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Coordinated action needed in the Sahel

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The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel is being aggravated by the impact of COVID-19.

Decision makers have underestimated the challenges facing them in the Sahel. Given the sheer size of the region and of the terrain occupied by armed groups, international responses have been inadequate.

This was the frank assessment of the security situation in the Sahel by Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, during a webinar hosted by the Institute for Security Studies earlier this month.

Chambas painted a bleak picture of the situation facing the region. Worsening security has led to an increasing number of displaced people and there has been a new trend of attacks against humanitarian workers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the situation, since governments have been forced to move resources to the health sector. Borders have been closed to stem the pandemic, but this dealt a heavy blow to cross-border traders, who have lost their livelihoods. In addition, climate change has impacted already marginalised areas.

Terror groups, instead of heeding the call by the UN secretary general for a ceasefire during the pandemic, were taking advantage of what they saw as a weak moment and increasing their attacks, he said.

At the same webinar, African Union (AU) High Representative for Mali and the Sahel Pierre Buyoya said people were rightly frustrated with the lack of results, given the many initiatives launched over the years. However, he said this terror threat was something ‘completely new’ on the continent and states had to adapt their strategies as they went along.

Buyoya agreed with Chambas that the international community was not doing enough to assist the Sahel countries and that only France had come to the rescue when Mali was attacked in 2012/2013. The type of international coalition against terror seen in places such as Afghanistan has not been forthcoming. Whether such a coalition would have made a difference in the Sahel remains an open question.

AU troops to beef up security

A decision was made at the 33rd AU summit in February this year to look into the deploymentof 3 000 AU troops for six months to strengthen existing military responses. Several meetings have been held and a technical working group has been put together that includes the AU, the G5 Sahel and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). A Peace and Security Council meeting to discuss preparations for the force’s deployment is planned for 30 July.

The AU Office for the Sahel, headed by Buyoya, is also participating in various non-military efforts to address the root causes of the crisis.

Coordinating responses

Decision makers are clearly aware of complaints about the multiplication of strategies for the Sahel and the resultant overlapping. However, according to Buyoya, for the first time a ‘global vision’ is starting to emerge of how to address the various aspects of and responses to the threat.

The strategies include efforts to improve governance, economic development and states’ territorial control, as well as the provision of basic services to marginal areas and military assistance.

Plans are afoot to institute regular meetings – once or twice a year – between the various role players. These include national governments, which have all drawn up national plans; regional initiatives such as the G5 Sahel; international initiatives such as the recently launched L’Alliance Sahel (Sahel Alliance); and the World Bank, UN and European Union strategies for the Sahel, according to Chambas.

‘We need to scale up addressing the root causes and underdevelopment in marginalised areas where there are few basic services,’ said Chambas. He said strategies such as those drawn up by the Alliance pour le Sahel at a recent meeting in Nouakchott identified the need to look at all the challenges in a holistic way. This included human rights, which have been a problem for all the governments in the region.

There has been a tendency to raise militias and volunteers to respond to the security crisis – creating a risk that untrained and unskilled people will commit human rights abuses. Concurrently, this could ‘push populations in[to] the hands of the forces of destruction’, he said.

The need for coordinated action in the Sahel cannot be overstated. Nor can the situation be resolved without appropriate national government leadership and community involvement.

Coastal regions threatened

At the ISS webinar Mohamed Abdoulaye, the deputy executive secretary of the Conseil de l’Entente created in 1959 by Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso, said coastal states are increasingly threatened by the insecurity in the Sahel.

Part of the reason for this is the highly centralised ways in which these countries are governed, leaving peripheral areas without any meaningful state presence. They are at risk of falling into the hands of terror groups, trans-border traffickers and criminals.

On a positive note, the coastal countries have in the past few years benefited from the experiences of those in the Sahel and have beefed up border security to stem the infiltration of terror groups.

Abdoulaye said it was important to mobilise actors at all levels, including local levels such as mayors and village chiefs, to deal with an increasingly complex situation. Communication between the international, national and local levels was also crucial.

As people do need the government to address this threat, this could be ‘a historic opportunity to reconstruct the state’ to make it more responsive to the needs of the people. He added that ‘putting in place intelligence services that are adaptive to the current security realities in the region is indispensable in state responses to the situation’.

Political upheaval in Mali

The political situation in Mali, where opposition groups have been organising protest actions to call for the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, is also of concern. According to Buyoya, the situation is the direct result of an election gone wrong, when more than 30 parliamentarians lost their seats owing to changes to the results of the legislative elections held earlier this year. The results were changed by the constitutional court.

Buyoya said this crisis aggravated an already difficult context in Mali resulting from the security threat, the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic crisis. The crisis following the elections was ‘the final straw’.

A mission by ECOWAS to Mali, led by former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, proposed that elections be re-run in places where the results were contested and suggested the creation of a government of national unity. However, the coalition leading the protests – Mouvement du 5-Juin – Rassemblement des Forces Patriotiques (M5-RFP) – rejected ECOWAS’ proposal.

However, finding a political settlement that will satisfy a movement made up of diverse interests and groups, carried by street protesters with genuine grievances, will not be an easy task.

The international community, which includes ECOWAS, the AU, the UN and some UN Security Council members, has created a contact group for Mali to try to find solutions to the crisis.

They are aware that the situation in Mali poses a huge risk to the country and the region since there is an attack on institutions, said Buyoya. The same happened just before the coup d’état in 2012, which plunged the country into chaos. If the instability persists the situation may become unmanageable.

‘The challenge is not only economic or developmental, but governance is of capital importance,’ he said.

Elections should be free and fair

A number of key elections are being held in West Africa in the coming months and there is increasing concern that these could complicate an already dire situation. As in Mali, there is a lack of trust between citizens and governments. These elections need to be free, fair and well organised so as not to aggravate the legitimacy crisis or deepen the existing trust deficit, said Chambas.

Political governance challenges are clearly one of the root causes of insecurity in the Sahel. Improving governance is one possible solution to the deepening regional crisis.