At the start of this decade, France has been at war in the Sahel for seven years, and it is difficult to see a way out of the conflict. The objective of this analysis is to issue a reminder that, after the desert war in the north of Mali, the Jihadist expansion southwards and the rapid proliferation of armed incursions over the past three years into agricultural areas in central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso and the north-west of Niger, are taking place within a context of poverty, fragility and poor local governance. Agriculture in these regions is fragile, with low yields. It is also at threat from global warming and food insecurity. The analysis will focus on the three countries which are at the heart of the war: Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The war in the Sahel is taking place as much in central Mali as in Burkina Faso, extending beyond its Jihadist trappings to encompass a range of rural insurrections and inter-community conflicts. These conflicts are linked to unchecked population growth, massive under-employment, environmental degradation, land tenure disputes, and economic and social issues which better local governance and well-designed development programmes may have been able to defuse. This entire Sahel region is a victim of its own lack of infrastructure connections to the outside and the weakness of its industry.
Out of control population growth is becoming a ticking social timebomb
Population growth is completely out of control with extremely high fertility rates (around 7). These rates are virtually unchanged since independence and are imprisoning these countries in a poverty trap. The most worrying case is that of Niger, where the population has grown from 3 million, at the time of independence, to 21 million today. And population growth rate is still increasing, reaching 4% per year – a world record. Projections for 2035 in Niger (with at least 40 million inhabitants) are very worrying in terms of agricultural or industrial potential. In all the countries, this population growth is leading to unmanageable social costs, particularly when it comes to healthcare and education.
 For more on this, see: “Les violences armées au Sahara- du Djihadisme aux insurrections” (“Armed Conflict in the Sahara – from Jihadism to Insurrections”) Mathieu Pellerin, IFRI, Nov 2019.
A fragile and very low-yield agriculture
Niger is the least well-equipped country when it comes to agricultural production capacity. Only 8% of its land is farmed. Mali, however, has good irrigation potential in the Inner River Niger Delta. In Burkina Faso, the question of land tenure is becoming particularly fraught. It is fuelling a conflict seen locally as a confrontation between Mossi farmers and Fulani herders (this is a very reductive understanding, however). The entire region suffers from a very low-productivity economy, essentially based on extensive agriculture which is subject to recurring climate shocks. This agricultural sector, on which 70 to 80% of the population depends for a living, remains very unreliable. Because of climate-related uncertainties, the intensification of rainfed agriculture is currently very risky and unlikely to generate much profit outside of the outskirts of urban areas, and consumption of chemical inputs is very low (6 to 10 kg/ha).
A very unreliable agriculture
Despite these disadvantages, agricultural production in these three countries has, overall, met the needs of a rapidly growing population, which is remarkable given the poor agro-climatic conditions. Apart from their immediate effects on the sector’s levels of production and the consumption of agricultural households, the impact of these shocks continues to be felt for several years, through decapitalization of farms, depriving them of their productive tools, through loss of tax base and a weaker currency for the country (due to decreases in exports and increased imports of foods) and through the need to divert substantial financial resources towards managing crises instead of financing the development of the country.
Poverty accentuated by population growth
Despite these good levels of agricultural growth, poverty has increased in absolute terms in these three countries, even though it has fallen in percentage terms. In Mali, it is astonishing to note that poverty is more severe in zones of high agricultural potential (clearly poorly exploited) such as Mopti or Sikasso than in semi-desert regions such as Kidal and Gao which mainly rely on various forms of trans-Saharan trade and trafficking or the Kayes region, which benefits from significant migrant remittances. In Niger, nine out of ten people on low incomes live in rural areas.
One of the deciding factors in rural poverty levels seems to have been the strong increase in population density in the south, which has reduc
ed the sizes of farms and thus agricultural production and revenue for each household.  It should be noted that the regions where the incidence of poverty is highest are those in which the greatest proportion of the population depends on agriculture, and in which family size and dependency ratios are also high.
 Analysis by Jean Paul Chausse – appendix 7 of the “Niger 2035 Une stratégie durable et inclusive” (“Niger 2035 A Sustainable and Inclusive Strategy”) report, Ministry of Planning, Nov 2016
Social and inter-community relations weakened by population growth
The extensive farming system relies on rotations with long fallow periods traditionally fertilised by transhumant herds. It was well-adapted to (and probably optimal within) a low population density context. It was still viable for densities of around 40/km2. But in regions in which levels of rainfall make rainfed agriculture possible (over 350 mm), population density is frequently in excess of 100 or even 150/km2. Within these conditions, because of lack of space, fallow periods are becoming shorter, and in the most densely populated areas, they are disappearing altogether, to the detriment of soil fertility. The shortening and disappearance of fallow periods is now a constant source of conflict between farmers and herders whose routes are blocked by the extension of farmlands.
An agriculture under threat from global warming
Within these conditions, it should come as no surprise that living conditions in rural areas have become particularly harsh. Villages rarely have access to electricity and suffer from poorly maintained access tracks. Yet, excluding cotton production which, in Mali and Burkina Faso, is a success, there are no mechanisms or institutions which are able to rapidly make a widespread difference to living conditions in rural areas. One particularly worrying point is the southward movement of isohyets and global warming, which will represent a threat to this agricultural system by 2035 by making rainfall less reliable. Yield losses in the range of 20 to 30% are thus expected for millet and sorghum.
 Less than 0.2% of Niger’s rural population has access to electricity.
A precarious food security situation
Niger is the country most at risk from food insecurity. It is the most cut off and has the smallest amount of farmland. Its cereal production is essentially made up of millet (75% of total cereal production) and sorghum (22%). The rest is rice. Overall in Niger, the growth of the main food crops remained slightly below population growth over the 1980-2018 period, with a regularly growing deficit made up by imports from Nigeria and Benin, or Asian countries for rice.
Throughout the entire subregion, many rural households suffer from considerable levels of food insecurity. It is estimated that over 50% of the population of Niger suffers from food insecurity: seasonal, temporary (following a shock) or chronic. Although the situation has improved over the last decade, extreme chronic food insecurity (daily calorie intake below 1,800 calories/day) still affects over 20% over the population of Niger. In the three countries studied, many rural households cannot produce enough to meet their own food needs and therefore have to purchase a proportion of their food.
Comparative development of population and cereal production in Niger
Major risks ahead
The cereal markets in these three countries are highly integrated (both with one another and with markets in neighbouring countries). This integration plays a major role in food security in regions with low production potential or suffering from insufficient rainfall. The current system therefore works relatively well, but the shortfall in cereal production in Niger during years of regular rainfall can become a major issue in the event of a drought hitting not just a limited area, but the entire subregion, as was the case in 1974 and 1984. Niger remains the weakest link in the Sahel in the event of a major drought hitting the entire subregion.
A food crisis caused by insecurity
Today, food security problems on a subregion level are essentially the result of more general insecurity. Since 2015, rural populations in insecure areas have been moving to urban areas which seem better-protected to them. Farmers are no longer farming their land because harvests are pillaged. Markets are abandoned for the same reason. Traders, who are subject to extortion and threatened with kidnapping, are fleeing. People are taking refuge in cities and refugee camps. They are fed by their extended families or by the PAM.
Young people without jobs or opportunities
As rural areas continue to fall behind urban areas, where basic services are available (primary and secondary education, healthcare, electricity, drinking water, etc.), the rural exodus and emigration will only continue to accelerate. But urban population growth within the context of stagnation in the formal job market and low productivity in the informal sector has led to a ticking urban timebomb. This bomb exploded for the first time in Burkina Faso during the 2014 riots.
These risks are amplified by the backdrop of particularly active Salafi and radical Islamist movements in rural areas. They are also increased by opportunities offered to young unemployed people to join the organised crime networks which control regional trafficking with the Maghreb and by temporary or permanent enrolment in armed groups.
Dysfunctional administrative and public institutions
There are many reasons why public authorities are ineffective. However, they are generally related to recruitment and human resource policies which do little to take into account merit or efficiency. This situation is particularly worrying because these three governments do not have access to the resources or institutions able to define and implement public policies and plans of action to meet the challenges which these countries face.
An extensive farming system which is reaching its limits
Throughout this entire subregion, growth in agricultural production has relied on an expansion of farmland. Until now, an abundance of land made extensive farming sustainable. With population growth leading to a decrease in available land, the pressure on farmland is now very high. The surface of farmland per family is small (4 hectares on average) and is gradually shrinking. It is now impossible to imagine a rapid reduction in rural poverty and growth in job opportunities without a full-blown agrarian revolution.
And yet, there is no lack of solutions
Intensification is starting to happen around cities, with an increase in the use of inputs (selected seeds and, to a lesser degree, fertilisers). But this initial phase is limited to zones in close proximity to urban markets or served by roads and maintained tracks. Outside of cotton-producing areas, and various one-off operations financed by international aid, there are no ambitious agricultural intensification programmes with crop-livestock integration, feedlot operations and animal manure
No end in sight for the war
This is the context in which the war in the Sahel is developing. The Jihadist movement is expanding within a context of massive under-employment and such a lack of opportunities that, for many young people, joining an armed group has become a rational decision from an economic perspective. In such a context, it is fanciful to think that military action alone should be able to bring back peace and security. It is also unrealistic to think that development aid could offer an effective solution without political authorities first addressing questions of local governance and conflict resolution, in particular in relation to land rights.