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The Elephants in the Sahel Summit Room

Difficult times require smart security

· Africa

There is a persisting and pressing security challenge in the Sahel region. What is the state of play and what is the way forward?

A dire situation

The Sahel region is the part of Africa that spans from west to east, from Mauritania and Northern Senegal to the extreme North of Ethiopia. Historically, this 3,360 mile belt between the Sahara and the coastal areas of West Africa was known as the trans Saharan trade route for salt, gold, kola nuts, slaves and horses. Today it’s what in an earlier article (You Can’t Fight Bad Ideas with Guns)

called the “tie-and-die road”, because it’s become the terror route for trade in arms, drugs and humans.

In his opening statement to CSIS The Sahel Summit, held in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2019, Judd Devermont, Director of the CSIS Africa Program, described the “dire situation” in the region: an expanding coalition of terrorist groups that recruits mostly youths from multiple ethnic groups and conducts high-tech and low-tech attacks throughout the region, mainly in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, the North of Benin, and Chad, and whose increasing capacity is tearing apart the very fabric of society.

The Sahel Summit explored 3 key questions:

  • What political incentives and disincentives can be used by the multiplicity of international security and development partners for and against African governments to tackle the growing “war economy” in the region?
  • How can the expanding international architecture of security and development efforts be more effective in addressing the drivers of instability and terrorism while taking into account the different dynamics in each directly and indirectly affected African country, in order to balance security, political reform and economic development?
  • What can be done to prevent spill-overs into coastal nations?

A disturbing picture

There was a transversal issue underlying the CSIS summit that was, quite frankly, more than a little disturbing. Only one speaker (of a total of 10), and neither of the moderators, was African. The significance of this wasn’t immediately apparent. It crept up as the conference unfolded. It became shockingly evident when the second panel was seated: four European nations and the U.S. “referee” were discussing the fate of the entire African region, without any participation or input from the affected African nations.

One would be hard-pressed to call The Sahel Summit an actual summit. It was more of a conference reminiscent of the notorious one held in Berlin in 1885. Indeed, the situation in the Sahel region becomes even more dire when panel participants seem to be scrambling to find a clear path forward to gain control over the region, dividing among themselves what was termed “the division of labor in security”.

The experts from academic, human rights, and aid for development and the representatives from the governments sponsoring the event - U.S., Norway, Germany, Netherlands, and Spain – focused on how to best and most effectively regulate their combined military and development funds in the Sahel region and beyond in the greater sub Saharan region. The goal was to find a way to translate beautifully written national strategies into a collaborative effort to address terrorist-driven instability and insecurity in the Sahel.

What, asked Judd Devermont, are the unique capacities of each “partner” and how can they best be leveraged to achieve a balance between military operations, foreign aid and political reform (of African governance)? After all, everyone recognized that they are in Africa for the long-term, so it’s essential to ensure that international multilateral and multi-faceted solutions are effectively developed and implemented.

Of course, said one panelist, without African ownership of those solutions, they won’t work. Another panelist emphasized inclusiveness; it’s important to hear all concerned voices and engage not just political leaders, but also the opposition as well as religious leaders.

The next panelist added on: the problem is that local actors are more interested in the process (i.e. the funds that sustain it) than the outcome, so we need to use both sticks (sanctions) and carrots (aid); we need to go after the main spoilers and kingpins of criminal networks while creating alternative livelihoods options for the local populations.

The following panelist chimed in: our bilateral assistance and security response is to create the time and space to integrate development and military efforts so we can get the necessary political commitment and will from the different African actors and assist them in addressing their problems on their own.

We need…but we don’t want you to do the job

The conversation continued: You have to build trust. You have to keep the rule of law on the agenda. You have to treat terrorism as a symptom not a cause. Panelists echoed each other: The G5 Sahel needs to partner with ECOWAS to limit and stabilize threats. We must ensure promises made are followed through on.

We need to bring development to the people. We need to bridge the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the population. We need to address rapid population growth, competition over land and water, corruption and unresponsive government. We need to educate girls. We need to help create economic opportunities for employment generation for youth. We need more innovative solutions to support communities. We need better local leadership. We need to improve access to justice. We need to address the bad behavior of local security forces. We need to reinforce border security. We need to prevent spill-over effects. We need to protect ourselves. We need preventive peace.

We need to end instability, boost security efforts and contain violent extremism. We need to use our resources more effectively through better collaboration and coordination among ourselves. We need. We need. We need.

The "We" was more than a bit disturbing. This wasn’t the Berlin Conference of 1885 to carve up Africa. This was the Washington D.C. Conference to discuss collaborative (European and American) engagement to both use and counter a growing “war economy” in sub Saharan Africa to keep their countries (European and America) safe while defending and furthering their (European and American) interests on the continent and in so doing expand their sphere of influence (and control) on the continent. To do so they need to superimpose their combined unique capacities to negotiate the necessary security questions and end the confusion (theirs, of course, because Africans have a very clear grasp of the situation) over the sources and symptoms of insecurity and instability.

All the needs expressed by the panelists are relevant and important. But what Africans need is what the international community most needs. As the Ambassador from Niger Republic said during the Q&A session: we need military support and training from the international community, but we don’t want you to do the job. How do you explain 1 billion U.S. dollars per year + 100 million euros in military expenditures with no results? So let’s talk about collective failure. Because when Africans find solutions, the international community more often than not doesn’t back them (usually because they think they know best).

Less talk, more action

Let’s drop the tautologies about whether terrorism is a source or a symptom or if stability comes before peace. Africa is not for the taking. The Sahel is not a region for the give and take of European and American security needs and geopolitical and economic interests. The promotion of political and military action in the Sahel region must stop ignoring the elephant in the room – the real needs of the average African, expressed by Africans for Africans - and start listening, especially to African women.

Difficult times require smart security, built on outreach to communities and securing the support of local populations while respecting their cultures, knowledge, practices, and rights. The military cannot serve as a bastion against jihadism nor can financial and political support position the military as such a bastion. Sahelian state governments (but not the people) are worryingly dependent on foreign security assistance, because their very security policies are essentially driven by foreign donor worries about migration, terrorism and the trade chessboard. This is upsetting decentralization processes and the balance of power between the central African state and its administrative regions, and between local authorities and ethnic and religious groups.

What’s more, the current security approach is ignoring the critical role of women. That became patent during The Sahel Summit: only the African speaker, Doussouba Konaté, from Accountability Mali, mentioned the need to include women in the conversation as a way to counter the imbalances created by the mesh (and mess) of international donors that has generated an increasing lack of trust toward international actors. She underlined that the increasing fragmentation of international efforts requires the multiplicity of international actors to take a concerted approach to security, political reform and development based on the needs of the population and guided by shared goals and objectives.

Unemployment is a much bigger and more urgent problem than security for the average African. So is the sidelining of women. It’s not about ensuring that when children are born they are registered and issued birth certificates. Yes, this indicates a lack of trust in government, and it's important for accountability purposes. But the core problem is that women’s voices are not being encouraged nor are existing voices being heard. Yet it is women who can best broker effective engagement.

How to build preventive peace

What The Sahel Summit underscored is the profound sense of (un)reality and disconnection that characterizes so much of today’s approach to development and security in Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, and not just the Sahel region. In today’s context of the “War on Terror”, the increasing lack of human or non-military security - which includes economic, food, health, environmental, personal, community, and political security - is the greatest impediment to achieving effective military security goals. Yet the perceptions and misperceptions of foreign policymakers and experts, such as those represented at the CSIS summit, still have an overriding dependence on a hard power framework for conceiving security and power. This is surreptitiously undermining the future of the Sahel and of Africa as a whole.

The role the international community can and should play is to ensure contextually relevant inclusive and sustainable security. It’s not just about youth, although youth unemployment and lack of opportunities is a big part of the problem. It’s also about ensuring that the role of women, especially rural women, does not continue to rest on the margins of the security agenda. Their role is far from marginal; women in rural areas across the Sahel region are fundamental to making headway in finding working and lasting solutions to insidious security challenges.

The exclusion of women from discussions such as the one carried out at CSIS reflect an ingrained gender-blindness and result in women's exclusion from practical strategic considerations. There can be no meaningful discussion of what security looks like and how it can be achieved if women are not at the forefront. Security efforts by the international community must harness the unique capabilities of rural women, by recognizing them as an operational necessity for building national security structures in Africa and by empowering them economically and socially.

The inclusive security approach must also be expanded to counter age blindness. In Africa, the elderly, both women and men, are key mediators and arbitrators. Unlike in Europe and the U.S., the elderly are respected members of their community. A combined gender and generational approach creates a bottom-up opportunity to counter extremist ideology with economic development and major social change. Women can dissuade young people from extremism, and the elderly can infuse them with wise prudence and sensibility, so that young people can resist the terrorist recruitment tide by becoming agents of change.

Building effective security and resilience in the Sahel region is not about power or money, it’s about agency and communication. There is an operational necessity for empowering women and the Councils of Wise men and women, especially those in rural areas. It's time today’s European and American security buffs stopped ignoring and sidelining them.

It’s time to acknowledge the presence and operational necessity for empowering women, valuing the knowledge and wisdom of the elderly and including youth in the conversation to build what Republic Representative Michael McCaul (TX) referred to in his keynote address as “preventive peace”.

Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC

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