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  • Rory O'Keeffe

Sahel force; an exercise in folly

The UN meets today to discuss the formation of a five-nation, 5,000 soldier armed force to operate across the Sahel and into Libya.

The claimed aim of the force – which would cost $400m in its first year, and is most strongly championed by Italy and France – is to combat ‘Islamic terror’ and people trafficking, but there are four major factors to highlight here.

  • First, ‘Islamic terror’ is far less of an issue in the Sahel than in some other parts of the world, including even a little further south (in Nigeria) and north (in northern Libya), and than other types of illegal militias and/or extra-legal groups.

For example, in Southern Libya, the Tebu and Tuareg control almost all of the South-North trade routes (though they fight one another for that control so the routes regularly change hands) and as a result sometimes (though not always and not only) provide weapons used by IS and Al Qaeda in the state. Even in Mali, the organisations labelled ‘Islamist terrorists’ are far more interested in winning power and prestige in Mali, than internationally.

A force against ‘Islamic’ terror would be better placed in the region immediately to the North, or immediately to the South, of where this force is proposed.

  • Second, the insistence in naming people who move people, ‘traffickers’. The simple reality of the situation regarding people moving from sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean and Europe is that the people who ‘guide’ them have not kidnapped them. To understand this all you have to do is talk to the people who make the journey.

They describe their travel. How they set out from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, DRC, CAR, South Sudan, and how on arrival in Sudan there are fixed points to which they are directed, and people who take them.

The journeys are certainly dangerous, and the people in charge of those journeys certainly do not pay enough – in some cases any – attention to the safety and welfare of those they transport, but the people they take through the desert are not kidnappees, they make the journey because they want to, and because they need to. Those who take them are smugglers, and they are criminals, but they are not kidnappers.

This is important, because if people are being kidnapped, arresting the kidnappers and those who pay them can help end the kidnapping. But arresting people who carry refugees to places they want to go does not in any way address the issue of refugees being carried, and the people who pay them are the people they carry.

There are, of course, kidnapping and ransom rings - as well as slave auctions - all over Libya in particular. But those rings will not be apprehended and brought to justice by a force operating in the Sahel. We would need to be in the north of Libya for that.

  • Third, the very idea of an armed force, ‘policing’ the desert as an effective means of stopping refugees, is both to set an impossible task (because the desert is so vast that there are thousands of people who have died within it in the last five years who not only have not yet been found, but likely never will – small-ish groups of 30-75 people travelling will be almost impossible to find) and to absolutely miss and fail to deal with the actual issue here, which is not that people want to travel, but why they want or need to travel.

We cannot stop people wanting to flee poverty or death by torture or bombing, by making it a little more likely that they will be arrested on the journey. And what will we do with those we do catch? This is not a ‘force’ of doctors, psychologists and social workers, it is an armed group, patrolling for an enemy.

  • Fourth, which sadly connects to all of the above, is that this ‘force’ is in fact a simple and exact extension of the policy the EU is already attempting to follow in regard to refugees. In Libya, and in Turkey, we pay the coastguard to stop people from reaching Europe, and we ask no questions about how that is done, or what happens afterwards.

In Eritrea, Sudan and other states with records of attacking their own citizens, we pay governments not to make people’s lives better so they do not need or want to come to the EU, but to stop them from coming.

This is not a humanitarian policy, nor is it even a policy designed to ‘uphold the law’ however immoral that law may be. It is a policy of pinpointing people and making sure they cannot reach the EU. It is a policy of trapping people, and this armed force, patrolling the Sahel is its simplest logical conclusion.

The bitterest irony of all is that the major thing that might prevent it from being set up is the same thing that is cutting aid across the world, and is preventing tens of thousands of people from starting new lives in a safe place – the administration of US President Donald Trump. Because the Sahel army needs funding, and without US agreement, it cannot be afforded, and so will not happen.

On issues including humanitarian aid and global warming, Trump is an outspoken and extremist opponent of multi-lateral cooperation, particularly where he feels the US – the world’s richest nation – pays more than other, less wealthy states.

It is an extraordinarily bad attitude for combatting climate change, or reacting to it and other disasters. But it may – despite the efforts of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to convince Trump it is a good idea to fund the force – be the only thing that can prevent this expensive, dangerous, immoral and unpleasant folly.

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