Washington — The humanitarian crisis in the Sahel is in danger of escalating unless a careful political solution is crafted to end violence and the chronic shortage of food produced in the West African region is addressed, a United Nations official said on Wednesday.
Rebel militias in Mali are recruiting child soldiers and the outlook for the harvest is uncertain, creating fresh threats that could easily worsen the crisis in a region reeling from its third severe drought since 2005, a military coup in Mali and the rise of armed groups, David Gressly, the UN's regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
International agencies have stabilized the immediate humanitarian crisis by pouring $1.6 billion into the region over the past year. But one million children remain severely under-nourished and 18 million people go without a regular meal, he said.
Countries in the western Sahel, a region that sweeps from Senegal to Chad, are on a knife edge. They are confronting three crises simultaneously - famine from the latest drought; inability to produce enough food to sustain its fast-growing population even during a good harvest; and violent political upheaval particularly in northern Mali. Any one of these factors could tip the region toward disaster, Gressly said.
"Doing nothing will have very significant humanitarian consequences, and doing something badly will have even worse consequences," he told an audience that included officials from the U.S. State Department, USAID, and non-governmental organizations.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said last week he would appoint a special envoy to help negotiate a political settlement. In January, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) led an insurgency and took control of northern Mali, but Islamist groups forced them out. Meanwhile in March, Mali's democratically elected government was overthrown in a short-lived military coup, claiming that the government had not adequately supported the army's fight against the rebels in the north.
The Mali government was reinstalled in April but who holds effective power in the capital of Bamako remains unclear. Gressly said the government, despite its political problems, has provided support for delivery of humanitarian aid in the Sahel and the rebel groups are not interfering.
Currently, the militia groups are well financed from their rampant drug trafficking and hostage takings, so they have no need to requisition food and are leaving aid delivery alone, he said. But funds from organised crime also gives rebels plenty of cash to recruit child soldiers, an action made easier when schools have collapsed, entering their second year of closure, and families are going hungry. Child soldiers can be paid as much as $30 a day, he said.
"Money is the most important factor that is driving this (rebel recruitment and chaos) at this time. You have the money to overthrow the social structure and those with money are taking advantage of it," Gressly said.
Political negotiations will need to be delicately handled among multiple parties - Mali's democratically elected government, its military and coup leaders, the NMLA rebels and the various bands of Islamist rebel groups in the northern region of Mali bordering Niger and Algeria and surrounding countries, he said.
A misstep politically could easily encourage disgruntled rebels or government officials to disrupt the peaceful delivery of humanitarian aid to the Sahel, tipping the region into an even more precarious state, Gressly said.
Longer term, the region also desperately needs a sustainable form of agriculture to support its population of 115 million, which is doubling every 25 years despite one quarter of a million children dying annually from malnutrition. Otherwise the food-driven crisis - where families are forced to sell cattle to buy food in the short term, but lose their livelihood in the longer term and end up in refugee camps - will continue to spiral, Gressly said.