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Strengthening bonds in the Sahel

Strengthening bonds in the Sahel

Confronting insecurity, joblessness, injustice and inequity could transform the region
From Africa Renewal: 
Citizens fetching water from a community borehole in Chad. Photo: UNDP / Jean D. Hakuzimana
Citizens fetching water from a community borehole in Chad. Photo: UNDP / Jean D. Hakuzimana

Political insecurity in the Sahel has its roots in poverty and climate change, declares Mahamadou Issoufou, the president of Niger.

Many agree with President Issoufou. Yet local community leaders, development experts and civil society activists claim that the region’s governments and their foreign partners are not putting nearly enough money or effort into creating jobs, improving living conditions or reducing regional and social inequities—a fact that may prompt some frustrated youths to join armed movements or criminal gangs.

Even some insurgent leaders acknowledge that their recruits are motivated largely by economic needs. As the spokesperson of one faction in Mali told researchers from New York’s Columbia University recently, some combatants say they are not jihadists, not even Islamists. They are just people trying to feed their families.

The United Nations lists Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria Senegal and The Gambia as the Sahel countries. This semiarid region, sandwiched between the Sahara Desert on one side and tropical forests and savannas on the other, is regularly battered by drought and harsh weather.

Fighting marginalization

In most countries in the Sahel, populations suffer from economic and social disparities that contribute to the people’s grievances against the central authorities. For example, development in Burkina Faso’s northern provinces, where insurgents are most active, lags some 50 years behind the rest of the country, says the emir of Liptako, a high-ranking Burkinabe traditional leader.

“A population that lives in misery is weakened and succumbs easily to terrorism and extremism,” he observes.

Further insights into Burkina Faso’s northern region appeared in a recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. The group noted that Burkina Faso’s north has been relatively marginalized, with far fewer services, state facilities and development projects than elsewhere.

As a result, many people feel abandoned and distrust the government’s security forces. That distrust is deepened by the fact that few officials come from the Peulh or Fulani ethnic group that predominates in the north.

In 2017 the Burkinabe government announced an Emergency Programme for the Sahel, as the country’s northernmost region is also called, to fight insecurity and save West Africa from the rise of terrorism. Over three years (2017-2020), the government plans to spend about $835 million on health, education and other social services, job creation, roads and key economic sectors.

Some critics believe, however, that the programme does not devote enough to water, grazing and livestock breeding, the main occupation of most Fulani people. Also, it does not sufficiently address corruption and injustices in the public administration.

Also in 2017, the government of neighboring Mali initiated a focused development plan for that country’s north. The government projects that $3.9 billion in investments will raise the development levels of the regions of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao to that of the rest of the country within 10 to 15 years.

But Mali remains very poor, and the government itself can commit to only 14% of the money needed. Abdoulaye Idrissa Maïga, at the time prime minister of Mali, visited Paris in October 2017 to seek more support from the developed countries’ Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Niger has similarly launched a five-year plan for its Lake Chad region. Adjoining western Chad and northern Nigeria, the lake has seen a 90% drop in its water level, devastating the local economy and providing fertile ground for Nigeria’s brutal Boko Haram rebels.

Similarly, authorities in Senegal introduced accelerated development projects in its southern Casamance region as a prolonged separatist insurgency began to wind down several years ago. Those efforts have helped preserve overall peace in Casamance, although armed banditry remains a problem.

Concerned about the situation in the Sahel, UN Secretary-General António Guterres in May 2018 appointed Ibrahim Thiaw as his special envoy for the region.

Promoting tolerance.

In announcing Mr. Thiaw’s appointment, the secretary-general described the region as “one of the world’s most complex areas.”

Most of the Sahel’s insurgent groups use the language of Islamist extremism. In every country, however, Islamic scholars and community leaders have stepped forward to dispute the insurgents’ interpretations and instead promote tolerance.

In January, independent intellectuals opened a centre in Chad’s capital city, N’Djamena, to counter extremist views. And the government of Niger has appointed Islamic authorities to prominent positions to help counter insurgent recruiters. In Burkina Faso, Islamic and Christian associations have joined hands to propagate interfaith messages.

However, most of the Sahel’s underlying conflicts have little to do with religion as such. While some youths gravitate toward armed movements because they lack jobs or other means of making a living, others join because of various local ethnic, social and political conflicts.

In Mali’s north, Tuareg groups have long fought for regional autonomy. In 2012 several Islamist movements took advantage of that conflict to occupy much of the north, but they were pushed back the following year by a French-African intervention force. Today the Malian government is seeking to accommodate Tuareg concerns, while simultaneously combating Islamist insurgents.

Central Mali, meanwhile, has erupted into serious ethnic fighting, often originating in land conflicts between Fulani livestock herders and farmers of other ethnic groups. Seeking to restore peace, Fulani and Dogon youth associations came together in April to promote intercommunity dialogue.

Mauritania also suffers from the legacy of slavery, which underlies tensions between the dominant Bidan ethnic group (of Arab and Berber heritage) and the Haratine, the descendants of former slaves.

Although many Mauritanian authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge slavery’s social legacies, some are starting to take firm action by strengthening legislation and initiating judicial proceedings. Mauritanian courts have condemned many defendants to stiff prison sentences for treating Haratine as inferiors.

Gender disparities are the most apparent across all Sahelian societies. While several governments in the region have adopted laws affirming women’s rights and promoting their political participation, social phenomena such as female genital mutilation and child marriage remain common, particularly in rural areas. In Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal, a wide range of civil associations are actively seeking to mobilize communities against such practices.

Women and girls are especially vulnerable to abuses and extortions by the region’s armed movements, and suffer from rapes, kidnappings and murders. Although women have a keen interest in promoting peace, they are rarely represented in peace efforts, notes Siga Fatima Jagne, the commissioner for social affairs and gender of the Economic Community of West African States.

Enhancing human rights and political engagement is vital for all citizens in the region. According to the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures governance performance in African countries, seven of the countries in the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal) improved their overall ranking between 2012 and 2016. Yet many problems remain, including widespread corruption, electoral irregularities, media intimidation and political violence.

Some officials claim that the so-called “war on terror” could be pursued more effectively if civil liberties were restricted. Yet human rights activists argue the opposite: that respect for human rights strengthens the bonds between governments and their citizens, and thus improves security overall.

As Boundi Ouoba, a newspaper columnist from Burkina Faso, puts it, “The problem of terrorism cannot be resolved without social justice and deep institutional reforms to eliminate all disparities and wrongs. We must attack the problem at its root.”

Or, as President Issoufou maintains, “Peace cannot be won with arms alone.”    

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