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Windows of Opportunity for a Stable and Free North West Africa

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

By Cheikhou Ngom

As a current Civil Affairs Soldier born and raised in Senegal (until the age of 20), I feel that I have a unique outlook of the problems people in North West Africa (NWA) face. Growing up, I experienced things that most normal young Africans endure: living without electricity, fighting off starvation, and being consistently wary of a government struggling to meet the needs of its citizens. Serving today as a Civil Reconnaissance Non-Commissioned Officer, those experiences have enhanced my perspective on how we might best conduct Civil Affairs Operations (CAO) across NWA. This article highlights ways to guide our thought processes when conducting Human Network Analysis (HNA) and to focus on how we mitigate the root causes of insurgency in NWA.

Human Network Analysis

CA uses Human Network Analysis (HNA) to portray relationships, trends, and interactions within populations, and analyze those relationships’ effects on the operational environment. Through civil engagement, a core mechanism of HNA, we increase our ability to produce the most accurate interpretation of the civil dynamics within the Operational Environment (OE). It is in this manner that persistent engagements allow CA Forces to tailor our interactions, working towards our objectives while dealing with the complex and fluid realities of the region. It is a necessity that former colonists missed historically and one that must be used as CA partners with host nation governments in the region. HNA enables a deeper understanding of the social ties to be considered when planning activities, actions, and operations.

With hundreds of dialects, tribes, and ethnicities, NWA is among the most complex of regions on the globe both in its cultural diversity and in the oddness of its landscape. During the Berlin Conference in 1884-1885, “Le Partage de l’Afrique” (Partition of Africa), colonizers did not realize the importance Africans placed on belonging to a tribe, clan, or kinship. Colonizers partitioned the African continent based on their geo-strategic interests and failed to consider the human domain of the newly formed territories.

A glaring example of this is the borders of Senegal and Gambia. Drawing the borderlines to bisect Senegal proved the British Empire's only concern was maintaining access to the strategically important Gambia River. The British refused to lose another essential access point to the Atlantic trade in Africa to the French, who already controlled Senegal and many other West African countries. Those decisions made centuries ago are still affecting Africans today. Every year or two, there is a new “Coup d’Etat” or uprising due to hundreds of marginalized ethnic groups that clamor for their independence because they feel left out, forgotten, or not prioritized. Many find themselves in vulnerable circumstances and maintain a hopeless outlook of their future (example: the 6000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) permanently “temporarily” living in one of the IDP Camps near Bamako, because of the insurgency in their home cities in the Northern side of Mali (Kidal, Mopti)). These individuals are open to any opportunity that could potentially improve their current living conditions. Therefore, although most youths’ values, ethics, and morals do not necessarily align with those of violent extremists, many become open to the idea of joining them in exchange for the guarantee of food, shelter, or a sense of safety and belonging.

Governance sounds like a luxury to many African residents, especially those living outside of their nation’s capital cities. Whether it is a dictatorial regime that religiously defends the leader’s interest at all costs or a “transitional” military-led government that solely focuses on setting “a fair election for the first time in history” for sometimes unending decades, it is unthinkable for these generations to hope for or expect any kind of support from their elected or self-declared leaders. A lack of good governance only adds to the daily stresses many Africans face, and if their only sense of stability comes from violent extremists, why wouldn't they accept it?

A necessary shift in NWA

To better illustrate the effects of our current efforts in NWA, I will use an analogy. Think about trying to stop a massive bleed. Unless you identify and then pack enough gauze into the exact location of the wound, you will not slow down the bleeding. It is a matter of understanding the injury, aggressively and deliberately treating it and continuously reassessing the treatments that ensure the patient is stable and can begin the road to recovery.

The growing number of insurgency groups popping up all over NWA merits no less than this external hemorrhage analogy. CA is sufficiently equipped with talent, resources, and capabilities to facilitate our Joint, Interagency, International, and Multinational (JIIM) partners to better combat the insurgencies and instability that have come to define NWA. Alas, there is an apparent dichotomy between our current efforts versus what our efforts should be to enhance effectiveness. Based on how insurgent groups are growing in size and capabilities, there are two logical ways to decisively affect the global counterinsurgency efforts in NWA and support African governments to unify their nation through durable development: 1. Prioritization of Youth Programs, and 2. Outperforming Insurgent Governance.

1. Prioritization of Youth Programs: Once youth become radicalized, there is seldom a path to return to normalcy. An adolescent’s times wrought with suffering or idleness are some of the crucial drivers of radicalization. If the youth population was involved in the government’s efforts to make their country a better place to live, however, this could lend itself to the younger generations finding hope for their future through local pathways to success. Enhancing the youth population’s sense of ownership for civility, and their ability to affect change through their government will win half of the battle against insurgency in NWA. This initiative would thwart the recruiting efforts of insurgent groups who will face roadblocks to convince people, especially the youth, to join them.

2. Outperform Insurgent Governance: Insurgent groups remain powerful and relevant today in countries like Mali and Niger because they understand and meet the needs of the populace i.e. essential services while government officials fail to adequately address these issues due to unsynchronized efforts and simply a lack of capabilities to do so. Winning the other half of the battle against insurgency takes outperforming VEO's in the services they offer to vulnerable sects of the population. JIIM partners need to influence and empower the government and local leaders to develop and implement a comprehensive support plan for the locals by providing the absent but solicited essential services. If JIIM partners execute this plan through, with, and by local governments, insurgent groups will find it unsustainable to compete as their resources and pools of recruits diminish.

In conclusion, CA emphasizing efforts to contextualize and define the civil domain is paramount to help facilitate the JIIM community to achieve a stable, free NWA.

It will take more than a short-term solution to stabilize NWA. It will be an iterative process considering the nuances of African politics and the international community displaying strategic discipline and commitment towards the solution. It is imperative to start with a clear understanding of the African desired end state. Shared efforts towards achieving this common goal will help delegitimize insurgent groups through a gradual, aggressive, and consistent process.

About the Author:

Cheikhou Ngom is a Civil Reconnaissance NCO assigned to D Company, 91st Civil Affairs Battalion (S0) (A). He is a native of NWA and has deployed to Africa numerous times. He speaks several regional languages, holds a Bachelor of Science in Business and is pursuing an Ms in International Relations from Troy University.

Standard Disclaimer. The opinions, conclusions and recommendations expressed or implied above are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of any organization or any entity of the U.S. government.

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