Perfect sandstorm? High stakes in the Sahel


There is only one region in which Boko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS have all emerged as major threats – the Sahel.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said earlier this month that he is deeply concerned by attacks by Islamic extremists in the region, urging a global response:

Ban spoke after meeting with Burkina Faso’s president in the capital, Ouagadougou, where extremists attacked a cafe and hotel in January, killing at least 30 people – an atrocity that mirrored a similar attack on an upscale hotel in Bamako, Mali in November that killed 20 people.  Burkina Faso is recovering from a chaotic transition set up after a popular uprising ousted its longtime leader in 2014, and a short-lived coup in September that led to the disbandment of an elite presidential force.

“The Sahel countries need to focus on the root causes of instability: poverty, unemployment, social exclusion, discrimination and impunity,” he said.

The Sahel is facing a “triple peril” of environmental degradation, poverty and insecurity Ban said during a subsequent visit to Mauritania.

Shortly after Ban’s comments, the African Union announced that it will send a mission to northern Mali to look into setting up a counter-terrorism force to support vulnerable U.N. peacekeepers, while the Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) – Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania – also agreed to create EU-backed regional rapid reaction forces to counter Islamist militants.

But the largely security-driven approach taken by western governments and local state actors has proved to be inadequate to address the complex crises afflicting the a comprehensive report published in June 2015 by the International Crisis Group – The Central Sahel: A Perfect Sandstorm – duly noted, arguing that:

  • Heavy-handed military action and closure of political space by co-option or criminalization of the opposition aggravate tensions.
  • Labelling non-violent Islamists potential jihadis can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Government neglect of the peripheries, unwillingness to address local conflicts and tendency to rely on personal, at times criminal, clientelistic alliances rather than develop democratic institutions feed a growing sense of marginalization, particularly in rural areas.

The ICG report also found that:

  • Remote, weak or even repressive central governments across the region have been supplanted by alternative forms of organization, including traditional authorities; community-based structures; Islamist movements; and criminal networks.
  • Outside forces, both criminal and jihadi, have particular success exploiting these ad hoc governance systems, aligning with the concerns of local powerbrokers to gain a foothold.
  • Meanwhile, battles, sometimes very violent, for control of the lucrative smuggling routes are becoming more numerous and visible.

“To reverse the Sahel’s deepening instability,” the report continued, “national governments and external actors need not only to manage the short term, but also to take a long view. This would involve committing to sustained efforts to shore-up fragile states by consistently and transparently promoting good governance and durable development, as well as to resolve existing conflicts and address their humanitarian consequences.” Consequently:

  • Western policies should be reoriented to concentrate on building more inclusive and accountable governments and countering structural factors that drive marginalization and alienation, and thus criminalization and radicalization.
  • While Western governments and the EU are likely to continue their security-first approach, efforts to tackle radicalization and criminalization should focus on promoting accountable public administration, particularly in Niger and Nigeria. These could include encouraging creation of civilian oversight mechanisms for public institutions and supporting construction of robust, inclusive coalitions against corruption and mismanagement.
  • Development aid should be tied not to military counter-terrorism efforts, but to measures that improve governance, limit state corruption and strengthen democratic institutions.
  • Addressing youth unemployment through training and labor intensive infrastructure projects to link the peripheries to markets and services could significantly contribute to tackling migration.

RAND analyst Michael Shurkin has also drawn attention to the problem of the West making “Faustian bargains” with local authoritarians, citing the case of pivotal player Niger:

  • Niger in recent years has become not only a highly valued counterterrorism partner in the region but also the de facto epicenter of the burgeoning Franco-American alliance leading the fight against Islamist radicals in the Sahel (the transitional territory between Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa) and in Niger’s neighbor to the north, Libya. …..The temptation to support a strong man can be great, but all too often Faustian bargains of that sort backfire.
  • Niger struggles with the inevitable tension that exists when security considerations conflict with democratization. In a nutshell, too much democracy in a place as poor and as politically unstable as Niger can further destabilize the country and deny the US the security partner it seeks; too little democracy (i.e., autocracy) can, especially in the long term, lead to instability and promote radicalization. The temptation to support a strong man can be great, but all too often Faustian bargains of that sort backfire.
  • Niger is as poor as poor gets and is astonishingly fragile. The landlocked, arid country is ranked last on the United Nation’s Human Development Index for 2015 (188 out of 188 countries rated—below even the Central African Republic and Chad). It has endured four military coups since winning independence from France and multiple rebellions by restive ethnic minorities; is increasingly victimized by Islamic militants, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the north and Boko Haram attacking from Nigeria in the south; and finally is profoundly vulnerable to radicalization, which is already well under way in certain communities.

Countering Violent Extremism

The USAID-funded Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) provides one example of a more multi-faceted approach to reducing sympathy and support for Boko Haram, AQIM, and similar organizations by strengthening resistance to violent extremism in communities at risk of recruitment and radicalization. Working in 101 municipalities across Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger, USAID/West Africa’s Peace through Development II (PDEVII) project applies a holistic, community-led approach to address socioeconomic, political and cultural drivers of violent extremism to achieve the following objectives:

  • Empower youth through activities focused on civic education, vocational and entrepreneurial skills and leadership.
    • Amplify moderate voices and attitudes through radio, social media, civic education and conflict resolution events.
    • Strengthen civil society through activities focused on building advocacy skills, citizen-led accountability initiatives and issue-based campaigns integrated with radio and social media.
    • Improve local governance through activities that build the capacity of local governance institutions and increase citizen participation in local government.

In short, Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid band of land stretching from Senegal to Eritrea, has been emerging as a major source of political instability, crime, and terrorism in Africa since the 2012 military coup in Mali. The problems of the region are unusually intertwined: poor governance, vast geographic distances, demographic explosion and poverty have left unresolved issues of national unity and equity.
The National Endowment for Democracy, the Bridges Institute, and the United States Institute of Peace invite you to a conference on

High Stakes in the Sahel:
A Transatlantic Dialogue

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

9:00am – 3:30pm

National Endowment for Democracy

1025 F St NW, 8th Floor, Washington, DC

This one-day conference will bring together civil society from Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Ethiopia, regional policy makers, and leading practitioners with an expertise on the Sahel who will discuss priorities and best ways to bridge the gap between civil society and governing institutions in Sahel countries. The conversations will explore the role that civil society can play in strengthening democracy, guaranteeing security, and building peace.


9:00am – 9:30am 

Opening Remarks by NED President Carl Gershman &
H.E. Mr. Tiena Coulibaly, Mali Ambassador to the United States 

9:30am – 11:00am 
Countering Violent Extremism: Women and Peacebuilding
in Sudan, Niger and Nigeria

  • Nafissatou Ide Sadou, Femmes Actions et Développement (Niger)
  • Azaz M. Shami, Malam Darfur Peace and Development (Sudan)
  • Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, United States Institute of Peace (Nigeria)

11:00am – 12:30pm 
New Approaches for Governance in Burkina Faso, Mali
and Ethiopia

  • Youmani Jerome Lankoande, Burkina24 (Burkina Faso)
  • Abdoul Karim Coulibaly, AFRIK-POLL (Mali)
  • Simegnish (Lily) Mengesha, Journalist and Media Consultant (Ethiopia)
    Moderator: Kamissa Camara, National Endowment for Democracy



1:00pm – 2:00pm 
Keynote: Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs
Peter Barlerin

2:00pm – 3:30pm 
Challenges of Democracy, Community Resilience, and
Institution Building in the Sahel

  • Remy Hemeryck, SOS Sahel
  • Sebastien Elischer, University of Florida
  • Rida Lyammouri, Sahel Expert and Independent Consultant
    Moderator: Nii Akuetteh, African Immigrant Caucus


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