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Africa: Securing West Africa and the Sahel

The Sahel lacks responsive and effective governance. Stakeholders should invest more in intelligence-gathering and early warning systems. It is easier to prevent a violent conflict than to resolve one. Crime and violent conflict have become the mainstay of many trigger-happy youth who are forced to provide basic infrastructures for their families and communities due to governance failures.

On October 6, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) lifted the sanctions on Mali, to the relief of Malians and the leadership of the conflict-ravaged country. Despite the traditional pessimism about ECOWAS, it successfully mobilised against the military incursion into power in Mali. The ECOWAS mediation team to Mali, led by the former president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, had no time to celebrate as his country, Nigeria, soon became embroiled in protests against the administration of his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari.

After days of protests – tagged #EndSARS – in Nigeria’s major cities, calling for the scrapping of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) due to its extreme brutality and lawlessness, Nigeria’s inspector-general of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the dissolution of this notorious police unit on October 11. Yet, the protests persist. In Côte d’Ivoire, the opposition leader, Seth Koko, prevailed on ECOWAS to appeal to the incumbent president, Alassane Quattara, from contesting the October 31 election. Thus, ECOWAS’s attention – and that of the global community – have turned to Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire, while also keeping an eye on Mali.

In Mali, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), controlled by the putschists, has appointed a former defence minister, Bah N’Daw, as a civilian president; the coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goïta, as vice president; and Moctar Ouane as the prime minister. The CNSP has also removed a clause that gave the vice president the authority to replace the president of the transition, if the office is deemed vacant. This was a partial victory for ECOWAS. However, experience has shown that any civilian transition headed by military personnel is a red flag. Furthermore, the decision to exclude the civil society coalition, the M5-RFP, from the transitional government may live back to haunt the transitional team.

West Africa and the Sahel have become the theatres of violent conflicts. The number of violent Fulani herdsmen in the Sahel are undocumented, but Boko Haram and Al Qaeda boast of about 15,000 and 5,000 members, respectively. In the Sahel, four countries are currently experiencing armed conflict: Nigeria is battling to contain Boko Haram’s terrorism, which has threatened the territorial integrity of the country, killed more than 50,000 and internally-displaced 2.1 million people; security is being challenged by pastoral conflict in Chad; Sudan is engrossed in violent protest and, concurrently, combating armed conflict; and Mali is struggling to contain violent extremism and a military putsch.

Why is the region confronted by armed conflict? The Sahel is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, with abundant human and mineral resources. Despite the opulence demonstrated by many of its political elites, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that about 33 millions citizens are confronted with food insecurity and inequality.

The Sahel has experienced other threats from the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (linked to Al-Qaeda), the Tuareg/Fulani herdsmen, pastoral warlords, Boko Haram, and oil militancy. Despite the interventions of the 15,209-strong United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission and the 5,000 French troops in the Sahel, the joint-force of the G5 Sahel, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, the West African Multinational Joint Task Force, the efforts of the UN office for West Africa, the ECOWAS’s mediation team and the national security forces of member-states, the region is still under a siege and sitting on a time bomb. While the African Union and other sub-regional bodies such as ECOWAS and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) are committed to “Silencing the Gun in Africa by 2020”, the guns keep blasting – loud and louder – in the Sahel.

Why is the region confronted by armed conflict? The Sahel is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, with abundant human and mineral resources. Despite the opulence demonstrated by many of its political elites, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reports that about 33 millions citizens are confronted with food insecurity and inequality. Marginalised pastoralists are thus easy triggers of conflicts. The region also hosts one of the world’s most youthful populations, with 64.5 per cent of the inhabitants being under 25 years old. Human development has declined. The youth are hungry and angry: about 30 per cent of 349 million West Africans live on less than $1.90 per day. Violence – a lucrative means of livelihood for many – has become the “legitimate” response to irresponsive political leadership and hostile economic policies.

The former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, shocked the global community when he publicly asserted that the battle against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was one of extreme poverty. Indeed, at the root of the militarisation of the Sahel region is socio-economic and political inequality. In Africa, violence is often informed by the “crisis of the belly”, and no sophisticated military force – neither a multilateral unit nor a unilateral force – can subdue poverty-inclined armed conflict.

A more vibrant and well-funded ECOWAS should be the rallying point for ensuring the security of the Sahel region. ECOWAS should intensify efforts at not just the integration of trade and borders, but also of all West Africans who are so disconnected from the regional body.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented another dilemma: It has exacerbated structural violence, as well as existing fragilities in the region. States – both in the global North and South – have become more nationalistic and protectionist. Foreign aid and humanitarian assistance are expected to decline systematically. Thus, West African states and those in the Sahel must show more financial and logistical commitments to regional efforts at security and development.