The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in a remote region of Niger in October 2017 suddenly brought the Sahel region of West Africa to the attention of the American public and lawmakers, many of whom were previously unaware of there being any American military engagement in the region. The soldiers and their Nigerien counterparts were reportedly ambushed by fighters loyal to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), one of the multiple extremist groups operating in the region’s large and sparsely populated desert areas. While the October attack may have catapulted American counterterrorism strategy in the Sahel into the media spotlight, the region is no stranger to regional and international military operations aiming to combat the growth of violent extremism. The Sahel region is now home to a growing alphabet soup of regional and international peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations, from the French-led Operation Barkhane to the G5 Sahel Joint Force and the newly-formed Multinational Joint Task Force to combat Boko Haram.

In seeking to understand the many challenges facing states in the Sahel region and the capacity of states to effectively respond to these threats, all too often the approach has been narrowly focused on security and military engagement. While preventing the spread of violent extremism is undoubtedly critical, data from the Fragile States Index (FSI) highlights a number of other ongoing pressures facing states in the Sahel which are distinct from immediate security threats yet present real risks to the current and future stability of the region.

The most-worsened country in the Sahel over the last decade is undoubtedly Mali, whose FSI score has increased by 18 points over the last decade, moving from 89th-most fragile state in 2008 to the 27th-most fragile in 2018. While the current conflict, which started in 2012, has obviously had massive impacts on the Malian population and state, the conflict has also had broader regional implications due to refugee flows and spillover effects of insecurity. According to data from UNHCR, 2017 saw the highest numbers of Malian refugees since the start of conflict in 2012, reaching a high of nearly 145,000 people in May 2017. The ongoing Boko Haram insurgency centered in northeast Nigeria has also contributed to massive displacement in the Lake Chad basin, with more than 1.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria and more than 200,000 refugees in Niger, Chad, and the Far North region of Cameroon. Cross-border attacks by Boko Haram in the southern Diffa region of Niger have also contributed to a growing number of Nigerien IDPs. Chad, Niger and Mauritania (and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso) have taken in nearly all of these refugees, placing additional pressure on these countries and their ability to meet the needs of their own populations.

In addition to the obvious humanitarian impacts of displacement, high levels of refugees and IDPs pose a particular challenge to states. If states do not have the capacity to absorb refugee populations or meet the needs of displaced persons, grievances may develop among both refugee populations and host communities, potentially resulting in tensions or conflict. Refugee populations may also place additional pressures on infrastructure and health and education systems, many of which are already deplorably weak in Sahelian states.

The FSI’s Demographic Pressures indicator, which measures pressures around issues such as population growth, disease, natural disasters and food security, is also of particular salience to Sahelian countries. In fact, for three of the seven states discussed in this article (Chad, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania) Demographic Pressures is the highest-scoring indicator, and six of the seven countries have Demographic Pressures scores of 8.0 or higher. Demographic pressures in the region are often driven by high rates of population growth, as well as recurrent cycles of drought, natural disasters and food insecurity. High fertility rates and rapid population growth in many Sahelian countries have created large youth populations — Niger, for example, has both the largest and the youngest youth bulge in the world, with a median age of just 14.8 years. While large youth populations have the potential to be a boon for economic growth, in countries characterized by low economic productivity and high rates of illiteracy and poverty the youth bulge also raises concerns around the potential for grievances and radicalization in the future.

Furthermore, the Sahel is highly vulnerable to the effects of global climate change, particularly changes in rainfall patterns, with negative implications for livelihoods and food security in the region. The effects of climate change also risk spurring migration and increasing conflicts between farmers and pastoralists as grazing and agricultural zones shift and competition for resources increases. While the FSI does not measure climate change as a unique indicator, the carry-on effects of climate change are captured in indicators such as Demographic Pressures, Refugees and IDPs and Economic Decline, which are already high-scoring indicators for many countries in the Sahel.

Despite these myriad challenges, there are positive trends in the region that offer hope. Improvements were seen in 2017 in the total FSI score for all of the Sahelian countries except Mali. Burkina Faso has also seen a steady improvement in its Economic Decline indicator since 2006 and now has the best Economic Decline score among Sahelian states and the third-best score among ECOWAS member states (after Cape Verde and Ghana). Similarly, Burkina Faso and Mauritania have both seen improvements in their Group Grievance indicators over the last decade. In fact, Burkina Faso now has one of the world’s 50 lowest Group Grievance scores, scoring better than highly stable countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

The Sahel faces a veritable perfect storm of social, economic and security challenges, all of which both exacerbate, and are exacerbated by, the fragility of states in the region. However, ensuring future stability will require far more than a purely military approach. Investments in education, infrastructure, poverty alleviation, family planning, youth engagement, good governance initiatives, humanitarian relief and climate change adaptation strategies, among others, are critical to alleviating the pressures on states and addressing the broader causes of insecurity and violent extremism. By maintaining a more holistic understanding of the pressures facing states and populations today and in the future, governments in the region and their partners may yet contribute to a more peaceful and stable future for the Sahel.