In an exclusive interview, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), calls for an integrated approach to solving the problems of the Sahel.
How can we identify the possible solutions to issues in the Sahel?
Violence in the Sahel is multifaceted. Because it has several causes, it must be dealt with through an integrated approach, to provide a lasting solution.
Terrorism in the Sahel is based on recriminations against the state, including for the lack of public services, corruption and weak judicial systems, etc. These issues must be addressed as a top priority for government action in the region. In this context, armed groups often present themselves as the solution when the national military response results in civilian casualties, or when that response relies on one group to fight another. The social fabric and understanding between communities in the Sahel region must therefore be rebuilt, as the actions of extremists have turned peaceful populations into violent ones, and in some cases national responses have pitted one against the other.
In addition, this violence generates a war economy, which feeds on illicit trafficking, gold panning and other illegal operations. Governments absolutely must regain control: local trade, exchanges and strengthening the private sector are tools of stability and prosperity.
To put an end to the violence, talks and negotiations are under way in several areas of the Sahel. These initiatives have the merit of seeking solutions in favour of peace. On the other hand, we must reiterate that education for young people and the fate of women are not adjustment variables! They are the vectors of development. Extremist groups have understood this perfectly; school determines the future of society; the stakes are population control and the emergence of a state within the state. Armed groups advocate a system that puts major obstacles in the way of development and education, and of course will prevent democratic progress.
Finally, external factors continually reinforce the capabilities of extremist groups and instability, and must be addressed collectively: governments in the region must reject harmful influences including the flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. Regional cooperation has been organised in recent years, including through the G5 Sahel, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other important initiatives. The United Nations supports them, just as we always support development and peace-building efforts at the national level. But we know the work will be long term.
How can we respond to the constraints of emergencies while maintaining a long-term vision?
National stakeholders, like their external partners including the United Nations, are in fact responding simultaneously to these two dimensions. In all countries affected by violence and humanitarian emergencies, responses mobilise national resources as well as material support from partners. It is regrettable that humanitarian contingency plans for the region generally only raise financial resources to meet about 30 per cent of their needs. Food requirements, in particular, remain critical even though we have known for decades about the Sahel region’s fragility in this area, regardless of crises, since 2012. Resilience in the food sector is the most difficult to build.
There are major initiatives in place but the results are slow. We see it with the Great Green Wall of the African Union. We nonetheless commend the “alternative Nobel Prize” awarded in 2018 to Yacouba Sawadogo of Ouayigouya (Burkina Faso), in recognition of his fight against the advance of the desert in the Sahel. Other long-term efforts are taking place in all Sahelian countries. Even with an increasing defence budget, governments continue to invest in infrastructure, development of communication networks, energy projects, electricity plants and solar power plants. Basic social services, on the other hand, need to be further strengthened, and we are continually stressing this.
New empirical research is shedding light on the relationship between demography, peace and security. Does this approach provide sufficient clarification?
The increase in studies on the themes of demography, peace and security is certainly commendable. Thirty years ago, the Sahel Club warned of the risk that population growth in some countries in the region could exceed their capacity for economic growth and their natural resources. We have seen the importance of the development model for managing population growth in peace and stability. For example, it shows us how to reduce commodity dependence, which limits job creation.
Better management of the use of natural resources is therefore of paramount importance: the region still suffers, every year, from conflicts between herders and farmers as a result of this flawed management. We support public policy measures to steer demographics in the right direction, such as urban planning: investing in rural areas to address youth outmigration, and giving them the same opportunities as in the cities.
Recent empirical work also shows that favourable developments will depend to a large extent on changes in the status of women. We are trying to support these societal changes. At the celebration on 31 October of the twentieth anniversary of Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, António Guterres therefore called for further strengthening of women’s participation in politics, which is still weak in the Sahel region, as well as of the role of women in peace and mediation processes. This region is favourable to more initiatives in this direction, especially in the current electoral context.