One week after the Ecowas Summit held in Abuja, Nigeria, the African Union should convene its annual Summit in Niamey, Niger, on 5 July. Presently, few other places could be more appropriate for this gathering than that capital located in the Sahel’s core. A Sahel that is often ‘’either a bond, a corridor or a barrier’’.
An enduring and expanding crisis.
Meantime, in the sub region, the already troubled political, diplomatic and security context is fast evolving. Unless improved, that context may, for better or for worse, turn any direction. Thus, what the sub region and its strategic partners should do to resolve an enduring crisis? A seven-year-old crisis that, more than a day-to-day or a monthly management, cries for a lasting solution.
The daring assault by radicals from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or EIGS, in plain day light, against a Nigerien army settlement this Monday Ist July is telling. Increasingly ambushes are leaving place to open confrontations. The assault came in the wake of similar attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso. As the rainy season starts, the environment could not be better for the radical groups.
Could the Sahel armies sustain these attacks over more years?
In this context, it is useful to recall that, in its early years the Sahel crisis had well known dominant components. Those were: traffics and trafficking in drugs, cigarettes, irregular migrants, stolen cars, and over the recent year, irregular gold mining, etc.
It is in that environment that terrorism emerged in the northern Sahel. Then it spread irresistibly to the whole sub region, slowly moving south, to Burkina Faso and towards the gulfs of Benin / Guinea.
It was an imposed and ‘’ largely non-indigenous ’’ terrorism that killed civilians, took hostages and destroyed infrastructures and historical monuments. Overtime, that initial terrorism went through a mutation by recruiting and using more local / national combatants for its attacks. That ‘’indigenization’’, has had an unintended consequence for the countries’ citizen and those national and foreign soldiers combating terrorism. Any citizen in the wrong place, at the wrong time, may be a target to troupes fighting violence. As a reaction, a number of communities felt or were targeted.
Thus fighting have taken a new and dangerous dimension: ethnicity. Radical groups are increasingly defining themselves as national resistant groups confronting foreign soldiers and their ‘’supporting national forces.’’ Local recruitment of the combatants, previously based on ideological considerations, has slowed down. It gave room to enrolments increasingly on tribal and ethnic bases. That alarming evolution continues throughout the region. Foreign fighters remain present but increasingly as experts or advisors and the ‘’moral guarantors’’ of the fight righteous.
While this dangerous evolution takes place, most governments continue to do business as usual. They run their countries under the rules of the winner takes all. Consequently, large segments of the population are left out of the active political sphere and no national front is in place to isolate the radicals’ movements, the country common enemy.
Time to resolve the Sahel crisis, how?
As a United Nations negotiator, I used to gently remind the parties in conflict that ‘’all, if not most conflicts, end with a negotiated settlement. Therefore, why not starting to negotiate now’’?
Negotiation is a peaceful exercise that would save lives and avoid destruction of vital infrastructures. Unfortunately, resolving a conflict, especially a civil one, is much easier said than done. Within, and between the parties to a conflict, emotion, suspicion, rivalries and foreign interferences are permanent hurdles to a peaceful and lasting settlement. In short, that exercise – negotiation – calls for a series of pre conditions, of which each one is as difficult to meet as the other is.
For successful negotiations, these pre conditions include: confidentiality, even secrecy of the process early phases, confidence building measures between the parties and within their informed ranks and files, agreed on team of mediators including a lead mediator, significant resources to cover the financial cost of the process, resilience of the chief mediator to early mistrusts and failures, etc.
While each conflict is specific, having its ‘’own personality’’, they all have a series of common elements. These are suspicion, lack of expertise and inexperience in negotiation skills, preeminence of dogmatism and ideology, permeability to foreign interferences, etc. Often, when not always, neighbors or far away countries interfere and hinder a peace process.
The situation could even be worse when the conflict, as in the Sahel, is not between two parties in a single country. In others words one government facing one single terrorist Group.
In the Sahel, Boko Haram is present in Chad, Cameroun, Niger and Nigeria. The Jamaat Nosra al Islam wal Mouslimin in Mali is also present in Niger, Burkina Faso and in other neighboring countries. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS is fast in carving its place in the area.
Those calling for the end of foreign military presence in their countries, as well as those experts inviting to negotiate with the rebel groups, are indeed aware of this situation. They also know that all these combatants are only a few hundred while deployed national and international soldiers are closer to 30.000.
Having no peace plan for a more than seven years old conflict, is not a solution. On the other hand, a legitimate desire to negotiate does not necessarily lead to a successful peace process. Therefore, what is the way out for the Sahel?
Again and over, an essential first step in that direction is the consolidation of the domestic front. Consolidation at political, social and economic levels. That is a precondition. Thereafter, a second step is updating the diplomatic front with the strengthening of old and new alliances at regional and international levels. Indeed this step includes stronger police and intelligence cooperation and sharing of information.
Another important step is the professionalization of the security forces – army, gendarmerie, police, and intelligence services. In the absence of a rooted democracy, they should reflect the nation human and geographical diversity. When diverse, armies and security forces are guarantors of long-term stability and security. Computerizing their budget, especially troupes’ pay, is long overdue. That computerization would help end rumors and speculations over armies’ real figures and their leadership integrity.
When “tribalized”, security forces are perceived by the populations as elements serving a clan rather than the nation’s overall interests. Their legitimacy becomes thin.
Calling for negotiations with radical groups, before addressing these crucial issues, is counterproductive. It means encouraging, politically and morally, rebels groups while creating suspicion – ‘’stabbing in the back” – the army‘s rank and files.
Obviously, as noted above, each conflict is specific. Decades’ long negotiations to reach a settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Al Shahab in Somalia, have yet to be successful. In the Sahel, where central governments are still effective and internationally recognized, there is more room to reaching a lasting settlement. However, governments have to put their houses in order.
In fine, the Sahel deserves peace and stability and negotiation with the rebel groups is a wise mindset. The region and all its international partners could benefit from a positive outcome. However, how to engage that exercise remains the biggest hurdle. In the meantime, enlarging and strengthening regimes political bases and professionalizing the security forces deserve priority.
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah