed and suffering. The main industrial and agricultural activity in the Maghreb is located in the coastal areas; it is complemented by an important mining and hydrocarbon activity in a large part of the territory. These factors encourage the Maghreb to have a GDP per capita of more than $3,000. Mauritania with $1,700 euros it remains more closer to Sahel. However, GDP growth has been irregular, not sustained and insufficient to generate the resources required by demographic pressure. However, it remains higher than Sahel.

The economies of the Maghreb are based on three pillars: the agri-food sector, the export of manufactures and a significant contribution from hydrocarbons and minerals. In the agricultural model, modern agriculture, for export, focused on Mediterranean products (fruit, olive oil, vegetables), and traditional agriculture, dedicated to cereals, converge. This sector concentrates about half of the workforce in Morocco, but only contributes between 10 and 15% of GDP, which underline a low productivity. In Tunisia, the figures are more balanced: the activity employs 16% of the labor force and accounts for a similar percentage of GDP. In the rest of the region the weight of agriculture in exports is lower.

Fishing is a fundamental sector for Mauritania, representing 10% of GDP and 35 % of its exports. For Morocco it represents 16% of exports. Both countries have very rich fishing grounds, however exposed to risks of overexploitation. Example of it is Morocco, which has already exhausted the fishing grounds in its internationally recognized sea border and the only fisheries reserves are now in the water of the disputed Western Sahara and Rabat use it as political tool with economic and political partners/customers like EU (especially Spain and Portugal), but also South Korea, Russia and China in order to legitimize his presence in the former Spanish colony.

Mainly, the industrial sector of the Maghreb has experienced growth in the north, influenced by its proximity to the EU and its low costs. In the case of Morocco and Tunisia, the protagonists have been light manufacturing; the automotive and aeronautical industry; in Algeria the steel and petrochemical industries are strong. However, the Maghreb run around the exploitation of natural resources, mainly hydrocarbons and minerals. The largest producers of oil and natural gas are Algeria (98% of export revenue) and Libya (95%). Morocco, less rich in hydrocarbons, is the world’s second largest producer of phosphates, while Algeria looks to develop the same sector and with Chinese help, the iron ore. Mauritania is hopeful that oil exploration projects will become a reality, after many promises, and iron ore now accounts for the bulk of its exports. Tunisia, despite being below its neighbors Algeria and Libya, is a producer of phosphate, iron, zinc and some oil.

The commercial activity of the Maghreb materializes fundamentally in countries of the EU; Mauritania, whose main customer is China, is the exception.

All the countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel were colonies of several European nations, but even under foreign rule existed tribes/clan dynamics which where formalized after the colonization. To this lack of political experience was added, during decolonization, artificial borders separating ethnic groups, establishing territorial units with no elements in common and the new states were unable to exercise effective control. The classic elements that make up a State—people, territory and power, governed by a legal order—have not fully articulated to ensure the necessary political stability, especially in the Sahel.

With regard to the political form of the new States, except for Morocco (even if a constitutional monarchy, the king keep an iron fist in controlling the policymaking and governance), the rest of the countries in the regions studied were constituted as French-inspired semi-presidential republics. Due to the aforementioned circumstances and the lack of stable party systems, these have frequently degenerated into personalist governments, threatened, in turn, by frequent coups, especially in the Sahel.

The wave of democratization that began in the 1990s and continued through the first decade of the 2000s gave us a glimpse of some hope, which had vanished after the failure of the so-called Arab Spring. Political fragility, corruption, the emergence of jihadism and the expansionist policies of certain countries, added to the effects of climate change, are threatening the very viability of the States of the Sahel, since without political stability robust and sustained economic growth cannot be born. Electoral systems in the Sahel area operate in a framework of political pluralism that is not guaranteed and do not generate trust among citizens. Consequently, the results are often disputed, especially when the general interest is neglected in favor of the tribal or ethnic interest. In this environment, constitutionalism becomes a purely semantic issue. European attempts to support certain governments in the Sahel so that they are able to control their security crises have not had the expected success; Support from countries with more lax democratic standards has been shown to be more effective, making available to those supported procedures that cannot be assumed by Western values.

Maghreb and Sahel are marked with a greater or lesser extent, by political and institutional instability, little chance of progress for young people, high rates of poverty, illiteracy and insecurity. All this conditions the more than uncertain future of an area besieged to a large extent by corruption, whose governments, whatever the political form of the State and the current system, lack the capacity to protect and empower their populations. The situation described generates social discontent that, on many occasions, is transformed into different forms of violence. Thus, there seems to be an obvious link between poor governance, corruption and violence, creating the potential combination for “a perfect storm.” Governance can be understood as the provision of political, social, economic and environmental goods that the citizens has the right to expect from their State, and that a State has the responsibility to provide its citizens. Poor governance manifests itself in various aspects that, broadly speaking, are shared by the least developed countries in the area:

Low economic development and extreme poverty. According to the Human Development Index (HDI) of UNDP, which includes 189 countries, those of the Sahel are at the bottom in development, with a GDP up to ten times lower than the territories of the Maghreb, which is already low, and it is estimated that at least 40% of its inhabitants live in extreme poverty, that with the endless increase of population, it will worsen the situation.

High unemployment rates and low literacy. Poor reforms are reflected in the high unemployment rates in some countries. These are very young societies, with high fertility rates and low literacy (especially in the Sahel area). The inexistence of qualified employment opportunities represents a great loss for the States, since the emigration of citizens interested in jobs of this profile prevents their contribution to national governance.

Corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, whose classification includes 180 countries and territories around the world, the public sector in the Maghreb and the Sahel is among the most corrupt on the planet. Corruption is due to political and cultural reasons and generates economic stagnation and institutional disaffection. Values such as freedom, security and transparency have not yet settled in the upper echelons of the political and military establishment.

In terms of democratic governance, there is a setback connected with high doses of institutional instability, caused by popular revolts more or less vast, as in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, or coups, as in Mali, Guinea or Burkina Faso, white coups in Chad, civil war in Libya and Ethiopia, perennial presidencies in other states. Institutional instability significantly weakens state structures and makes it difficult to implement public policies that build confidence at the internal and international level.

The extension and link between terrorism and criminality have as consequence, in some cases, of the weakness of governments and internal disagreements.

The insecurity encourages massive population movements within countries and between neighboring States and to Europe. Added to the foregoing is the socioeconomic exodus, caused by poverty and poor governance, which is precisely the reason for political instability and insecurity. These phenomena lead to hundreds of thousands of refugees, IDPs and migrants, collapsing of the already limited public services due to terrorist and criminal threats.

It is undeniable that, without skilled security forces that generate confidence among the population, progress towards economic and social development is improbable. All this generates poverty and uncertainty and encourages emigration through criminal networks in Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Libya to Europe.

For this, it is necessary, without a doubt, to maintain collaboration. Although it may be time to propose a new model, one that does not lose sight of the social, political and cultural reality of these countries and considers that the Western model is not welcomed and directly applicable to territories that carry a colonial past and still suffer the consequences of an unfortunate territorial division (and this is used as excuse to excite the chauvinism of the local population with the aim to consolidate the governing elites, especially now, while Russia and China take advantage of it in their confrontation with the West). Further, the emphasis of the respect of collective and individual liberties from the West it is saw with open suspicions and hostility by the region leaderships which consider these concepts as way to increase moral corruption and push for access into domestic affairs, revealing the authoritarian nature of these states.

In the field of security, it would be convenient to have a more active participation in the training of the military and security forces of the countries of the Sahel zone, (while for Maghreb this is less necessary, giving their better quality) and it would even be necessary to contemplate their accompaniment in the fight against terrorist and insurgent groups, assuming the possible risk of their own casualties. The training and provision of new skills must be accompanied by a program to monitor their effective and adequate use and their correct maintenance through a calendar of targets, conditional on meeting previously defined objectives and accepted by both local governments and by the Union or the participating Member States.

In the economic and social field, it seems necessary to create the bases to achieve sustained development, which fosters the conditions so that the population —especially young people—, mostly settled in rural areas, does not consider emigration as the only possible solution to their situation of extreme poverty. In this sense, cooperation programs could be launched aimed at modernizing agricultural and livestock production systems, improving the supply of products or developing value chains and promoting an incipient auxiliary and transformation industry linked to said production. To this end, together with international cooperation, duly coordinated with actions in other areas, the use of other types of financing should be promoted, such as microcredits, which entail monitoring and monitoring of medium-term results. Additionally, the evaluation of the impact of the projects seems to be a key element that will make it possible to redefine priorities and improve their design. However, any initiative in this sense will not achieve the objectives pursued if two essential conditions for the desired economic and social development are not met: security and national political stability and good governance.

In the field of governance, it is evident that the strengthening of institutions is a necessary step to promote the rule of law, transparency in public activity or the fight against corruption, among other aspects. Programs aimed at training officials and advising or collaborating with public administrations could perhaps have a direct effect on the better functioning and stability of the institutions. A public function made up of servers with a high level of professionalism and competence could minimize the impact of crises and/or political instability. However, as already mentioned, the push transparency and rule of law is not welcomed by the local elites and any action should be oriented to corner them into accept it and avoiding that this situation will drive those elites to rapprochement to Moscow and China, as already happened, especially for cases like Algeria, that does not depend to the economic dependence from the West.

Enrico Magnani, PhD, is a retired UN official and expert in military history and international politico-military affairs.