The Politics of Border Security in the Sahel

The Politics of Border Security in the Sahel
Image by Olivier Bory from Pixabay

By Philippe M. Frowd

A casual observer of the Sahel could be forgiven for understanding this region of West Africa as a space of threat: radicalization, terrorism, massive population growth, and irregular migration all grab the headlines. This vision is visible in the policy world, too: one only needs to glance at the ever-expanding number of security and development strategies for the Sahel — there are well over a dozen from the United Nations, European Union, and others — to see how central border security figures in policymakers’ visions and action plans for the region.

The institutional world of border security in the Sahel is a crowded one, bringing together a growing range of agencies and forms of authority. These all operate in a context in which cross-border flows are inextricable from a mix of ongoing conflict, local political economies, and deep historical trends of mobility and exchange. The politics of border security in the Sahel arises from the cat-and-mouse interplay of controls and migration routes, the incentive structure emerging from external interventions, trends towards regionalized policing of flows, and a growing inclusion of various “local” perspectives.

External approaches to border security in the Sahel, especially around irregular migration to Europe, have tended to rely on small-scale security co-operation projects. European-led border policing generally uses capacity-building and joint operations to guide Sahel states towards “better” border control — with occasional successes. When Spain was faced with thousands of arrivals by boat in the Canary Islands in 2006, its Guardia Civil mounted joint operations with the security forces of Senegal (a country of “origin”) and Mauritania (one of “transit”). The Hera joint patrols throughout the second half of 2006 were EU border agency Frontex’s first major maritime operations.

With arrivals to the Canaries down from tens of thousands to only dozens annually, these measures succeeded on their own terms. Yet it is also likely that the closure of this migration route was instrumental to migrants’ decisions to use routes through Niger. A similar formula is now applied there, with the EUCAP Sahel civilian security capacity-building mission in 2016 extending its mandate — and budget — to include irregular migration. The politics of these interventions arises from the incentives they provide for co-operation from local security sectors: new gear and new training to fight irregular migration are prized by police and gendarmerie units.

These forms of security assistance are inextricable from the broader relationship between local politicians and external state-builders, which is itself rooted in an externally oriented political economy. In May 2016, Niger’s foreign minister remarked that the country would need €1 billion to effectively fight irregular migration. Angela Merkel, during her visit to Niger in early October 2016, put a damper on such expectations. Such interplay is part of a bigger game of resources around managing migration.

In December 2016, the European Union hailed Niger as a “model” of co-operation on fighting irregular migration and has boosted aid to the country. Such quid pro quo practice is formalized in the EU’s new European Agenda for Migration through which it has applied a “mix of positive and negative incentives” to push its African partners to internalize its border security priorities. At the local level, the political economy of border security is equally ferocious: in the Nigerien city of Agadez, which has become the hub of the ebbs and flows of northbound migration, smugglers have organized to pressure local politicians about job opportunities in the formal economy. The government’s implementation of the country’s 2015 anti-smuggling law has been partial and continues to shape the local political economy as transiting migrant numbers fall.

Security practices themselves are changing, and the vastness of the Sahel’s states has triggered a growing regionalization of local and international approaches. In states with concentrated population centres and large hinterlands such as Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, policing the border as a proverbial “line in the sand” is a fantasy. Political leaders in these states have been sanguine about this reality, frequently outsourcing policing and taxing functions to favoured groups at the frontiers of the state. International interveners such as the EU are slowly coming around to this vision of the mobile and flexible border.

In 2016, it funded the G5 Sahel — a security focused grouping comprising Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad — to the tune of €42m to assemble rapid reaction security and surveillance forces. Similarly, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Niger is supporting the deployment of mobile police units to keep track of shifting migration and smuggling routes. These attempts to control illicit flows overlap with the flows themselves, as evidenced by the importance of illicit transactions between state and smugglers. Here, the politics of border control means governing and accommodating the mobile “threats” to which border security responds: non-state armed groups, migrant smugglers, drug traffickers, and more — all of whom operate in a local economic context.

A growing attention to local communities is increasingly on the border security agenda in the Sahel. In terms of including local voices, the Danish Demining Group (DDG) has launched a border management project in the Liptako-Gourma area straddling Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. In a border area marked by a growing mobility of armed groups, states have acted to jointly police the area but the question of local co-operation with authorities has gained great importance. The DDG project works in part to build trust between local communities and the agencies that police the borders that often cut through them. While an agenda set from below is appealing, the decentralization of border management can also be synonymous with the use of semi-state actors for tasks such as anti-drug trafficking. Border security practices in the Sahel bring together diverse actors, scales, and priorities — it is in how these align that we find politics to understand and critique.

Philippe M. Frowd is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of York. His research broadly focuses on the security politics of the Sahel, with particular emphasis on international border security intervention. His doctoral research examined the new transnational relationships, technologies, and forms of expertise involved in “border management” in Senegal and Mauritania. His current work focuses on irregular migration in Niger from the standpoints of the smuggling economy and the field of international security professionals.

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