West Africa: In 20 Years, Will Five Arid Nations Be a Sahelistan or a Desert Rose?

A Senegalese soldier on parade in Mopti, Mali - part of Senegal's contribution to the United Nations 'Blue Helmets' Mali peacekeeping force (Minusma), one of 13 active UN peace missions globally, seven of them in Africa.
5 December 2019

Cape Town — Five countries in west Africa's Sahel region – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – are facing crises across multiple fronts, including the accelerated impact of climate change, rapid population growth and extreme poverty. As these challenges intensify, international attention has refocused on the conflicts that accompany those challenges. In Mali in November, over 50 soldiers were killed in a bold attack on a military base and 13 French troops died in a helicopter crash supporting ground troops battling violent extremists. French President Emmanuel Macron pledged continuing engagement in the regional fight, alongside a 15,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping mission, but he asked regional leaders to attend a summit on December 16 "to clarify" the role of France in counter-terrorism. Dr Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS) talked to AllAfrica about a new ISS report on the region's long-term prospects for peace and development, which was presented at a conference in Bamako, Mali's capital, on December 5th.

The ISS report, Prospects For The G5 Sahel Countries To 2040 (by Stellah Kwasi, Jakkie Cilliers, Zachary Donnenfeld, Lily Welborn and Ibrahim Maïga) reveals an extensive list of challenges that Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad face, but there are opportunities as well. Take us through the highlights.

This report sets out the current context and the future challenges in a region that is going to be dramatically affected by climate change, particularly desertification, as well as by extremely rapid population growth. And I think that the report serves as a bit of a reality check on the idea that [these issues in] a region that is heavily affected by terrorism and violence can somehow be fixed. At the heart of the problems of the Sahel firstly lie governance failures but also immense environmental and developmental challenges. So when we look at the future of the G5 Sahel countries, we really need to take this into consideration. There is no short-term solution to the kind of climate-change impacts we are going to see.

For example, let's take one challenge that I've mentioned which is its very rapid population growth. You know the median age in Mali at the time that we did the report was 15. Therefore half of Mali's population is below 15 and the other half above 15. It is amazing. In a country like South Africa, it's 25. In the Netherlands it's about 44. If you have such a young population you cannot build schools fast enough, educate children, roll out water and sanitation. So in actual fact such a rapid population growth condemns a country to poverty in a certain way because to deal with that kind of population growth, you need growth rates of like 15, 16, 17 percent a year. If you want to alleviate poverty and grow income. So I think first and fundamental it points to structural interventions. Education, particularly female education, that we need to invest in now to be able to manage the future. So I think those are the kind of structural long-term challenges and responses that the report highlights.

Organized crime is mentioned as being a major factor in Mali and Niger, as well as how it ties in with violent extremism. How much does this contribute to governance issues?

You know this is a region that is exceptionally porous borders and we've had regional trade and population movements characteristic of this region going back centuries. So migration is a characteristic of the Sahel, and west and northern Africa. And after the last century and a half, borders were drawn on the map and countries were told 'You are now a country, police your borders and manage your challenges' in a region that is known for informal activity smuggling, and so on and so forth. And terrorism funds itself from that because terrorists and criminals are more or less the same in this region - they don't want State control. They want to carry on with their livelihoods and to pursue their lifestyles that they are pursued over centuries. And we therefore have to find a regional, a different approach, to the management of insecurity in this region. The countries are failing these countries these five countries cannot police their borders. Most of their borders - thousands of kilometres - are in desolate Sahara, the Sahara Desert, and thinking that you can have a border there that's going to control people, that's not going to work.

And with the countries which surround the Sahel region, like Libya and Nigeria for example, there are also challenges.

Yes to the north as you've said you've got Libya and Algeria, Egypt, and to the South, Nigeria. So the Sahel is a bit of a transit zone. People are moving through it and moving from it and moving not only north-south from east to west to survive. And it has been the case I think for a long time. So I go back you're not going to find typical western state control of all of these territories. We have to find a kind of a regional context now all of these countries are members of different regional economic communities. Ecowas and so on. So these regional organizations we are not proposing that the regional organization be established with these five countries because they already belong to different regional organizations but that a more regional approach to the management of insecurity and governance be sought, that can somehow accommodate the movement of people and contraband without trying to control them in the sort of normal sense of the word. These are countries that exist nominally in name only on a map. They don't exist for example in the sense that  countries would exist in Southern Africa which have clear borders that are to a degree policed and controlled. So we don't know what that solution is. But if the region does not come together and come up with a different approach to what we are trying to do at the moment we certainly will continue to see instability and insecurity, and lack of development and increasing poverty and migration. It's a region that really is at the heart of the future of instability in climate change and other ecological impacts.

One of the recommendations in the report speaks to international partners and "the temptation to impose Western-style democracy". Is this in light of the interventions that went wrong in, say, Libya?

Twenty-five Swedish women were deployed to Mali in 2018 as part of a battalion of 252 Swedish military personnel. Here a Swedish peacekeeper is on patrol in Timbuktu in the north of the West African country.

No, Libya had a hugely destabilising impact on the Sahel. It destabilized North Africa because of the spread of weaponry from Libya into the Sahel and other regions. But the recommendation with regard to Western-style democracy is that these are extremely poor countries and they are mostly Muslim countries with a traditional orientation in many instances. And one must be very careful that we don't come to them and say we will help you. But then you must have democracy, human rights, as we have in France or wherever. Governance in these countries will evolve slowly and one has has to be careful that you do not further undermine the very limited degree of state control, government control, in these territories by replacing them with notions that you and I all believe in and believed to be to be global good. But may in actual fact weaken the very limited state authority. Now it's a very vacuous recommendation. I realize that what we've seen often that the external community and Afghanistan is the classic example of imposing certain standards requirements on a country that may not yet be fully ready for those changes and the result is that you accentuate the vacuum of power. But at the heart of these countries, at the heart of their problem, is poor leadership poor governance and the fact that in a sense they don't really constitute countries in the normal sense of the word. The controlling governments controlling the capital city and a few kilometers outside that - and maybe a few other cities - but do not extend their control over large swathes of territory which nobody really controls.

And where does that leave the AU, donor countries and international bodies like the UN in terms of intervention?

The international community, including the United Nations, the African Union, Ecowas, and countries like France have invested large sums of money and deploy forces in the region to try and deal with instability - largely because of the threat of terrorism. And of course for Europe the challenges of migration that eventually also come across the Mediterranean. Our view is that while important, while you cannot develop without security, what we have to do is find an alternative pathway of development in these countries that provide an option for long-term stability and that can only come through economic development. The major means of survival in these areas is a bit of pastoral and herder farming and that's really where the focus really should be to try and find avenues of economic development suitable within these countries that can provide a source of livelihood for people for really live close to nature and survive really sometimes on the margins of of human existence in terms of what we would consider to be acceptable. It's really an extremely fragile and and poverty-stricken region.

Remittances are a major source of external financing for many countries on the continent. The report mentions that development partners need to help reduce the cost of sending money to developing countries. How do you envision this happening?

After the war on terror the cost of sending these remittances has increased hugely. So one of the things to which the international community can help Sahelian countries is to reduce the costs of sending remittances back. Making it easier. Remittances are important they help people to survive from day to day. They're not a source of investment or economic growth but they do help with livelihood. However, much of the focus of the international community, with the best of intentions, is to aid the deployment and the provision of security assistance. Now that's important but that's not going to provide a long-term solution. We can only look at Afghanistan where trillions of dollars have been invested and thousands of foreign troops have come. And yet the situation of Afghanistan today is no different to what it was 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Lake Chad has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s due to climate change, unplanned irrigation and population growth. Is their space for improved security in the region given that these factors will likely worsen in time and further affect livelihoods?

Lake Chad represents the classic example and is often quoted internationally on the effect of climate change because Lake Chad sits on the intersection of the borders of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Niger. And it provides a livelihood for up to two million people in the area but it has shrunk dramatically. And the millions of people that are still dependent on Lake Chad, where are they going to go, what is going to happen with them. So it reflects the impact of climate change in a very real manner in the region. So there is no solution to the Lake Chad crisis. There can only be management of the climate refugees and the movements and the changes and the livelihoods of these people.

And add to that Mauritania with its rich ecosystem which, according to the report, represent a quarter of the country's export earnings. But goes on to say that fisheries are overexploited by around 40%, and there are promising gas finds off the coast which could boost development. Considering the impact of gas mining and higher fossil fuel use, and the already dire impact of climate change as noted in the report is this not a contradiction?

I know of course that is the challenge that faces all countries, for instance South Africa which continues to pursue a coal future and the largest contributor to the CO2 emissions in Africa. So what do we do with the coal miners from Mpumalanga? It's exactly the same challenge that the Sahel region faces. So you have a choice to exploit, for example, the gas resources that they have, do you exploit the marine resources or you try and protect them for future generations. Very few and brave politicians are prepared to look after the longer term and not succumb to the attraction of the short-term exploitation of resources for short term gain. I can promise you that in a country like Mozambique where we have the largest gas finds in Africa, the exploitation of those gas resources will do very little for the poverty-stricken people of northern Mozambique. It will do a lot for foreign investors and for people sitting in the capital city of Maputo .
It's ultimately a governance and leadership challenge. And the Sahel faces particular problems in this regard given the history of coups, military intervention and poor governance that we've seen in the region.

The UN Peacekeeping Mission in Mali (Minusma) alongside Malian military forces and 3000 French counter-terrorism troops.

What is the role of peacebuilding in the Sahel?

I think the Sahel region needs assistance and help, and part of the way to manage violent extremist extremism is through community engagement, particularly working with traditional structures and religious leaders. That has been the secret of success elsewhere in Africa, particularly in a different country like Algeria. But it is important that those leadership structures, particularly religious and traditional leadership, be brought into the conversation about how to build resilience against violence and extremism. There is a lot that the international community can do, but as we warned in the report it is important that this be done in a culturally sensitive manner and that we don't try and bring too rapidly being concepts and approaches to the region  that may in actual fact disrupt the very fragile stability in the region. So I think peacebuilding at local level is important, but it is it needs to be led by locals and by people that really understand the challenges in the region.

The report sketches possible outcomes for the G5 Sahel region and its development. What are they?

We developed three scenarios for the Sahel. There is the current pathway where we think the region will go. Then a Desert Flower scenario which is where we try and find alternative livelihoods, agricultural potential, investing in education, use urbanization to roll out water and sanitation for poor people. And the Sahelistan scenario, which is a play of words referring to what happened in Afghanistan, where environmental segregation and terrorism takes over and it becomes a tiny lawless region.

And we use these three scenarios to frame what is possible and what could go wrong in the region.

It's a region that is rich in tourism and cultural tradition, that has some farming land, and as we've mentioned some gas and other resources. But it is a region that will struggle with the future because of climate change. So, how does the international community help to realize that Desert Flower scenario?

Through working with the governments in place dealing with issues such as rapid population growth, investment in appropriate farming practices, in poverty alleviation, and we recommend among others that the region consider cash grants to alleviate deep-seated poverty and that donors come to the table and help with this. And we also recommend that donors step away from an overly militarized response. External military assistance has not worked and the situation in Nigeria is a classic example where the security situation in actual fact is deteriorating. So we have to find a different approach to instability and insecurity in the region. That must be rooted in development. But how to do that is a huge challenge. We all struggle with that and there are no easy solutions to this.

How were these scenarios formulated?

The Institute for Security Studies has a partnership with the University of Denver in the United States and we use their modeling platform known as International Futures for our long-term forecasting.
This is a massive database with various algorithms that allows us to look long term at where a country or series of countries go. It's very data rich so in preparation for the study on the future of the G5 Sahel countries. We firstly extensively reviewed what the model tells us about these countries. Other data sources tell us and then we spent a week in Dakar with representatives from each of these five countries' data experts to validate the data in the model and work from there to draft a report circulated for comment. So it's been quite a process that's taken almost a bit more than a year to complete but it's based on a long-term forecasting platform, rather than a wishlist of where we think the countries could be going.

Dr Jakkie Cilliers will present the report in Bamako, Mali, on December 6, and then move on to Europe and the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. What kind of response is he expecting?

The report makes for uncomfortable reading. None of us likes to look at a future that that seems so difficult but that is our task if we want to prepare for the future. We need to look at what that future life likely looks like and then to see what could be done to help respond to some of these challenges, particularly climate change, demographics, lack of basic sanitation, electricity and basic amenities, hunger and poverty. And to try and see what could be the best response. We certainly don't have all the answers. We can make some suggestions but a lot of additional work needs to be undertaken and I think our report provides a basis upon which we can start planning for the future. For example, on issues like urban management: What could be done in the cities in the region to give them more the ability to be able to respond to the influx of people to the urban areas which is already happening, and is only going to accelerate in the years that lie ahead?

The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) partners to build knowledge and skills that secure Africa's future. The ISS is an African non-profit with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal. Using its networks and influence, the ISS provides timely and credible policy research, practical training and technical assistance to governments and civil society.

The report was funded by the Government of the Netherlands, the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.

AllAfrica's reporting on peacebuilding is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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