Paradox of Africa's Sahel: Rich in minerals but in the grip of grinding poverty

Experts say bad leadership, corruption and geopolitics responsible for misery faced by millions in Sahel

Hassan Isilow and Emre Basaran  | 11.10.2023 - Update : 12.10.2023
Paradox of Africa's Sahel: Rich in minerals but in the grip of grinding poverty

- Experts say bad leadership, corruption and geopolitics responsible for misery faced by millions in Sahel

- Western nations and former colonial powers exploiting African countries and their natural wealth, say experts

- Analysts say coups are being celebrated by people because they are frustrated by poverty, unemployment, instability


The Sahel region is perhaps one of the world’s richest, gifted with vast energy and mineral resources such as oil, gold and uranium, but its people remain mired in extreme poverty, hunger and conflicts.

The United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS) defines the political region of the Sahel as 10 countries – Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria.

While Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania have gold, Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are rich in petroleum, according to data from the World Mining Congress (WMC).

Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer and has other natural resources as well.

The country’s Ministry of Mines estimates that it has 800 tons of gold deposits, 2 million tons of iron ore, 5,000 tons of uranium, 20 million tons of manganese, 4 million tons of lithium and 10 million tons of limestone.

Niger, meanwhile, stands out as the world’s largest supplier of uranium.

According to the World Nuclear Association, Niger, which began operating its first commercial uranium mine in 1971, has two significant mines providing about 5% of world mining output from Africa’s highest-grade uranium ores.

Niger also has other resources such as coal, gold, gypsum and oil.

But despite this vast natural wealth, the country was ranked 189 out of 191 countries in the 2022 UN Human Development Index – one of the poorest in the world.

Guinea has several natural resources including bauxite, iron ore, gold and diamonds. When it comes to bauxite, it is the second-largest producer in the world.

According to a report by the KPMG Global Mining Institute titled “Guinea: Country Mining Guide,” the country has over 7.4 billion metric tons of bauxite, accounting for over a quarter of global reserves.

It is also a main source for aluminum, but its people still remain among the poorest on the continent.

Burkina Faso also has vast mineral wealth ranging from gold, diamonds and zinc to copper, manganese, phosphate and limestone.

Chad is equally rich in oil and has the 10th largest reserves in Africa.

According to the US International Trade Administration, the country has 1.5 billion barrels of proven reserves and produces over 140,000 barrels per day, but it is ranked as one of the poorest on the continent with low life expectancy.

Niger, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad have all had military takeovers in the past two years, making the Sahel popular for coups rather than its natural wealth.

- Bad leadership and corruption

Ahmed Jazbhay, a professor of politics at the University of South Africa, said the people of the Sahel continue to suffer and live in abject poverty because of their leaders, who engage in corrupt activities in cahoots with the West and their former colonial powers.

“They extract resources at very cheap prices that only benefit (them), who are the neo-colonial elite in these former colonies,” he told Anadolu.

“France was getting a lot of uranium from Niger for a fraction of the cost,” he said, adding the resource issue has been at the forefront of the many coups that have happened in the region, where a new breed of military leaders seems to change the balance.

Asked what he thinks of the new military leaders and if they will use the resources for the betterment of their citizens, he said it remains to be seen if they will govern as promised.

Jazbhay said the recent celebrations of military takeovers in the Sahel by civilians can be explained by the people’s frustrations over rampant poverty, unemployment, bad infrastructure and instability among other reasons.

In most countries in West and Central Africa, the populations have shown resentment to France, their former colonial master, he added.

- Wave of coups in Sahel far from over

Buchanan Ismael, a political scientist at the University of Rwanda, told Anadolu the causes of coups and extremist movements in the Sahel region are complex.

“There is no easy answer to this question, because some extremists are bent on imposing extremist ideologies which are sometimes anti-democratic,” Ismael said, adding that some extremists want to impose a so-called “caliphate.”

“There are also high levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment, poor leadership and illiteracy, and if all the factors are combined, it’s rife for a coup to happen or recruitment into extremist movements,” he noted.

Ismael also said the Sahel is one of the richest regions in the world when it comes to minerals, but surprisingly it’s also known as one of the poorest in the world. He attributes this to poor leadership and conflict.

Jazbhay, the professor in Pretoria, said the present wave of coups in the Sahel is far from over, with many analysts predicting there is more to come in the months and years ahead.

“Military leaders rarely have long-term visions for governance, which is why I wish not to romanticize the role of militaries and their so-called good intentions,” he said.

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