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HomeGeopolitical CompassSub-Saharan AfricaBorderwork Creep in West Africa’s Sahel

Borderwork Creep in West Africa’s Sahel

Author: Philippe M. Frowd

Affiliation: the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada

Organization/Publisher: Geopolitics Journal 

Date/place: March 20, 2021/UK

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 22 


Keywords: Borderwork Creep, Sahel, EU Externalization, Cartography, Digital Technology  



Borderwork is expanding into new areas, particularly in terms of cartography. In this article, the author argues that border management methods in the Sahel are expanding into new geographic and policy sectors, driven by factors beyond external agencies, albeit heavily influenced by European concerns. The concept of “borderwork creep” is introduced to illustrate the growth of border management strategies along three dimensions. This term draws on the notion of “function creep,” which highlights the increasing role of digital technology in developed nations.


The paper delves into the ways and spatial manifestations through which borderwork is expanding in the Sahel, as previously mentioned. The first axis pertains to the rejection of cartographic limitations on border security. Security procedures have taken a comprehensive approach to the borderland and extended control to significant island hubs, as borderwork has spread inland. Consequently, the objective of securing the territorial borders of the Sahel is disregarded. The second axis relates to the interdisciplinary nature of the subject matter and the growing significance of legal justifications for borderwork. Border management projects, along with donor efforts to strengthen the state’s criminal justice system and judicial processes, are examined. The third and final axis discussed in this paper is technology, as new digital geographies have made Sahelian border operations reliant on data management and sharing, similar to the increasing utilization of biometric identification and the regional police database maintained by Interpol.


Political geography literature has underscored shifts in territoriality and authority, whether due to the adoption of new technologies or emerging concerns regarding territory and space. These theories are grounded in the idea that the international border is no longer solely a geographical construct, but also a functional concept diffused across space and territory, involving various actors in its reproduction. Border theorists like Rumford emphasize the diverse ways individuals cross borders, navigate societies, and the paradoxical outcomes resulting from both stricter and more lenient border processes. They highlight how individuals and non-citizens increasingly participate in the imagining, creation, maintenance, and erasure of borders, previously solely the prerogative of the state. The term “borderwork,” used by Pallister-Wilkins, draws attention to the productive aspect of humanitarian acts and how they enact distinct forms of life. She examines both the behaviors and actions that uphold borders and those that seek to transform or undermine them. 


The region is significantly impacted by European border work, as externalization policies aimed at preventing and anticipating migration from Africa are driven by the expansion of EU borders. The literature on the externalization of EU boundaries primarily focuses on the external aspects of EU policy and its governance impacts in neighboring regions. Other studies delve into specific actions, such as training security forces in border management and the exclusionary nature of the EU’s external border system, as well as the various methods employed for “remote control” of migration.


This article aligns with the main criticism put forth by existing approaches, which highlights that borders, especially those involving the EU, are not as straightforward as commonly perceived and rely on the exercise of political power over long distances. The complex dynamics of broad territoriality, border security, and migration management within Sahel states often have little to do with the EU’s externalization policies or external international intervention. Consequently, the article focuses on explaining intervention and transnational entanglement while excluding Europe from the analysis. The author suggests that to gain a comprehensive understanding of current border security and migration management techniques in the Sahel, it is essential to incorporate the literature on borderwork creep alongside that on externalization.


The concept of “creep” finds its roots in surveillance research, drawing from Gary Marx’s work on American policing, which recognizes the inevitable expansion of technologies like DNA testing into various aspects of social life. In the realm of surveillance studies, this notion of “mission creep” effectively explains the social and bureaucratic forces driving the growth of security practices without necessarily relying on the development of new technological capabilities. Linder describes the purpose of the employed tools, the spatial scope of their application, and the extension of monitoring missions in three distinct ways.


The Sahel region presents a particularly relevant area of examination as it undergoes unprecedented levels of national and international security cooperation, as well as international action concerning border-related issues. The management of irregular migration in a zone with open borders raises concerns about arms trafficking and the escalating Sahelian Islamist insurgency spilling across the border. Currently, Sahelian border work is experiencing a form of mission creep. During an interview, a Nigerian senior official attributed the EU’s expanding influence in the region to the larger Sahel crisis. This endeavor views the region as a dynamic space with numerous risks and supports work on migration, organized crime, counterterrorism, and other related issues. The prevailing framing of the Sahel as a “risky” area has gained significant attention among policymakers and academics, and the region has long been considered a potential site for intervention. Mann notes that the region’s framing has centered around poverty, drought, and French intervention initiatives since the 1970s. 


Border controls and migration management in Europe are expanding both within and outside the Sahel region as border dynamics undergo changes. Policymakers often describe borders in the area as “multiple, flexible, and even layered.” The expansion of European border policies into Africa brings attention to the European Union and its member states’ ability to extend their political objectives into new sovereign territories, partly through state institutions. The effective use of Niger as a migration management proxy allows it to become part of a vast, non-linear frontier. Another perspective argues that externalization occurs through Libya carrying out Europe’s border work. While these approaches rightly criticize EU practices, the author contends that they risk overlooking crucial factors such as changing political structures and local political agreements that drive the spatial and cartographic growth of borderwork in the Sahel. The aim is to highlight how security measures in the Sahel continually strive to transcend and redefine the current political map of sovereign borders. Vives notes a shift in attention from borders to the spaces migrants traverse to reach the border. However, the author believes that this transition is largely driven by local factors and only somewhat influenced by external actions. The removal of cartographic restrictions on borderwork in the Sahel is facilitated through the use of migrant policing techniques.


In Mauritania, security agents specifically target non-Mauritanians moving north, resulting in police and customs checkpoints with a highly racialized atmosphere. These influences stem from Mauritania’s ties with the EU regarding migration management and its strict national border control culture. The country’s political elites have retreated from regional integration with neighboring West African countries, while its security elites favor stringent border policies. Internal controls shift in response to the demands of a border “crisis.” The focus on the Niger-Libya border by international interveners and Nigerian officials leads to an inland movement of the bordering role.


The creeping border work in the Sahel also signifies an expansion of border restrictions driven by political initiatives to establish broadly defined bordering areas. The G5 Sahel group has abolished visa requirements among its members, creating a delimited territory that overlaps with the larger and more established Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). ECOWAS treaties support the organization of identity documents and the re-bordering processes associated with unrestricted movement in West Africa. In this sense, a new regional border control map offsets the diminishing relevance of national borders within West Africa. In other words, the significance of territorial lines within the region will decrease for individuals with proper documents.


While seeking to expand the scope of border management, intervention players such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are eager to redefine conventional borders through strengthened border checkpoints. However, they acknowledge the impracticality of physical border control and emphasize the need for “intelligent” control. Despite the significant influence of policy mobility on borderwork in the Sahel, the policy spaces themselves remain permeable. The complexity of border control and migration challenges, intersecting with multiple overlapping agendas, contributes to the extensive nature of modern border work in the Sahel. Borders are not only geographical and territorial places but also the outcomes of interrelated policy practices and activities, and the evolving scope of these tasks in unexpected places contributes to border creep. The EU’s Sahel Regional Action Plan primarily addresses irregular migration and related crimes such as human trafficking, migrant smuggling, corruption, illegal trafficking, and transnational organized crime. These issues are linked to limited state capacity and the risk of spillover beyond the Sahel, and tactical plans are often developed in European capitals with implications for the region. The governments of the G5 Sahel have played a significant role in shaping the geography and geopolitics of the region through their own strategies and programs, but understanding Sahel security concerns requires an African approach to strategy as well.


Projects related to justice and security converge in the area, highlighting the interconnectedness of legal processes, criminal justice administration, and border security concerns. This reflects the “crime fare” relationship between security and justice, where criminal justice methods intrude on multinational issues. The AJUSEN (Appui à la justice et la sécurité au Niger) project, primarily funded by the EU and implemented by the French development agency, serves as an example of such initiatives. One aspect of the project focuses on “security,” while the other focuses on “justice.” These spaces are intersected by concerns like migrant smuggling, which bring officials together in new ways. While AJUSEN can be seen as an external intervention, it primarily collaborates with existing internal state agency structures. The integration of immigration management and crime prevention is driven by governmental reforms in individual countries. In Niger, perceiving migrant smuggling as a matter of “public order” prioritizes local legal strategies and discourages international intervention. AJUSEN aims to improve the organization combating smuggling and trafficking, supporting victims, facilitating the conviction of criminals, and collaborating with security authorities. These institutions demonstrate how broad agendas can generate support and fulfill their objectives.


Paradoxically, the attempts of international interveners to streamline interventions and focus on a core set of tactics often lead to expansion and broadening. The inefficiency of organizations responsible for border security necessitates interventions at their fundamental level of operation. For example, despite its small staff and budget, the EUCAP Sahel mission in Niger sees itself as a “wide rule of law intervention.” The flexible nature of migration-related security cooperation allows it to venture into new policy areas in the Sahel, including risk analysis, intelligence, criminality, and border security. The Africa Fronted Intelligence Community (AFIC), formed in 2010, is an example of this expansion. Initially focused on better risk analysis of migrant routes and smuggling methods, AFIC has evolved into a multi-threat strategy that extends beyond its original concentration on West Africa. It has developed into a broad network involving African and European security authorities.


One of the main drivers of borderwork creep is the attempt to enhance cooperation among Sahelian border control actors through integration and coordination efforts. Interoperability is crucial for institutions and initiatives to work together effectively. However, coordination and alignment face significant information gaps, not only among the European Union member states but also between European nations and other Western allies. The United States’ Security Governance Initiative (SGI), initially implemented in Niger, has independently sought to involve additional donor partners in the country while maintaining some correlation with border management-related issues and actors.


The expansion of borderwork into the digital sphere represents the third aspect of borderwork creep. Digital tools can shape citizenship rights and create new types of boundaries. This includes efforts to establish and connect digital identity systems in the Sahel, as well as the collection and analysis of digital biometrics and the use of biometric data for identification purposes. These digital practices have significant implications for inclusion and exclusion, which are crucial for establishing stable national borders.


In 2010, the government of Mauritania introduced an electronic visa as part of its efforts to modernize national identification systems. This involved digitizing documents such as national ID cards, registration cards for foreign residents, and passports. However, the shift towards digital documentation raised questions about citizenship, as individuals who couldn’t provide the necessary identification markers might be denied access to these documents. The use of electronic entry control and biometrics in identification documents and border procedures is increasingly common among African countries. This is just one example of how borders are becoming increasingly digital.


International factors drive the shift towards digital border management, but internal security, politics, and pressures for technological advancement also contribute to this trend. In Mauritania, the modernization of identification systems has caused conflicts among security services and digitized markers of identity. Similarly, in Niger, disputes over the control of data on irregular migration can restrict its dissemination. These conflicts have also led to increased competition among international players to supply border control systems to governments in the Sahel region.


Indeed, international players are responding to domestic demands for stronger border security, often incorporating biometric technology. This demonstrates the interconnectedness of border management and broader governance concerns. The use of digital security systems blurs the lines between criminal justice, counterterrorism, and border controls. The West African Police Information System (WAPIS), created by Interpol with funding primarily from the EU, exemplifies this convergence as it aims to enhance information sharing among West African law enforcement agencies to combat transnational crime and terrorism. WAPIS relies on a digital infrastructure that connects national and international databases and servers. However, the implementation of WAPIS raises concerns as it brings together judicial and security issues, potentially jeopardizing effective investigations, police controls, and data sharing.


WAPIS illustrates the three facets of borderwork creep discussed in the article: the expansion of borderwork geographically, the linking of tangential issues to border security, and the establishment of new digital infrastructures. Borderwork extends beyond addressing crime and security to encompass broader governance concerns. While the EU sponsors WAPIS, it was requested by West African police chiefs and is primarily guided by internal security dynamics. Moreover, there are regional initiatives for judicial collaboration and intelligence exchange that complement the system. Although the digital expansion may seem detached from physical geography, it still relies on a connection to it, as the physical location is crucial for the functioning of digital systems.


Looking ahead, WAPIS aims to adopt a more decentralized database design, reducing reliance on French-based systems and establishing data centers in West Africa. This approach promotes local ownership and flexibility for local authorities. These systems are developed to meet the growing demand for advanced automated police filing systems driven by urbanization in Africa. The databases are interconnected with watchlists and other regional and global databases. Additionally, the development of new border infrastructure, such as border resident cards, is prompted by national identification schemes and desired by organizations like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to replace current analog and informal solutions along Sahelian borders. While the digital approach aligns with the aspirations and perspectives of security experts in the region, it is not yet prevalent in the Sahel but reflects the desired direction.


The author’s argument about the expansion of borderwork in the Sahel region in terms of cartography, policy, and digital technology aligns with the notion that border control efforts are broadening and evolving. The growth of borderwork policy is driven by the interconnectedness of border security discourse with various intersecting issues, including the judicial sector, development, counterterrorism, and criminal control. The author criticizes the prevailing literature on managing migration and border control in West Africa, particularly the Sahel, for overemphasizing the concept of externalization. Instead, the author proposes the metaphor of “creep” as a more appropriate framework to understand the multifaceted nature of borderwork in the region.


By employing the concept of creep, the author recognizes the influence of external factors like the externalization of the European border, but also underscores the significance of internal dynamics and pre-existing security and governance practices within Sahel nations. This perspective highlights the importance of local politics in the context of international border security interventions. Additionally, the article contributes to the field of border and migration studies by illustrating how the expansion of borderwork occurs in diverse contexts and often unintentionally. The three overlapping boundary extensions—cartographic, policy, and digital—underscore the complex and evolving nature of modern border work, challenging the perception of reclusive Sahelian states with vast territories and low population as distant or detached from border control efforts.


By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern



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