Author:Collins, Tom
Position:Historical Perspective

Today the vast Sahel region, lying between North and sub-Saharan Africa, is characterised by general poverty, lawlessness and the presence of terrorist groups. But it once formed one of the world's busiest and wealthiest trading routes. Can the fortunes of this region be revived and restored to their long-lost glory?

Across much of West Africa a trend has developed. As the Atlantic Ocean feeds the economic powerhouses on the coast, the Sahara has given way to instability, contraband and disrepair. This wasn't always the case. In fact the very opposite was true.

Transit routes criss-crossing the desert connected once-powerful cities like Timbuktu, Gao, Dienne, Sokoto and Kano with North Africa and the Middle East. Goods like gold, salt, cotton, leather and ostrich feathers were transported and traded in large caravans and it was the interior that flourished.

Mansa Musa, 14th-century ruler of the Mali Empire, is widely considered as the richest person ever to have lived. Indeed, the fortunes of great and powerful empires like Songhai, Mali and Kanem-Bornu, among others, ebbed and flowed with the idiosyncrasies of the trade.

In the present day much has changed. The trade declined due to factors including the arrival of European colonialism, which prompted the movement of goods towards the coast, instead of through the Sahara. Supply chains were disrupted and the trans-Saharan trade and the cities it once supported began their decline.

Now, policy-makers based in the south are at odds over what to do with the rising lawlessness of the Sahel. Security imperatives frequently trump development and strategy is muddled in the absence of any panacea.

Yet how could a better understanding of the Sahel's economic history have a positive influence on developmental policy in the region? What, if anything, remain of the old trade routes? And how could they be re-established?

The trade and its decline

While the Sahara has always cradled robust internal trade, the peak of the activity was from between the 8th to 17th centuries. Over this time period the nature of the trade took many different forms. "In terms of the peoples and goods involved, they shifted across time and space," explains Ghislaine Lydon, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. A few goods and locations, however, were key.

Up until the 18th and 19th centuries, gold was traded heavily, reveals Lydon. Muslim and Jewish traders in North Africa would invest in camel caravans heading south to places like Timbuktu to exchange European goods for gold. Prior to this the Gao empire was recorded as trading gold, precious stones, animal...

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