Border management and state sovereignty in the Sahel

Cover photo by Francesco Bellina/TNH

by Ekaterina Golovko

Since 2015, European interventions in the Sahel have surged in response to ‘irregular’ migration to the EU and the incapacity of the Sahelian states to control their own borders. This blog post aims to look at capacity building and local surveillance committees as examples of specific activities within larger border management programmes, and to reflect on their effects on Sahelian statehood.

In early 2019, I was heading to the Border Police office in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, to interview a high-ranking police official for a research project on border security and management. We discussed so-called ‘technical’ issues related to border management as well as the overall security situation, organized crime, and the terrorist threat affecting the border areas in Burkina Faso. At some point, I asked the officer to identify the actors, besides the state, contributing to the securitization of the borders. His answer was firm: ‘There are none, Madame. You know that borders are a sovereign prerogative and it is the state that assures border securitization. No one else can do this aside from the Burkinabe state.’ The officer’s idea of a nation-state left me wondering to what extent it reflected the Sahelian reality, and spurred my curiosity towards specific practices of border management. The notion of a sovereign state with rigid borders was at odds with what I understood about the Sahelian context in general, and border management specifically, from both a political and a technical perspective.

Border management is a set of interventions intended to improve the capacities of border officials and physical infrastructures, and enhancing communication between different levels of actors. This includes activities ranging from the purchasing and sharing of material support to the maintenance and monitoring of physical and technological infrastructures of the border as well as engagement and joint project implementation among a variety of border professionals, including security forces, migration specialists, humanitarian workers, and officers from international organisations.

New Headquarters for National Border Police in Niger, screenshot from the IOM website.

In international development discourse, border management is often seen as a set of technical norms, standards and regulations, where implementing actors have more of a managerial expertise than a political role. In fact, as reflected in the various projects currently being implemented by IOM in the Sahel, a focus on infrastructure, techniques, training and efficiency of personnel take precedence over discourses that would highlight the political and civic dimensions of the border. This approach crucially depoliticises questions of national security and the capacity of the state to control and protect its own borders.

Capacity building

In the Sahel, state and border authorities are often regarded as not meeting international standards in terms of adequate training, equipment and remuneration. For this reason, external actors such as the European Union emphasise the need to increase the capacity of border officials, including training focusing on the knowledge, skills, resources, structures, and processes of relevant government authorities.

Through these cooperation initiatives, a plethora of actors provide remedial intervention to (indirectly) ensure the capacity of states to perform their sovereign duties. This technical approach to border management downplays important power dynamics between external actors and the state. On the one hand, it silences the question of the nature of the state and how the state should be organised, how it should operate, depriving governments of their own agency and ability to question existing norms. On the other, it raises the question of the roles that external actors play in “increasing the capacities” of beneficiary-states. The aim of capacity building, in other words, clashes with the means that are used: donors and partner states help beneficiary states reinforce their sovereignty through technical support and skills training, but at the same time, they impose their own agendas, values, and norms (often assumed to be universal or shared), thus undermining the principle of sovereignty.

The aim of capacity building, in other words, clashes with the means that are used

This inconsistency can be explained by the nature of capacity building, or development interventions more broadly, as assuming a temporal or developmental gap between interveners and assisted states, meaning that each state, after undertaking the necessary steps, can/should be able to “catch up”, and reach the internationally prevailing model of statehood. The perceived temporal and developmental distance between donors and recipient states thereby justifies Western donor guidance of their African partners. But considering the control that these interventions exert upon sovereign states, it is not a neutral relationship but rather an exploitative one; what Mark Duffield has called a ‘relationship of government’. In the current political context, furthermore, the European states are not as much imposing a coherent set of governance principles, but rather experimenting with them.

Border surveillance committees

Border populations in the Sahel have a first-hand knowledge of border areas and local conflicts at the micro-level. Due to growing insecurity and limited access and capacities of security forces to control the borders, border populations are frequently included in border management portfolios: establishing dialogue with security forces and participating in border surveillance and information sharing with security forces. Local communities are expected to organise security watches and report any suspicious movements to the security forces. These projects, often carried out by non-governmental organisations, see border communities not exclusively as beneficiaries but also as actors involved in border surveillance activities. In order to do so, members of border monitoring committees are provided with mobile phones to warn the authorities of suspicious movements. This involvement shifts the burden of border protection from those entrusted to do so (but apparently incapable) onto those who should be protected. The problematic implementation of these activities is exacerbated by a well-founded reluctance of border communities to collaborate with security forces and authorities, both out of mistrust but also out of fear of revenge by non-state armed actors. Very often, the cell phones distributed to inform security forces remain silent. Building trust between communities and the state turns out to be a much more complicated task than just the provision of goods or development assistance.

Very often, the cell phones distributed to inform security forces remain silent

What arises from this process is a hybrid security order where the state delegates its duties to civilians and non-state actors while still trying to demonstrate its symbolic presence at the borders. In many ways, the state is actually left out of an ever-changing construction of power relations where non-state actors interact directly with the populations, trying to bridge the gap with the state. Border monitoring committees seen from this perspective represent the blurring of boundaries between security forces, state authorities and the general population. Such mechanisms illustrate the way different actors, operating from below (civil society organisations and NGOs) and from above (IOs), play a central role in the border management in the Sahelian context.

Border management’s effects on statehood

In order to look more closely at how border management practices affect state sovereignty, I find Ferguson and Gupta’s reflections on state verticality and encompassment useful as an analytical tool. In this understanding of how the state is related to society, ‘verticality’ refers to a state’s central and pervasive position as an institution ‘above’ civil society, community and family; and ‘encompassment’ refers to the idea of the state as located within an ever-widening series of circles that begins with family and local community and ends with the system of nation-states. From this perspective, capacity building is a governmentality technique that alters state verticality. As discussed above, capacity building imposes contradictory governance agendas. Through such intervention, the state – which should occupy the highest position in the verticality – is superseded by international or regional organisations (EU or IOM for instance) who ‘build’ the capacity of the state to perform its duties. These actions blur the boundaries between international agendas and state sovereignty.

The involvement of local populations in border management, from the same conceptual perspective, is an example of addressing failing state encompassment. Border surveillance committees address a state’s lack of encompassment caused by the state’s inability to assert its presence over the territory and police state borders, fuelled by the emergence of new forms of authority and overt contestation of state presence in the areas most affected by violence.

The types of interventions used in border management cast doubt over what the ultimate goal behind such programmes is

The types of interventions used in border management cast doubt over what the ultimate goal behind such programmes is. As this post has suggested, the means used seem to be at odds with the stated policy objective of reinforcing state capacity. As affirmed by the Burkinabe official during the interview, those physically located on the borders are exclusively national border officials, but everything around them is a product of postcolonial hybridity where relations and interactions between multiple actors extend in capillary ways, undercutting the foundations of state sovereignty in the process.

About the author

Ekaterina Golovko is an independent consultant and researcher working on migration and security in West Africa. She has previously worked for MMC West Africa, the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, IFRC Sahel Cluster and other organisations. Her recent publications include a research paper “Navigating borderlands in the Sahel Border security governance and mixed migration in Liptako-Gourma” (jointly with Luca Raineri) and a briefing paper “Players of many parts: The evolving role of smugglers in West Africa’s migration economy”.