Water availability has historically been one of the most significant threats to African regional social and economic well-being. Over the Sahel region, a megadrought during the 1960s and 1970s induced by an abrupt and substantial rainfall reduction caused widespread famine and death. The postdrought recovery, which is still ongoing, has been characterized by gradual increases in rainfall, but with dramatic fluctuations. The large negative human impacts, slow recovery, and variability raise important questions of why and how rainfall dynamics evolve and interact with other components of the regional climate system. Here we provide an observational assessment of rainfall interactions mechanisms (informed by directional transfer of information entropy) that regulate Sahel rainfall. We quantitatively demonstrate that (1) sea surface temperature over the Gulf of Guinea controls moisture advection and transport to the West Sahel region and (2) strong bidirectional interactions exist between local vegetation dynamics and rainfall patterns. Then we assess the directional interaction patterns from nine state-of-the-art Earth System Models (ESMs). We find that most ESMs are able to represent either the unidirectional control of sea surface temperature on precipitation or the bidirectional interaction between vegetation and precipitation. However, none of the ESMs represents both interactive patterns. The GFDL and IPSL-CM5A-LR models successfully reproduced observed patterns over ~50% of the West Sahel region but were not accurate in reproducing observed precipitation regional trends or interannual variation. We propose that the directional information transfer is a powerful mechanistic benchmark to assess model fidelity at the process level.