Magharebia (Washington DC)

West Africa: Strategists Brainstorm Sahel Solutions

Marrakech — Post-Arab Spring unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt may lead to a vast "area of lawlessness" that endangers the entire region, a security expert and former Tunisian minister warned at a recent security forum in Marrakech.

"The few observers who drew the international community's attention to the unforeseeable or even serious consequences of the 'revolutionary euphoria' of 2011 for security and peace across the MENA region could not have imagined that the reality - three years on from the Arab Spring- would be even more alarming than they had predicted," former Tunisian minister Hatem Ben Salem told participants at the January 24-25 event.

The African Federation for Strategic Studies (FAES) and the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES) organised the 5th Marrakech Security Forum, which drew more than 250 civilian and security figures from 80 countries to the Ochre City.

Three states vital to the preservation of stability in North Africa and beyond have had their foundations undermined, Ben Salem said.

"This has resulted in the emergence of a vast Arab-African area of insecurity and lawlessness in international relations, bringing about a new geopolitical configuration which harbours the potential for future confrontations in a region which was supposed to form the bridgehead of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership," he said.

The Libya security crisis is the greatest present concern for strategic analyst and academic André Corneille Zannou.

According to the professor at Abomey-Calavi University in Benin, "the war in Libya and the fall of the Kadhafi regime revealed the scale of the threats that the countries in the Sahara-Sahel region face".

"The French military intervention in northern Mali in 2013 forced the various terrorist groups operating in the region to seek refuge in the south Libyan desert," Dr Zannou noted.

"These terrorist groups, which are taking advantage of the security vacuum created by the Libyan crisis, pose a threat to the stability of not only these countries, but also Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, the Central African Republic and even Nigeria," he told the Marrakech conference.

Many analysts say this state of affairs has caused Libya to become a major rallying point and training centre for jihadist groups.

The country is also a headquarters and hub for smuggling. Drugs are trafficked from South America by cartels and channelled, with complete impunity, via ports along the southern shores of the Mediterranean to Europe, often through illegal migration networks.

Although the situation in Tunisia appears to be better, it too carries the potential for a future filled with uncertainties, forum participants acknowledged.

Ben Salem, the former Tunisian government official, was straightforward in his assessment: "Security and the economy are highly interdependent challenges for Tunisia, especially due to the expansion of illegal trafficking and the emergence of lawless areas in very sensitive parts of the country."

"The scale of the alliance between the economic mafia and the jihadist groups is unprecedented," he added. "More than 40% of domestic trade occurs through gangs of smugglers and weapons caches are regularly discovered, including in towns."

The other finding to emerge out of the Marrakech event was that the terrorist havens set up in Libya are becoming fall-back positions for organisations such as Ansar al-Sharia, which have now infiltrated several districts in Tunisian towns and are tightening the salafist stranglehold on many mosques.

All the signs are there that a new geopolitical map of terrorism is taking shape in the absence of any prevention strategies.

For this reason, most participants at the Marrakech Security Forum backed a collaborative plan to tackle the threat. This was one of the proposals put forward by Boukari Djiberou of Niger's National Commission for the Collection and Control of Illegal Weapons (CNCCAI).

"If we are to fight effectively against these threats and challenges to world peace and security, it is important to adopt integrated, global and co-ordinated strategies involving all parties: researchers, governments, security forces and civilians," he said.

The involvement of society as a whole, he argued, is the most effective way to "establish world peace and security for the harmonious development of everyone living on the planet".

The spread of terrorism and crime not only threatens the southern Mediterranean, participants acknowledged, but it could also have a direct impact on the entire international community.

Ellen Wasylina, the president of the Observatory of the Black, Gulf and Mediterranean Seas, was among those calling for the need for regional co-operation. She offered her suggestion for how such a team effort could be organised.

"Its architecture should not be created in the north, even if the main targets are Western. All states in the Sahel must be involved," she said.

"Dialogue with and between populations across the Sahel region must therefore be a consideration in taking action against terrorism, because terrorists have infiltrated them," Wasylina added.

Dr Zannou of Benin noted that it was time for a new approach to confronting the threat of terrorism.

"Sovereign states and the international community have long prioritised the military and security-based approach," the professor said, adding, however, that "political, developmental and integrationist considerations should not be ignored".

"There is a school of thought that non-democratic regimes encourage more terrorism, and that democracy is less vulnerable to it," he said. "Because of the government's legitimacy and promotion of human values, their people act through the country's institutions to respect fundamental standards and encourage the government to stand firm against groups which resort to violence," he said.

Zannou added: "Democratisation and liberalism reduce the incidence of terrorist attacks."

Meanwhile, he said the developmental approach could be supported by investment in the exploitation of mineral and energy resources in the Sahel-Saharan area.

"This developmental approach aims to eradicate poverty as a factor in terrorism," Zannou said.

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