Last week, I participated in a conference on the theme of combatting insecurity and violent extremism in the Sahel. It was organised by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and Professor Ibrahim Gambari’s Savannah Centre. In his opening remarks, Adeyemi Dipeolu of the ECA queried the dominant discourse of “Africa Rising” that has presented Africa as a continent of rapid growth and development as well as the consolidation of democracy since the year 2000. We must take on board the reality and consequences of the other side of the story of deepening inequality and poverty as well as the disintegration of social cohesion he argued. There is a clear nexus between growing insecurity and the crisis of development which we must map out and seek solutions to he concluded.
The National Security Adviser delivered the keynote address, Sambo Dasuki who castigated the double failure of African states to deliver social welfare services and human rights to the people they are governing. The result, he explained, is the widening gap between African States and their societies. With widespread poverty, destitution and a youth bulge caharacterised by a reality that most of the youth have no hope of employment; the environment is fertile for rising insecurity. The insecurity takes the form of both transnational organised crime and attacks on constituted authority. The situation has been further worsened by the widespread circulation of arms from the conflicts in Nigeria and the Central African Republic. The NSA however stressed the commitment of the Nigerian Government to adhere to the agreement of the London meeting both to search and rescue the Chibok girls as well as to reverse the trend of rising insecurity in the land. He concluded on the note that in the medium term, what is essential is the development of a new social contract between the African peoples and their states in which governance would be focused on meeting the needs of the people.
The Sahel is the sector of Africa that is the most affected by growing insecurity. This band of semi-arid territory stretching 8,000 from Senegal and Mauritania in the west to Eritrea in the east is the poorest part of the world and houses the most vulnerable people. It is now host to the largest span of “ungoverned spaces” in Africa and the theatre of new wars. New wars in the language of the conference refer to wars that postdate the collapse of the Berlin wall and the end of the cold war. There was a lot of debate on how new the new wars are especially as the elements of history and geography that fuel their emergence go back quite far. What came out clearly however, especially from the Sudanese scholar, Mohammed Salih’s paper, was that with a count of 172 wars so far, the Sahel is the world champion of new wars.
The key phenomenon providing content to the new wars is that of radicalization. The process according to Abiodun Alao involves three phases. First, there is the development of a widespread perception of grievance within a community. Secondly, the community develops or borrows an extremist narrative to explain the source and nature of the grievance. Thirdly, the community develops actionable group dynamics that provides agency to the grievance. This dynamics often creates difficulties in separating the national from the foreign. When a young Kanuri man from Diffa in Niger Republic joins the Boko Haram fighters in Nigeria, its legally clear that he is a foreign combatant but the reality is that within the cosmology of the narrative that has been constructed, he is very much an indigene legitimately fighting his struggle.
The Sahel has a long history of state formation strongly marked by Islam. That history was truncated by colonial rule which re-oriented society towards obedience to European powers and serving their interest. With independence, Africa opted to retain the colonial territories and transform them into neo-colonies serving the interests of the new self-serving elite. The Sahel’s message to Africa might well be a rejection of inherited colonial States and their values. The Chadian scholar, Zakariya Ousmane Ramadene however warned that today’s African Islam is very different from the “peaceful” Sufi Islam the colonialists over threw. Over the past five decades, Wahhabi and Shia Islam have made considerable gain winning over 30% and 13% respectively of Muslims from the various Sufi traditions. Political Islam has therefore become part of the current dynamics in religious practice and the definition of political futures.
One recurring theme throughout the discussions is the weakness of African states and their inability to take swift action to address growing insecurity. One good example that was debated at length was the establishment of a Chad Basin Multilateral Security Task Force to combat Boko Haram. The generals and the diplomats at the conference explained that the discussions have been on going for the past five years and the task force has still not been established.
Worse still, the most recent decision is that it will not be a joint task force and each national unit will operate from their respective countries making nonsense of the original idea. The necessity of working together to defeat terrorism has been sacrificed on the alter of national egos. Indeed, the war against terror in the Sahel is currently being taken over by a multiplicity of foreign agencies and their strategies. We currently have the United Nations Integrated Strategy, the European Union Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Initiative, the African Union and ECOWAS and as the voices multiply, it’s the affected countries that are being squeezed out of the equation.
The crisis in the Sahel is the outcome of the failure of governments to provide for the welfare of people, which has led to the crumbling of social cohesion and the deterioration of our social fabric at a time in which the State is losing control of the monopoly of the use of force. The reality on the ground is that guaranteeing the security of citizens has become an impossible task to most countries in the region. Cashing in on the vacuum, new forces are emerging, leading to the exacerbation of the crises. These include fundamentalist groups challenging the sovereignty and territorial integrity of certain states through insurgency, narco-traffickers colluding with elements in power to take over certain states transforming them into “Narco-States”, and political entrepreneurs promoting a crisis over citizenship that excludes parts of the community.
This situation is largely fuelled by the abuse of the powers of incumbency by many political leaders engaged in mega corruption and seeking to imbue their rule with monarchical powers. Its in this context that the emergence of the Burkina people and their determined action in bringing down the Blaise Campaore dictatorship is an important statement about the possibility of non-sectarian political action. At the end of the day, it the expansion of democratic space and the continents leadership positively responding to civic demands for inclusive democracy that will place the Sahel and the rest of the continent on the path to sustainable peace. The emerging challenges against national sovereignty, territorial integrity, the porosity of national borders, drug and human trafficking, religious fundamentalism and insurgent terrorism has been plaguing our region is not insurmountable.
Moving forward, civil society has a key role to play in re-strategizing on what paths could be followed to start reconstituting a peaceful and democratic Sahel and Africa. Civil society needs to develop an innovative and strategic approach to engage with their governments if and when their governments are willing to listen. The reality on the ground however is that most of our presidents are CLUELESS in thinking through possibilities for mapping a way forward. The conclusion therefore is that the people have to be more proactive in exercising leadership and mapping out the way forward.