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.”


Business and Bollywood vote in India’s election

Updated 20 May 2024
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Business and Bollywood vote in India’s election

  • Big conglomerates have bestowed upon Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a campaign war chest that dwarfs its rivals
  • Bollywood stars have backed its ideological commitment to more closely align with the country’s majority religion and politics

MUMBAI: A parade of India’s business and entertainment elite — many of them supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — went to the polls Monday as the financial capital Mumbai voted in the latest round of the country’s six-week election.

Modi, 73, is widely expected to win a third term when the election concludes early next month, thanks in large part to his aggressive championing of India’s majority Hindu faith.

“My vote is for the BJP and Modi,” said Deepak MaHajjan, 42, who works in banking. “There is no other choice if you care about the future of the economy and business. I have always voted this way.”

Big conglomerates have bestowed upon Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a campaign war chest that dwarfs its rivals, while Bollywood stars have backed its ideological commitment to more closely align with the country’s majority religion and its politics.

Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan (R) with daughter Suhana Khan (L) arrives to cast his ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting of India's general election. (AFP)

Latest data shows that the BJP was by far the single biggest beneficiary of electoral bonds, a contentious political donation tool since ruled illegal by India’s top court.

Leading companies and wealthy businesspeople gave the party $730 million, accounting for just under half of all donations made under the scheme in the past five years.

Conglomerate owners support Modi’s government because it caters to the needs of India’s “existing oligarchic business elite,” Deepanshu Mohan of OP Jindal Global University told AFP.

Lower corporate tax rates, less red tape and a reduction in “municipal regulatory corruption” have also helped Modi win the affection of corporate titans, he said.

N. Chandrasekaran, the chairman of Tata Sons, a sprawling Indian conglomerate with interests ranging from cars and software to salt and tea, cast his ballot at a polling station in an upper-class Mumbai neighborhood.

Natarajan Chandrasekaran (C) Chairman of the Board at Tata Sons with his wife Lalitha Chandrasekaran (L) shows his inked finger after casting his ballot to vote outside a polling booth in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting of India's general election. (AFP)

“It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to vote,” he told reporters.

Asia’s richest man, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, also voted at the same polling station, accompanied by his wife, son, and a media scrum, posing to show his ink-stained finger.

Anand Mahindra, chairman of the eponymous automaker, told news agency PTI after voting: “If you look at the world around us, there is so much uncertainty, there is such instability, there’s terror, there’s war.

“And we are in the middle of a stable democracy where we get a chance to vote peacefully, to decide what kind of government we want. It’s a blessing.”

Modi’s cultivated image as a champion of the Hindu faith is the foundation of his enduring popularity, rather than an economy still characterised by widespread unemployment and income inequality.

A Sadhu or a Hindu holy man shows his ink-marked finger after voting, outside a polling station during the fifth phase of India's general election, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, May 20, 2024. (Reuters)

This year he presided over the inauguration of a grand temple to the deity Ram, built on the grounds of a centuries-old mosque in Ayodhya razed by Hindu zealots in 1992.

Construction of the temple fulfilled a longstanding demand of Hindu activists and was widely celebrated across the country with back-to-back television coverage and street parties.

The ceremony was attended by hundreds of eminent Indians including Ambani, whose family donated $300,000 to the temple’s trust.

Also present were cricket star and Mumbai native Sachin Tendulkar along with actor Amitabh Bachchan — the single most famous product of Bollywood, as the financial hub’s film industry is known.

Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan casts his ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting in India's general election. (AFP)

Numerous screen stars have established themselves as vocal champions of Modi’s administration since he was swept to office a decade ago.

Former soap actor Smriti Irani is one of the government’s most recognized ministers and beat India’s most prominent opposition leader Rahul Gandhi in the contest for her current parliamentary seat in 2019.

Filmmakers have also produced several provocative and ideologically charged films to match the ruling party’s sectarian messaging, which critics say deliberately maligns India’s 200-million-plus Muslim minority.

Last year’s “Kerala Story” was heavily promoted by the BJP but condemned elsewhere for falsely claiming thousands of Hindu women had been brainwashed by Muslims to join the Daesh group.

But some in Mumbai, like delivery driver Sunil Kirti voted for the opposition Congress party.

“In the past year I am earning less, but prices of basic essentials... food and vegetables have gone up,” said Kirti, 29. “Who is to blame for that?“

Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (R) shows her inked finger after casting her ballot to vote at a polling station in Mumbai on May 20, 2024, during the fifth phase of voting in India's general election. (AFP)

India’s election is conducted in seven phases over six weeks to ease the immense logistical burden of staging the democratic exercise in the world’s most populous country, with more than 968 million eligible voters.

The fifth round is taking place as parts of India endure their second heatwave in three weeks.

Scientific research shows climate change is causing heatwaves to become longer, more frequent and more intense.

Turnout is down several percentage points from the last national poll in 2019, with analysts blaming widespread expectations of a Modi victory as well as the heat.

Temperatures reached 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit) in Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, one of the states where tens of millions of people voted on Monday.


Blinken says ICC arrest warrants could jeopardize ceasefire, hostage release efforts

Updated 20 May 2024
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Blinken says ICC arrest warrants could jeopardize ceasefire, hostage release efforts

  • “We reject the prosecutor’s equivalence of Israel with Hamas,” Blinken said

WASHINGTON: The United States rejects the International Criminal Court prosecutor’s application for arrest warrants for Israeli officials and Hamas, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
“We reject the prosecutor’s equivalence of Israel with Hamas,” Blinken said on Monday. The ICC arrest decisions could jeopardize efforts to reach a ceasefire agreement, hostage deal and to increase humanitarian aid in Gaza, Blinken said in the statement.


ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu

Updated 20 May 2024
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ICC prosecutor seeks arrest warrant for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Netanyahu

  • Karim Khan believes Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity
  • The prosecutor must request the warrants from a pre-trial panel of three judges, who take on average two months to consider the evidence

THE HAGUE, Netherlands: The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said Monday he is seeking arrest warrants for Israeli and Hamas leaders, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in connection with their actions during the seven-month war between Israel and Hamas.

Karim Khan said that he believes Netanyahu, his defense minister Yoav Gallant and three Hamas leaders — Yehia Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh — are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Gaza Strip and Israel.

The prosecutor must request the warrants from a pre-trial panel of three judges, who take on average two months to consider the evidence and determine if the proceedings can move forward.

Israel is not a member of the court, and even if the arrest warrants are issued, Netanyahu and Gallant do not face any immediate risk of prosecution. But Khan’s announcement deepens Israel’s isolation as it presses ahead with its war, and the threat of arrest could make it difficult for the Israeli leaders to travel abroad.

Both Sinwar and Deif are believed to be hiding in Gaza as Israel tries to hunt them down. But Haniyeh, the supreme leader of the Islamic militant group, is based in Qatar and frequently travels across the region.

There was no immediate comment from either side.

Israel launched its war in response to an Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 others hostage. The Israeli offensive has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, at least half of them women and children, according to the latest estimates by Gaza health officials. The Israeli offensive has also triggered a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, displacing roughly 80 percent of the population and leaving hundreds of thousands of people on the brink of starvation, according to UN officials.

Speaking of the Israeli actions, Khan said in a statement that “the effects of the use of starvation as a method of warfare, together with other attacks and collective punishment against the civilian population of Gaza are acute, visible and widely known. ... They include malnutrition, dehydration, profound suffering and an increasing number of deaths among the Palestinian population, including babies, other children, and women.”

The United Nations and other aid agencies have repeatedly accused Israel of hindering aid deliveries throughout the war. Israel denies this, saying there are no restrictions on aid entering Gaza and accusing the United Nations of failing to distribute aid. The UN says aid workers have repeatedly come under Israeli fire, and also says ongoing fighting and a security vacuum have impeded deliveries.

Of the Hamas actions on Oct. 7, Khan, who visited the region in December, said that he saw for himself “the devastating scenes of these attacks and the profound impact of the unconscionable crimes charged in the applications filed today. Speaking with survivors, I heard how the love within a family, the deepest bonds between a parent and a child, were contorted to inflict unfathomable pain through calculated cruelty and extreme callousness. These acts demand accountability.”

After a brief period of international support for its war, Israel has faced increasing criticism as the war has dragged on and the death toll has climbed.

Israel is also facing a South African case in the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide. Israel denies those charges.


Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness

Updated 20 May 2024
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Michael Cohen says he stole from Trump’s company as defense presses key hush money trial witness

  • The defense has painted Cohen as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump
  • Cohen is the last prosecution witness, and it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone Trump himself

NEW YORK: Former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen admitted Monday to jurors in the Republican’s hush money trial that he stole tens of thousands of dollars from Trump’s company as defense lawyers seized on the star witness’ misdeeds to attack his credibility.
With the prosecution’s case nearing its end, Trump’s attorneys hope Cohen’s admission — on top of his numerous other past lies and crimes — will sow doubt in jurors’ minds about Cohen’s crucial testimony implicating the presumptive Republican presidential nominee in the hush money scheme. The defense has painted Cohen as a serial fabulist who is on a revenge campaign aimed at taking down Trump.
Back on the witness stand for a fourth day, Cohen admitted while being questioned by defense attorney Todd Blanche that he pocketed cash that was supposed to be reimbursement for a $50,000 payment Cohen claimed he had shelled out to a technology firm. But Cohen actually gave the technology firm just $20,000 in cash in a brown paper bag, he said.
“So you stole from the Trump Organization?,” Blanche asked.
“Yes, sir,” Cohen replied. Cohen said he never paid the Trump Organization back. Cohen has never been charged with stealing from Trump’s company.
Cohen is the last prosecution witness, and it’s not yet clear whether Trump’s attorneys will call any witnesses, let alone Trump himself.
After more than four weeks of testimony about sex, money, tabloid machinations and the details of Trump’s company recordkeeping, jurors could begin deliberating as soon as next week to decide whether Trump is guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in the first criminal trial of a former US president.
The charges stem from internal Trump Organization records where payments to Cohen were marked as legal expenses, when prosecutors say they were really reimbursements for Daniels’ hush money payment.
Trump has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers say there was nothing criminal about the Daniels deal or the way Cohen was paid.
“There’s no crime,” Trump told reporters after arriving at the courthouse Monday. “We paid a legal expense. You know what it’s marked down as? A legal expense.”
While Cohen is prosecutors’ most important witness, but he is also vulnerable to attack.
The now-disbarred attorney has admitted on the witness stand to previously lying under oath and other falsehoods, many of which he claims were meant to protect Trump. Cohen served prison time after pleading guilty to various federal charges, including lying to Congress and a bank and engaging in campaign finance violations related to the hush money scheme.
And he has made millions of dollars off critical books about the former president, whom he regularly slams on social media in often profane terms.
Blanche grilled Cohen on Monday about his initial public denials that Trump knew about the Daniels payoff. After The Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018 that Cohen had arranged the payout to the porn actor more than a year earlier, Cohen told journalists, friends and others that Trump had been in the dark about the arrangement.
He did not change his account until after federal authorities in April 2018 searched Cohen’s home, office and other locations tied to him. Four months later, Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign-finance violations and other charges and told a court that Trump had directed him to arrange the Daniels payment.
Known for his hot temper, Cohen has remained mostly calm on the witness stand despite sometimes heated interrogation by the defense about his misdeeds and the allegations in the case.
Jurors remained largely engaged with Cohen’s testimony, though some appear to be dragging as his testimony stretched into another day. Several jurors stifled yawns while peering at the witness and looking at monitors in front of them as emails and other evidence were displayed. Some took notes. Others sat back and took in the testimony, occasionally peering at the gallery of reporters and public observers.
Cohen told jurors that Trump was intimately involved in the scheme to pay off Daniels to prevent her from going public late in his 2016 presidential campaign with claims of a 2006 sexual encounter with Trump. Trump says nothing sexual happened between them.
Cohen told jurors about meetings and conversations with Trump, including one in 2017 in which Cohen says he, Trump and then-Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg discussed how Cohen would recoup his outlay for the Daniels payment and how the reimbursement would be billed as “legal services.”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office is expected to rest its case once Cohen is off the stand, but prosecutors would have an opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses if Trump’s lawyers put on witnesses of their own. Judge Juan M. Merchan, citing scheduling issues, says he expects closing arguments to happen May 28, the Tuesday after Memorial Day.
Defense lawyers said they have not decided whether Trump will testify. And Trump did not respond to shouted questions from reporters about whether his lawyers have advised him not to take the stand. Defense attorneys generally are reluctant to put their clients on the witness stand and open them up to intense questioning by prosecutors, as it often does more harm than good.
Trump’s lawyers have said they may call Bradley A. Smith, a Republican law professor who was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to the Federal Election Commission, to refute the prosecution’s contention that the hush money payments amounted to campaign-finance violations. But the judge has limited what Smith can address.
There are often guardrails around expert testimony on legal matters, on the basis that it’s up to a judge — not an expert hired by one side or the other — to instruct jurors on applicable laws in a case.
Merchan has ruled that Smith can give general background on the FEC, the laws it enforces and the definitions of such terms as “campaign contribution.” But he cannot interpret how federal campaign-finance laws apply to the facts of Trump’s case or opine on whether the former president’s alleged actions violate those laws.


Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister

Updated 20 May 2024
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Putin appoints another economist as deputy Russian defense minister

  • Putin sprang a surprise last week by removing defense minister Sergei Shoigu
  • The move was widely seen as aimed at getting more value from defense spending

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin on Monday appointed former deputy economy minister Oleg Savelyev as a deputy defense minister, according to a published decree, in a further sign of his intention to improve the efficiency of Russia’s war economy.
Putin sprang a surprise last week by removing defense minister Sergei Shoigu and replacing him with Andrei Belousov, an economist and former deputy prime minister. The move was widely seen as aimed at getting more value from defense spending and cleaning up the defense ministry, which has been hit by a major bribery scandal.
Savelyev worked in the economy ministry from 2008 to 2014 and briefly served as a deputy to Belousov, who headed the ministry at the time.
After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Savelyev served as Minister for Crimean Affairs in 2014-2015. For the past five years, he has been an auditor for the Russian Accounts Chamber, overseeing state defense and security spending.