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Sad News from the Sahel

Bad news keeps flowing from the Sahel, the vast, semi-desert region south of the Sahara. Once known for its legends, myths, tales of ancient empires and colonial exploits, the region is now swept by war, terrorism and famine. It is hard to sum up what has gone wrong and what is going wrong, but the unrest in this region will spill over into the rest of Africa.


In southern Mali, remnants of one of the oldest cultures in Africa can still be seen. Hidden in mountains, guarded by crocodiles, the Dogon people protect their legends of origin, the twins that came before mankind, the spirits from the stars. They were here when Mansa Musa built the Songhai Empire to become the richest man ever to live. It is said that, when he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, he spent so much that the price of gold was depressed in North Africa and Southern Europe for twenty years. 


The Songhai empire flourished on trade in gold, salt and slaves. These trades enabled people from Sudan to Morocco to cultivate rich grain harvests and develop an architecture that remains noteworthy today. Trade routes from the present Guinea to Algiers and from Egypt to Mauritania crisscrossed this vast region.


A change in climate and the slow encroachment of external forces fragmented this empire that was built on a delicate tissue of tribal and ethnic alliances. The Moroccan empire's expansion, the Turkish control over the Levant, Egypt, Libya and later the European settlement along what became known as the Gold Coast and later the slave coast, combined to leave the Sahel open to wars and colonization. 


In the last decade or two, French and Spanish influence in the countries that had been colonies for the last century waned as Europe turned inward. French officials remained the hidden power behind the throne, as Americans did in South America. Dictators, legitimized by questionable elections and foreign support, were greeted in Paris and other capitals while economies floundered and young men braved ocean crossings and exploitation to find work in factories in Europe. 


A series of military takeovers over the last few decades were attributed to Western powers seeking to impose regimes that would prevent pro-Soviet and later pro-China policies from flourishing. However, these non-democratic regimes have not been able to build the inter-ethnic consensus that was needed to keep these states together. Colonial borders were seen as nuisances, and minority populations were seen as subservient. 


As United Nations peacekeepers and French forces supporting certain national armies withdrew, ethnic rivalries and competition between international criminal organizations erupted into war. In southwestern Niger, clashes between the military and Islamist-supported rebels left a dozen soldiers dead. In Mali, the age-old struggle between settled farming communities in the south and Touareg nomads in the north broke out anew. With Russian-aligned Wagner mercenaries in support, soldiers were reported to be attacking nomad communities and encampments in a conflict that probably also has to do with drug smuggling routes toward Europe. 


The African Union, long content to sit back and wait for the UN to keep the peace, is now seeking sustainable solutions and seems willing to spend money. In an address to the regional economic community of West Africa (ECOWAS), the President of Ghana, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, called for urgent action to restore constitutional governments, blaming leaders who abuse power and do not consult or receive a mandate from the masses. This reasoning echoes that of the leader of Guinea, General Mamadi Doumbouya, who recently overthrew his country's government based on similar claims. 


And Europe seeks to understand what is happening.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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