1 March 2014

West Africa: The Sahel - On the Brink?

Being committed to peace does not necessarily bring peace to a country. To live in peace is more important than to discuss peace. Moreover, in a fragile and unpredictable environment, an international military presence could take longer time to succeed and be more costly than expected.

In an increasingly complex security and diplomatic Sahel Sahara context, these observations apply to Mali, Central Africa Republic (CAR) as well as to their regional and international partners.

Two Crises but only one front

Waging two simultaneous wars in the Sahel Sahara is more to the advantage of the Islamist and other violent extremists groups than to local governments and their international allies. The Boko Haram continued killing in Nigeria and soon in its neighbors, the ongoing turmoil in the shaky Libya and especially the new diplomatic alignment in the Sahel - with the Algerian temporary retreat - are profitable to the rebel groups.

Among these advantages is the prestige associated to resisting external intervention. With that status, comes the political visibility needed to raise funds and recruit combatants when at the same time military troops mobilized to combat them are overstretched.

In Mali and CAR there are two different situations that deserve to be treated differently. In the former, peace is to be consolidated while that is still relatively easy given that the international community is still interested. In CAR the need to impose the Responsibility to protect or R2P is obvious (a government that cannot protect its population) though its management is problematic.

The crisis in Mali has been around for too long and calls for an innovative approach. The next discussion should not ignore the importance to the population to live in peace not just to talk about peace. Negotiations are meant to lead to a successful solution rather than to demonstrate which party is right or wrong or to please the extremist groups within each party. In reality all sides know the nature of the final agreement but how to get there is the real difficulty.

Success implies a cleaver use of diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, development and indeed the use of effective force. In CAR, where perception is often more important than the reality, as in all domestic conflicts, enforcement should not be perceived as directed against a national ethnic or religious group. Most human rights activists, as well as many others, share the feeling that there is an organized cleansing against CAR native Muslim and indeed resident Muslims.

In a fragile environment, the resilience of a minority should not be minimized by those seeking a lasting solution. In a fluid context, where combatants can move and communicate easily, within and across the borders, exclusion gives only short lived victories.

In the Sahel as elsewhere, security is closely linked to external political developments. That security may be exacerbated by the new diplomatic alignment that is now in the making in the Sahel. Due to its inability, or unwillingness, to assist Mali during its 2012 crisis, the Tamanrasset, Algeria, based military group, the CEMOC, has lost most of its deterrence and credibility as an organ meant to address security issues. Furthermore, at both military and political levels, the Sahel countries have deeply resented Algeria passivity when Mali needed action in 2012. That is precisely where Morocco current engagement is widely welcome by civilians and military in the Sahel. The AU cannot continue to ignore this reality.

Struggle for regional leadership

In that context, the G5 group composed of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, was established this past 16 February in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Officially, the G5 is a follow up to last autumn visit in the Sahel by the UN Secretary General, the president of the World Bank, the chairperson of the AU, the president of the African development Bank and the EU Commissar for Development. To help address security and development in the region, they have made a promise to mobilize 8 billion US dollars.

However, in some regional quarters, that G5 is not seen as an innocent grouping aiming only at addressing the economic and humanitarian crisis of the Sahel.

Since the mid 1970's, various organizations including the CILSS (or Comité Inter Etats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse au Sahel), the Club du Sahel, the CenSad, have been set to address the drought and humanitarian situation in the Sahel. Algiers, and to a certain extent others including Senegal, are asking why a new grouping and especially with such limited membership?

Algiers considers that all peace and security agreements in the Sahel should be under the overall umbrella of the 2013 "Nouakchott process". A process organized under the auspices of the African Union where Algiers holds an unchallenged leadership. Doubtful of or hostile to the formation of the G5 and its supposed non stated objectives, the Algerian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has noted that "Nouakchott process was adopted by the 5 members of the new G5, plus six others members of the AU and constitutes therefore the main architecture to operationalize the peace and security in the Sahel Sahara". That statement is a clear desire to bring the G5 group to the larger AU framework under the overall watch of its Commissar of Peace.

What next?

There is a need "to see the Sahel as it is, not as the Sahel we wish it were". Thus, with the international community continued passivity regarding the abuses related to local governance - corrupt practices, social exclusion, state retribalisation and other traffics including drug trafficking - radical groups and others extremists should expect happier days in the Sahel.

If it cannot be more effective against these abuses, the true root causes of all the instability, the international community should reconsider its military presence in the Sahel and prepare to leave the region. Thus it would avoid to the populations of that region, as well as to its own finances and its credibility, the difficulties encountered in Afghanistan and the Great Lakes trap where it has been stuck for the last fifty years.

Based in Nouakchott, the Centre's area of intervention is the band of land stretching from Mauritania down to Guinea along the Atlantic coast and, across the savannah, to Chad and Sudan. The main issues it addresses are: defense and security of the Sahel Sahara; armed violence and terrorism; competition for oil, gas and uranium; irregular migrations within and outside the region; trafficking in human, cigarettes, drugs, etc; environmental and renewable energies. The main priority is to help the region and its international partners - public and private, as well as those from Civil Society organizations, Universities, Forums, and others Groups, to collaborate further in order to ensure security and prosperity of the Sahel.

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