How the Sahel’s tribal divisions undermine security in conflict-prone African region

The July 26 coup in Niger was the latest to afflict the region following similar takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso. (AFP)
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Updated 28 August 2023
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How the Sahel’s tribal divisions undermine security in conflict-prone African region

  • From Niger to Sudan, understanding the role of tribalism is key to unpacking recent conflicts and coups
  • Security analysts say militant groups exploit geography, criminal networks and tribal divisions for recruitment

NAIROBI, Kenya: Africa is home to a rich tapestry of cultures, histories and identities that have woven together to form an intricate social fabric. But there is perhaps no other region that better demonstrates the continent’s resulting political and social complexities than the Sahel.

Located between the Sahara desert of the northwest and the savanna of Sudan in the east, the Sahel stretches more than 5,000 kilometers across 14 countries.

The arid climate of the Sahel has seen the region fall prey to drought and creeping desertification, contributing to regular convulsions of conflict and political violence.

It has witnessed a series of military coups in recent months and years, dealing a heavy blow to the region’s political stability and once-promising democratic transformation, creating a new era of uncertainty and insecurity.

The July 26 coup in Niger was the latest to afflict the region following similar takeovers in Mali and Burkina Faso. Meanwhile, on the eastern flank of the Sahel, Sudan remains in the throes of internal strife as rival military factions vie for power.




From Niger, main, to Sudan, understanding the role of tribal identity in Africa’s Sahel region is key to unpacking recent conflicts and coups. (AFP)

Middle East nations like Saudi Arabia and Egypt have historically influenced the Sahel through trade, migration and cultural exchange.

Many Sahelian tribes have strong historical connections with Arab communities, fostered by trans-Saharan trade routes and the spread of Islam. These ties have influenced language, religion and social customs, creating a unique blend of cultures in the region.

At the core of this complexity, however, is tribalism — an age-old phenomenon that has both shaped and strained the dynamics of nations.

The Sahel is home to numerous ethnic groups, from the farming communities of the Songhai and Bambara to the nomadic Fulani and Amazigh.

In this vast and diverse expanse, where borders blur and ethnic groups intermingle, understanding the role of tribal connections becomes paramount in deciphering the region’s past, present and future.

Tribal connections in the Sahel and the Middle East have often been intertwined with the emergence of various armed groups. However, viewing this connection as a direct causal factor would be an oversimplification.

Instead, the historical interplay between ethnic and tribal groups has given rise to organized activities that range from legitimate trade to illicit dealings.

These activities have historically centered on specific groups that have held influence over trade routes, resources or strategic locations.

As borders were drawn in the colonial and post-colonial periods, tribes found themselves separated or confined within new nation states, fueling tensions and rivalries that persist to this day.




Tribal connections in the Sahel and the Middle East have often been intertwined with the emergence of various armed groups. (AP)

Experts say that ethnic interactions within the region are a blend of harmony and discord, camaraderie and suspicion.

“The Fulani of western Africa and other groups stand as a testament to the complexities of ethnic dynamics,” Aneliese Bernard, director at the Washington-based consultancy firm Strategic Stabilization Advisors, told Arab News.

“As certain groups took control of illicit trades and wielded power, some communities got sidelined, a disaffection that made them vulnerable to recruitment and targeting by emerging armed groups.

“Afterwards, other groups started to stigmatize them, making coexistence even harder.”

The role of tribal connections in the emergence of armed groups is complex, however, and its understanding demands a thorough evaluation of histories, allegiances and sensitivities.

“Rather than directly causing the emergence of extremist groups, certain ethnic and tribal groups historically played central roles in various organized activities, including illicit trades and control of specific resources. These dynamics existed before modern colonization and border-drawing in the region,” said Bernard.

“Over time, certain groups gained control over criminal activities, and this control was not limited to a single group. Access to arms and organized operations allowed some groups to dominate specific illicit trades, such as narcotics.”

With some tribes benefiting from the prevailing political and socioeconomic environment, new leaders emerged as beneficiaries of the lack of development that continues to plague the region.

SAHEL FACTS

• The region stretches more than 5,000 km across 14 countries.

• Infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world.

• At least 65% of the population is below 25 years of age.

• The area where Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger meet is considered the Sahel’s epicenter of violent activity.

Beatrice Bianchi, a political analyst and Sahel expert for the Italian think tank Med-Or Foundation, highlights the case of the Burkina Faso-based Islamist group Ansar Ul-Islam.

Bianchi said the group primarily recruits among ethnic Fulani people, “leveraging on local frustration, due to impoverishment, where tribal connection plays a role.”

“This has a contamination effect among communities in the region of the free boundaries,” she said.

The Sahel’s ethnic diversity makes both security efforts and state building even more daunting for African governments. Therefore, navigating the sensitivities of different groups and addressing historical grievances demand a more nuanced approach.




The Sahel is home to numerous ethnic groups, from the farming communities of the Songhai and Bambara to the nomadic Fulani and Amazigh. (AFP)

Development efforts, often led by external actors, have grappled with a failure to understand the intricacies of local cultures and identities, leading to policies that inadvertently disregard or undermine these foundations.

The region’s colonial past, during which the western Sahel was colonized by France in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as cross-regional interactions, have also influenced language and identity.

“While colonial languages serve as common forms of communication, they have also contributed to a sense of unity among diverse populations,” said Bernard.

The downside, she explained, is that the colonial imposition of foreign languages has sometimes eroded native tongues, endangering cultural heritage.

This linguistic erosion is mirrored in the challenges of governance, development and diplomacy, where the lack of fluency in local languages can hamper effective engagement.

“Engaging with diverse tribal and ethnic groups presents formidable challenges in conflict-resolution efforts,” Royce de Melo, a Middle East and Africa analyst and security and defense consultant, told Arab News.

“To navigate the impact of tribalism on security, peace and political alliances, it is crucial to recognize that cultural dynamics often influence the effectiveness of strategies.”

Efem Nkam Ubi, associate professor at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, says the historical divisions created by colonial borders have inadvertently affected the tribal landscape.




Young people gather to register to volunteer to fight for the country as part of a volunteer initiative, in Niamey, Niger. (AP)

“The activities of extremist insurgents are primarily rooted in criminality rather than tribal affiliations,” he told Arab News.

“The Sahel’s multi-ethnic and multi-tribal composition, coupled with the porous nature of its colonial borders, has sometimes provided an environment where armed groups exploit existing ethnic and tribal divisions for recruitment and support.”

In Sudan, for instance, tribalism’s intersection with politics is more evident than ever before, particularly since the country was plunged into the devastating conflict encompassing its capital Khartoum and its ethnically mixed regions of Darfur and Kordofan.

The Janjaweed, the forerunner of the Rapid Support Forces currently challenging the Sudanese Armed Forces, has roots in tribal affiliations, revealing how these connections can be co-opted for political ends.

Just as the Janjaweed’s ranks were bolstered by the Rizeigat tribe, more than 4,000 Nigerien fighters from the tribe’s Mahamid branch serve in the RSF.

“Tribalism in Africa is a powerful force that can drive unity and division,” said Bernard.

“Tribal and ethnic identities, intertwined with religious beliefs, influence individual and collective choices in conflicts, and even drive participation in extremist groups.”


Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

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Pope Francis will travel to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Singapore in longest trip of papacy

  • Pope Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation
  • Pontiff wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced
VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will visit Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and Singapore in September, the Vatican announced Friday, confirming the longest trip of Francis’ papacy that is sure to test his health, stamina and mobility.
The Vatican confirmed the Sept. 2-13 visit, saying the 87-year-old pope would visit Jakarta, Indonesia; Port Moresby and Vanimo, Papua New Guinea; Dili, East Timor; and Singapore. Further details will be announced later.
Francis’ health has become a source of increasing concern and speculation, even though the pontiff is able to carry on with a rigorous schedule of meetings at the Vatican and even excursions to local parishes.
Francis, who had part of one lung removed as a young man, had to cancel a planned visit to Dubai late last year after he came down with a bad case of bronchitis. He suffered from respiratory problems all winter and had to curtail his participation in Holy Week events to save his energy for Easter.
Francis has also been using a wheelchair for nearly two years because of bad knee ligaments, and has said that traveling has become increasingly more difficult.
And yet at 11 days, the trip would be the longest of Francis’ papacy, outpacing by a few days some of his long trips to the Americas early on in his 11-year papacy. It will bring the Argentine Jesuit to the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, as well as the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where the Catholic Church wields enormous influence.
In a statement announcing the visit, the Indonesian foreign ministry welcomed the visit and recalled that it had originally been scheduled for 2020 but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The visit of Pope Francis to Indonesia holds significant importance to the Indonesian people, not only for Catholics but also for all religious communities. The visit is also expected to strengthen the message of tolerance, unity and world peace,” the statement said.
Indonesia is home to roughly 242 million Muslims and 29 million Christians — 8.5 million of whom are Catholics — according to a 2022 report by the Religious Affairs Ministry.
East Timor, which today has a population of about 1.2 million people, is Southeast Asia’s only predominantly Christian nation with the exception of the Philippines. According to the 2015 census, 97.6 percent of East Timor’s population is Catholic.
The visit to East Timor will likely reignite attention over a clergy sex abuse scandal involving its revered independence hero and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Vatican confirmed in 2022 that it had sanctioned Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo following allegations that he sexually abused boys there during the 1990s. Belo is believed to now be living in Portugal.
Francis will be the first pope to visit Papua New Guinea since St. John Paul II went there in 1984. The country, in a strategically important part of the South Pacific, has struggled with tribal violence and civil unrest.
John Paul also visited Singapore, in 1986. The country today is home to some 395,000 Catholics.
The Vatican has planned only one other papal trip this year — to Belgium to celebrate the anniversary of the country’s Catholic university. Francis has also said he wants to return to his native Argentina, but no plans or dates have been announced.

Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would be ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership, analyst says
  • Israeli media reports claim Jakarta has begun OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February, but according to local Israeli media were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would agree to the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation joining the group.

However, the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters late on Thursday.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, Jakarta has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding an end to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law, and to bring Israel to account over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months have killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens, almost half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated or disabled by the strikes, while thousands remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the brink of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have taken place frequently in Indonesia, where people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, a political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”


Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

Updated 12 April 2024
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Indonesia denies reports of recognizing Israel, vows to stay at forefront defending Palestine

  • Establishing ties with Israel would mean ‘political suicide’ for Indonesian leadership
  • Israeli media reports claim Indonesia has started OECD-brokered talks with Tel Aviv

JAKARTA: Jakarta has denied plans to establish diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, following viral Israeli media reports claiming it was part of a deal to smooth Indonesia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Cooperation.

Indonesia is the first Southeast Asian nation to apply for the membership of the 38-nation forum. Accession talks began in February but, according to local Israeli media, were objected to by Tel Aviv over the lack of diplomatic ties with Jakarta.

Countries need unanimous approval from all OECD members, including Israel, to join the bloc.

Citing anonymous sources, the Israeli media reports claimed that Indonesia had started OECD-brokered talks with Israel, which in exchange for recognition would give its nod for the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation to join the group.

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs debunked the claims.

“There are no plans to open diplomatic ties with Israel, especially in the wake of Israel’s atrocities in Gaza. Indonesia’s stance has not changed, and we remain consistent in supporting Palestine’s independence within the framework of the two-state solution,” Lalu Muhamad Iqbal, the ministry’s spokesperson, told reporters Thursday evening.

“Indonesia will always be consistent and at the forefront of defending the rights of the Palestinian people.”

One of the staunchest supporters of Palestine, the Indonesian government has repeatedly called for an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 borders.

Since the beginning of Israel’s deadly invasion of Gaza in October, it has also been vocal on the international stage, demanding a stop to military support and weapons sales to Tel Aviv.

In January, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called on the UN Security Council to make no exceptions in upholding international law and to bring Israel to accountability over mass killing and atrocities.

Israeli ground and air attacks have in the past six months killed at least 33,400 Palestinian citizens — nearly half of them children. Over 70,000 have been injured, mutilated and disabled by the strikes, while thousands of others remain missing under the rubble.

The Israeli military has also levelled large parts of Gaza, destroyed most of its civilian and medical infrastructure, and blocked water, food and aid supplies to the territory, bringing its more than 2 million inhabitants to the verge of famine.

Since the beginning of the onslaught, mass public protests in support of Palestine have been regular in Indonesia, where the people see Palestinian independence as mandated by their own constitution, which calls for the abolition of colonialism.

“If the government takes the opposite step by recognizing the state of Israel and tolerating colonialism and oppression, that will cause political suicide, given that such a thing would lead to political delegitimization and loss of public trust,” Dr. Airlangga Pribadi Kusman, political science lecturer at Airlangga University in Surabaya, told Arab News.

“The current and future Indonesian government should continue its policy of supporting Palestinian independence as has been the commitment of previous governments.”

 


EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

Updated 12 April 2024
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EU, Britain and Spain to hold more talks on post-Brexit status of Gibraltar

  • The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels
  • All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June

MADRID: British and Spanish foreign ministers will meet Friday with a top European Commission official for another round of negotiations over the status of the disputed territory of Gibraltar following Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The two ministers will hold talks with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in Brussels. Gibraltar Chief Minister Fabian Picardo will also attend.
Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said that while the meeting with his British counterpart David Cameron “may not be the final day,” he was optimistic of an agreement “as soon as possible.”
“These are complex, technical issues, and then we will have to draft a whole set of documents, but we are already close to reaching an agreement on the general political lines,” Albares told Spain’s Onda Cero radio on Thursday.
All sides are eager to clinch a deal before European elections in June.
Britain left the European Union in 2020 with the relationship between Gibraltar and the bloc unresolved. Talks on a deal to ensure people and goods can keep flowing over the Gibraltar-Spain border have made halting progress during 18 rounds of negotiations, but UK officials have recently expressed optimism about reaching a deal.
In Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum, 96 percent of voters in Gibraltar supported remaining in the EU. The tiny territory on Spain’s southern tip depends greatly on access to the EU market for its 34,000 inhabitants.
Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in 1713, but Spain has maintained its sovereignty claim ever since. Relations concerning the Rock, as it is popularly referred to in English, have had their ups and down over the centuries.
British Foreign Office Minister David Rutley said last month that “while negotiations have been technically and politically complex, significant progress has been made.”
A major sticking point has been who controls Gibraltar’s airport, which under the proposed free-movement deal would be an external border of the EU. The UK and Gibraltar have resisted Spain’s insistence that Spanish border officials be based at the airport, which is also home to a Royal Air Force base.
The British Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday that while it is “not expecting this meeting to reach a final agreement, getting senior political figures from the UK, European Commission, Spain and Gibraltar in one room is significant.”


Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

Updated 12 April 2024
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Teaching refugee women from Pakistan, other states to drive goes farther than destination

  • Students sign up for driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families resettlement
  • US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial, medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous

STONE MOUNTAIN: In a large, empty parking lot outside Atlanta, one car slowly careened around parking spaces. From the passenger seat, driving instructor Nancy Gobran peered over large sunglasses at her student, a 30-year-old Syrian refugee woman who was driving for one of the first times in her life.

“Turn the wheel and then accelerate,” Gobran, the owner of Safety Driving School, said softly in Arabic. Gripping the wheel tightly, the student cautiously rounded the corners of the parking lot for nearly an hour.

Gobran has been working for nearly five years with a program called Women Behind the Wheel, which offers 14 hours of free drivers’ education to mostly refugee and immigrant women. Many of the women who enroll come from countries that discourage women from driving or working outside their home.

It’s not a new concept, but Women Behind the Wheel is unique to Georgia. Similar programs exist across the country, such as Refugee Women Rising in Omaha, Nebraska, which offers driver’s education, seat belt safety and car seat installation help, and Driving Opportunity in Denver, which offers classroom and road instruction to refugee women.

“Helping a lot of refugees is not easy,” Gobran said. “At the beginning, it’s kind of awkward for some people for their first time being behind the wheel, but by the end of the program, they gained the benefit they’ve been looking for.”

Students sign up for the driving program through Ethaar, an Atlanta-area nonprofit organization that aids refugee families through their resettlement. Its name is an Arabic word meaning altruism and affection.

Ethaar co-founder Mona Megahed said she started Women Behind the Wheel to fill a glaring need many refugee families have that partially stem from cultural differences.

“We named it Women Behind the Wheel for a reason,” Megahed said. “We really wanted to empower our female clients. A lot of these women were struggling because they were fully dependent on their spouses.”

She noted some husbands held beliefs from their home countries that their wives shouldn’t drive or work.

“We quickly explained, well, you can’t really provide if you’re making minimum wage and you have six mouths to feed in addition to helping with your wife,” Megahed said. “So she also needs to kind of learn how to drive and find a job and get out there.”

The stress can be compounded for families in metro Atlanta, where many people rely on cars to get around. Most of the refugee families Ethaar works with settle in Clarkston, a suburb 15 miles (24 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta.

“Most of the time because of lack of access to transportation, it’s hard for them to get to their jobs,” said Sarah Karim, Ethaar’s executive director. “It’s hard for them to go study anywhere except for what is close by, and there aren’t that many options, unfortunately.”

Their clientele depends on the shifting global landscape and conflicts, Karim said.

“Lately, we’ve observed various nationalities among our clients, including families and individuals from Afghanistan, Burma, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, and Eritrea,” Karim said.

So far, there have been 230 graduates of the program, including a few men. The driving program typically has a three-to-four-month waitlist because of the demand. The US government gives refugee families up to 12 months of financial and medical assistance, so there is limited time to become autonomous.

“The point is for every refugee to reach self-sufficiency or self-reliance,” said Dorian Crosby, a Spelman College professor who is an expert in refugee migration.

“Learning how to drive and getting access to a license is critical to refugee women reaching that level of self-reliance,” Crosby said. “It’s not just to meet the government regulations of the cutoff, but they now can sustain themselves. It is also such an emotional boost.”

Instructors like Gobran are fluent in Arabic, which makes students more comfortable. She watched her client slowly gain confidence over her hourlong session. A smile crept across her face. A month later, her student passed her driving test.

“This is their new home, and they have to understand how this country works,” Gobran said. “It starts with the very little thing as driving to build a future.”