Terrorism, violence and misery, why the Sahel tragedy affects us closely. Conversation with Adal Rhoubeid

By Vanessa Tomassini, this interview originally appeared on the Italian “Strumenti Politici”.

I was born in the early 70s, nobody can tell what year precisely since we only recall time with events, in a tent in the Sahara, in the North part of Niger. My family raised me according to traditions, teaching me to respect our culture and the important role of women in our society. Coming from the nomadic and matriarchal Tuareg people, far from the cities, I had little chance of receiving a modern education. But my father’s wisdom, which understood the great value of knowledge helped me to attend school. Years later I became the first Tuareg doctor in the history of Azawakh, in the northwest region of Niger. When I was a child, my country experienced the Tuareg rebellions in the 90’s which marked us with their violence. Since then, inter-ethnic conflicts have often erupted in the area, weakening national cohesion. This young population is eager for change and represents an almost unlimited potential opportunity for development and progress when educated. Here’s my vision: Restore hope to these young people by serving as an example of tolerance, integrity, and leadership to prevent conflict between communities. To achieve that, I must prevent young people from joining the extremist movements that are proliferating in the region such as ISIS, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. The violent actions of these groups are undermining our efforts for peace and inter-communities’ reconciliation. My experience during the presidential campaign and as a member of several commissions dedicated to inter-ethnic peace talk in Niger, Mali and Libya led me to this conclusion: there is no path to development, stability and democracy without justice and peace”.  So, special adviser for security of Niger’ president, Dr. Adal Rhoubeid, tell us about himself. We met him in Rabat, Morocco, trying to understand what is happening in the Sahel and why this crisis affects us closely.

Attacks, bombings and renewed conflicts are displacing entire communities in the Sahel. Social insecurity, resulting from the conflict in Sudan and violence in Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, is causing a food crisis that already affects 11.2 million people today. Out of a total population of 109 million people, more than 34 million are in need of aid and humanitarian assistance. According to estimates by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs, one on three people in the Sahel needs help, almost 6 million are on the brink of catastrophe because they cannot even satisfy their basic needs and more than half of the needy are minors. Last year 4,555 people were killed in the Sahel, an increase of 42 percent from the previous year. Since January 2023, more than 1,500 people have already lost their lives in bombings and armed attacks by groups outside the control of local governments. Since the beginning of 2023, there have been over 6.6 million people displaced due to persecution, conflict and serious human rights violations. It is estimated that nearly 75 percent of the region’s displaced people have left everything out of fear of these attacks. Social insecurity and the attacks on the operators of international agencies and non-governmental organizations dramatically reduced the humanitarian response. We hear very little about this prolonged tragedy, despite everything that happens in the Sahel inevitably reflects on the stability of North Africa and the entire Mediterranean basin.

Dr. Adal Rhoubeid is an eclectic character; he is at ease both with the turban on his head and with casual western clothing. Behind a smile that reassures, sometimes hidden by a traditional Tuareg headdress of a desert child and a look that expresses empathy, there is a great humility and ability to listen. Born in 1975 in Marandet, in northern Niger, son of the great nomadic Tuareg tribes of the Sahara, he is prophetically committed to achieving peace through dialogue, so as to guarantee a prosperous future for his people, the inhabitants of the Sahel and the whole Mediterranean region. As the former President-elect of the Democratic Movement for Renewal Tarna, a Nigerien political party, Adal Rhoubeid is, first and foremost, a graduate doctor of the Abdou Moumouni University in Niamey. In addition to his political engagement, he is recognized for his strong influence due to his ongoing involvement in causes that affect women and children through humanitarian organizations. As such, he ran for the presidential election in Niger in December 2016, to bring about positive change in his country, with a platform focused on the values of justice, democracy and prevention of extremism in the Sahel. He is known for his restraint and played a role in the mediation in the North Mali crisis.

What are the reasons that brought you to be the first Tuareg presidential candidate in Niger?  

“After the fall of Qaddafi regime, many Tuaregs left Libya to Niger and Mali. In Mali, Tuaregs choose to use military action to achieve their goal of freedom by proclaiming Azawad independence. In Niger, to avoid such scenario, and because of uniqueness of Niger multicultural interconnection, l decided to lead youth in different path. The peaceful one. Not only for Tuaregs, but for all people living in Niger. The main reason was to give our youth the hope they can reach their goals without using guns and violence. This is my mission: making them believe they can make the difference without killing one and other or getting involved in conflicts.”  

Then you became advisor to the president of Niger…

Yes, after the election, it was time to focus on the country biggest threat: Terrorism. It was necessary to pause my personal political ambition and serve my country, regardless of who won the election. President ISSOUFOU appointed me as his special advisor for security and the current one, Mohamed Bazoum, kept me on the same position.”

That means you are doing good.

We can always do better. Niger needs stability.”

What are the main challenges for Niger?

As l said before, the main challenge is security. We face many threats, especially in what we call the three-boarders region, which extends between Burkina, Mali and Niger. Daesh and AL Qaeda are there. They are fighting each other, and also fighting against our army and killing innocents’ people. That violence led to a massive movement of displaced population, moving away from conflict areas. Niger is facing a massive refugee’s crisis as we have kind of stability compared to our neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso. On the other hand, we need to keep an eye on Libya as neighboring country as well. The stability of Libya is in our best national interest”.

Why there are many terrorists among Tuareg, what are the reasons behind this radicalization?

Unfortunately, terrorists are recruiting among all ethnic groups in the Sahel region. Things became worse in 2012 when Toumani Toure regime fell, as one of the consequences of Libyan chaos.  At that time Bilal Ag Sherif and his fighters left Libya with guns to create a new State, the Azawad. While fighting for this kind of secularism, they found on their way another group waiting for its time, Al-Qaeda (mainly from Algeria). When Algeria kicked them out, they went to Sahara which is like a safe empty space and they started to pledge some alliances. Opportunity came on 2012 with the Azawad rebellion in Mali. Unfortunately, Tuareg groups allied with Ansar Al-Din, an Al-Qaeda affiliate organization, so they kicked out the Malian army. They made what we call in French ‘un pacte avec le diable’. When they got to the North of Mali, Twareg who only wanted freedom and independence from Mali, found themselves in strongly ties with Al-Qaeda. Later on, Deash (ISIS) came into the equation, bringing more massacres, more confusion.

In fact, we are now witnessing the fighting between Daesh and Al-Qaeda.

“Not little one, they are fighting around the cities like Menaka and other area in the three boarder’s region. Each group want to control the guns, cocaine, gold trafficking. The fight between those groups, at that very moment is more strategical than ideological.”

Even recently, we saw a video in northern Mali showing a lot of displaced people. Are they escaping from the war against Daesh?

“Yes, people are moving to safer places. The ideology of the terrorists is crystal clear: either you are joining them or you are against them. Fulani people joining Daesh   aren’t really given choice: either they join or they get their family killed.  For example, Tuaregs villages in the west of Tahoua region refuse that offer. As reprisals, in 2021, Daesh went to the village called Bakorat. They killed 200 men, leaving only women. It was a message. It was a tragedy. Thousands of people moved to other safer villages, bringing more confusion.”

Do you think Al-Qaeda has support from foreign countries to fight Daesh? 

I do not have enough elements to say that. I do not have details, but someone is helping them. Who? I don’t know.”

Because the question which arises is: how can they finance their activities? Just kidnapping hostages?

“No way, ransoms are not enough. They control gold mines and cocaine smuggling routes from Latin America to Europe through the Sahara. They get guns from regular armies not fighting very well and maybe some support from outside. It is a sensitive question. Some people, from Niger, Mali, Burkina, believe French are giving weapons to terrorists. But why French should give guns to people they will fight the next day? It doesn’t make sense. How can France send its soldiers to fight terrorist groups and finance and support the same terrorist groups? But you cannot take it out from people’s brain. Those idea created an anti-French sentiment”.

Is it possible that those ideas are results of a Russian propaganda?

“I believe Russia is a new actor, you cannot put on Russia the responsibility for what happened from 2012 to 2018. But definitely the presence of Wagner group makes the equation more complicated.  They are actually fitting Russian narrative”.

I like to talk about Europe in general even if it’s not so united as each State has its own interests and agenda. So, what were the European mistakes in the Sahel?

“In the Sahel, the European face is French face. The feeling about France is the same when they talk about Europeans. France diplomatic relations with Africa must take into account the new generation of African view. Otherwise, other superpowers will take advantage of that situation…”.

Among the new actors in the region there is also China. Is it true that Beijing is making African countries poorest?

“I believe this is a very Western point of view. African countries are already poor, you cannot make it worst. China comes to Africa with clear business goal: you have resources, we have the skills. We get access to your resources, we can build your road, bridges, port…stadiums. They do not care about the Governance. That is good most of the times for most African political leaders that you are not talking about what they are doing. So, I believe this is how they are successful in making contracts. When European leaders come, they want to check about human rights and social issues”. 

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