For a More Forceful Engagement of the African Union in the Sahel Region

12 June, 2020

On 11 June 2020, over 55 participants attended the first IPSS-Crisis Action Virtual Policy Dialogue, on the following topic: “The African Union in the Sahel Region”. This policy dialogue took place in a context where the Sahel region is being plagued by unprecedented security and humanitarian crisis. Though each state from the G5 Sahel region has its own internal vulnerabilities that are worth dealing with, the seminar mainly focussed on the three states of Central Sahel namely Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger where jihadi attacks have increased in scope and intensity and the patchwork of government responses have failed to reverse the spectrum of instability. The keynote speech set the tone for the discussion by scrutinizing the main drivers of the conflict in the Sahel as well as the African Union’s engagement in the region and proposed a series of policy recommendations to mitigate the spectrum of insecurity and instability that have proved deadly and destabilizing.

Three major layers of insecurity were identified namely malgovernance, group-based marginalisation and the inability of central governments in the region to provide public goods in their hinterlands. Primo, the behavior of the states and the security sector in the region contribute to fanning the flames of violent extremism. A large segment of disgruntled youth has joined violent extremist organisations as a result of predation, human rights abuses, and corruption by state agents. The lack of accountability contributes to worsening the situation. Secundo, the fact in the region group based-maginalisation both in the political and economic realms often coincide with ethno-regional fault lines push some of the affected communities to grow the ranks of radical militants. The final driver of the conflict(s) in the Sahel remains the inability of central states in the region to provide public goods like health, security, and other basic public services. This gap is exploited by violent extremist groups as they project themselves as protectors of local communities and inspire wide appeal in providing services in localities under limited statehood. This further contributes to eroding the legitimacy of the states in the central Sahel. To deny a foothold to violent extremist organisations in the region, a series of recommendations have been proposed.

To mitigate the current spectrum of instability, states in the region should strengthen their security sectors (justice and security). Current efforts that national governments and their international counterparts have deployed to reform the security sector of Sahelian states have often been limited to capacity building. Though it is imperative, other structural issues like effective management and the accountability of the sector are required. The inclusive membership of the security personnel including ethnicity and gender dimensions constitutes core issues to take on board while implementing the different strategies to reform the security sector in the region. Additionally to carrying out a solid reform of the security sector in the region, the central government in the Sahel region should work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in the hinterlands. Providing communities with potable water, food and health could help deny a foothold to jihadi groups.

Another critical aspect pertaining to the stabilisation of the Sahel region relates to changing radical ideologies promoted and broadcast by militant groups. Countering the narrative promoted by violent extremist organisations by resorting to scriptures and counter-messaging are valuable tools but remain insufficient to stem the tide of the current shadows of violence. It worth highlighting that violent extremist organisations often build their narrative on the corrupt, abusive, and discriminatory nature of governance structures in the region. This has a strong reverberation. Counter-messaging that central governments undertake to annihilate this narrative barely produces the expected outcomes. Lastly, the transnational dimension of violent extremism and terrorism in the region requires a unified and coordinated regional and continental response and that is where the African Union can make a difference.

The AU and its five Regional Economic Blocs have worked hard to establish a comprehensive counter-terrorism framework and strategies. In July 1999, the then Organisation of African Unity adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism followed by an additional protocol in 2004. Despite this ambitious regime as well as other pertinent instruments like the African Peace and Security Architecture, the continental organisation still struggles to have an effective result in the field of violent extremism prevention. This is due to the division of labour between the AU and its RECS that remains unarticulated. At the level of member states, the aforementioned counterterrorism frameworks and strategies have not still been operationalised. The lack of political will to take action to promote just, accountable, and inclusive state programmes and institutions could explain this state of affairs. The fact that the framework contains human rights obligations coupled with the divergence in norms explains the reluctance of some member states to embrace it.

More importantly, the AU made the announcement in February 2020 that it would deploy 3000 soldiers to take part in the fight against violent extremist organisations. Though the deployment could harness the visibility of the organisation on the Sahelian theatre, how AU-deployed troops could contribute to peace and stability in the region still remains to be proved. The region hosts a myriad of foreign security assistance initiatives in addition to the one promoted by the central government in the region. So far, all these initiatives have been without any tangible outcome in terms of stabilisation. If an AU-deployed troop in the Sahel were to materialise, that would certainly reinforce the militaristic approach, which has already been shown to be limited in its effectiveness. In addition to this big move, it is to recall that the AU also adopted a strategy for the Sahel region in 2014.

To consolidate its foothold on the Sahelian dossier, the AU also set up the Office of the AU High Representative for Mali and the Sahel (MISAHEL) in 2014. The mandate of the Office of the High representative is mainly a political one. The mission has supported the Malian authorities regarding the implementation of the 2015 Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation resulting from the Algiers process. Along with other actors like the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, the mission remains involved in the Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration process and supports the redeployment of the defense and security forces in northern Mali. Other than that, MISAHEL has been working to foster an understanding of local conflicts instrumentalized by violent extremist organisations as well as issues pertaining to human rights and the rule of law. It also acts in the field of development and provides development support to the most vulnerable communities like Women IDPs.

At the sub-regional level, MISAHEL monitors political developments in the region and undertake good offices and conflict prevention initiatives like in Burkina Faso in 2015 and Niger in 2016. The MISAHEL also supports the implementation of the Nouakchott Process that the AU adopted in 2013. The Nouakchott Process aims to enhance cooperation and coordination among various stakeholders including the intelligence services, military chiefs of staff, and ministers in charge of security issues in the Sahel-Saharan strip.

Despite these achievements, MISAHEL encounters some major challenges in the implementation of its mandate. The mission is working on a volatile regional (in)security complex conflict setting with limited financial and human resources. Moreover, there is also an urgent need to reinforce the mission’s mediation capacities to be more effective and to more effectively support the efforts of local partners. Based on the different points, the following policy recommendations were proposed:

  • The AU should implement its stabilization strategy for the Sahel
  • The AU should focus on where it has a comparative advantage – the political realm. Given the vastness of the Sahel region, the AU should limit its zones of intervention and mainly focus on Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and help these states formulate national plans to:
    • put in place a strategy to manage natural resources that fuel local conflicts
    • press governments to curb the alleged abuses by the defense and security forces
    • limit reliance on vigilantes in fighting militants
  • To implement its strategy for the Sahel, the AU should closely work with member states and regional blocks like the Economic Community of West African States. The continental organisation should focus on areas where it can have an impact.
  • There should in-depth studies on the identity-based nature of the conflict, which is being exploited by violent extremist organisations.