Sahel Conversations: Managing Crisis and Planning for a Future, By Jibrin Ibrahim

This week, I was in Niamey for a conference structured around a series of conversations about crisis management and seeking for a positive future for this tough part of the world. The meeting was organised by Club du Sahel and my favourite research centre in Niger, LASDEL. The facilitators were Mahaman Tidjani Alou, Niagele Bagayoko and Gilles Yabi, all excellent researchers on the Sahel and its troubles. My strongest memories are about the discussions on the side-lines – over lunch or dinner on the terrace of the Grand Hotel, overlooking the River Niger. As the crisis deepens in Burkina Faso, can President Rock Kabore survive the onslaught of the Jihadists and the strong wave of militarist mobilisation against him? In neighbouring Mali, will Assimi Goitre survive the massive anger of the French against him for daring to pivot from French to Russian control of the struggle against the insurgency? The historical trajectory is known, dare to oppose French imperialism and get rewarded with a coup d’état. But then, this time, aren’t the French cornered by the massive opposition of the Malian, indeed the Sahelian people against French suspected romance, without proof, with the Jihadists. The most vexatious of the side talks is maybe why the Russians and their Wagner mercenaries are moving in for the kill – the massive abundance of mineral resources in the Sahel rather than ending terrorism.

A word on what the Sahel is. In geography, it is clearly defined as the area of Africa lying between 12°N and 20°N. This area shares two climatic characteristics: one rainy season per year and August as the month of highest precipitation. It is an arid area on the southern flank of the Sahara Desert. Geographically, the area covers all or part of 12 countries from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea: Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti. Politically, the Sahel in real terms is defined as five countries – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. Dear reader, no price for discovering that France is central to the persistence of this definition and the keeping out of the other seven countries in inter-regional organisations of the Sahel. So many sighs within us as we debated France and its Sahel while contemplating the slow-moving waters of the River Niger.

There are multiple crises affecting the Sahel today. There is massive insecurity and loss of the monopoly of violence by State actors. The Sahel is noted for its dramatic climate emergency with whether extremes that are threatening agricultural production, access to water and food sufficiency. The population of the Sahel is doubling within each generation initiating a demographic time bomb that has produced a youth bulge that is at the centre violent youth agency. The economy is largely informal and economic crisis has deepened over the recent past.

The Governance crisis that has broken the trust between governments and the people. The State is seen more as a problem than a provider of security and welfare for the people. The budgets of Sahelian countries are used mainly to pay for a civil service that adds little value to the lives of people creating a legitimacy crisis. Ok yes, this is not just the reality of the Sahel but of the entire continent.

The Sahel is rich is gold and many other minerals that the developed world is eyeing. Much of the geopolitical considerations operate around this material consideration. For the people however, the daily reality is poverty and precarity. The resilience of the people is high but new issues are impacting on social processes. One is drugs, which is really impacting on the behaviour of the youth. The second one is urbanisation as the majority of the population has now moved to urban centres. The result is a breakdown of social cohesion.

It is therefore not surprising that the Sahel is known today for its multiple conflicts. The most persistent that is reported in the media is jihadist attacks. Alongside, there are the irredentists who want out of the State as is currently defined. The military in many of these countries are also very active in the scene, moving in and out of power as the power dynamics in the zone shifts. For Chad for example, the political history of the past four decades has been one of processions of military strongmen. Criminal actors have also been very active working in the domains of drugs, gun running and trafficking in persons. What is missing are actors seeking to provide protection to the people. Corruption is rife within the military institution and rather than fight the bad guys, their thoughts are often centered around their pockets. 

In much of the Sahel today, discussions about the future are changing. Noting the failure of the State to smash the terrorists and traffickers, there is a lot of conversations on negotiating with them and seeking a modus vivendi. It was Mauritania that showed the path. In 2011, the government negotiated with the terrorists and made an accord. The terrorists will not engage in attacks within the national territory. In compensation, some of them would be absorbed within State structures, the system of the Islamic education cursus would be recognized and their graduates employed by government and Islamic law, specifically, the Maliki school of law, would be accepted by both sides in adjudication cases. Since the accord, there has been no terrorists’ attacks with Mauritania while the other countries have been suffering massively, especially the 3-fronters zone between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. It is therefore not surprising that other Sahelian countries are contemplating the path of negotiations. There is also a push to accept Islamic religious leaders as legitimate interlocutors that could make a difference. In Mali for example, Imam Dicko has proved his great capacity to impact on social, religious and political processes over the years. The possibilities are however structured within the context of traditional (and more peaceful African) Sufi Islam and the newer Salafist (and more violent) rendition of Islam. Navigating this labyrinth is no easy task.

The conversations mapped out a road map for a more secure future in the Sahel. Sahelian scholars and their institutions must take the initiative of using geopolitical analysis that places strategic considerations in the hands of Africans rather than France, United States and Russia. The median age in the Sahel is 19 while many of the political leaders are old men. Governance must bring in inclusive practices that place the youth, women and marginalized groups in the centre of the State project. Within national contexts, policies are often drawn without consultations and local specificities are ignored. Often causing policy failures and conflicts that endure. The Sahel, indeed Africa, must learn to open a new page that works for it.