30,000 people who fled the Boko Haram violence in the Lake Chad basin area have found refuge at the Muna Garage site for displaced people in Nigeria. Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

30,000 people who fled the Boko Haram violence in the Lake Chad basin area have found refuge at the Muna Garage site for displaced people in Nigeria. Credit: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

When will the Sahel change its approach to end the conflict?

While the Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS have announced on September 14 the future adoption of a $ 1 billion plan to strengthen the operational capacities of the national armed forces and regional joint forces in the fight against terrorism, it is clear that questioning the security approach in the Sahel does not yet appear on the agenda. And this despite the ineffectiveness of a security approach to contain the crisis, which has been growing since the beginning of the year, to the detriment of thousands of men, women, and children, the first victims of insecurity.

The security solutions deadlock

The security situation in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin has deteriorated considerably since the beginning of the year. According to figures released by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the activities of armed groups operating around Lake Chad have resumed, with 60 violent incidents recorded between January and July 2019 in the Lake province in Chad. In the Lake Chad Basin, almost 10 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 2.5 million displaced people.

In Chad, 42,000 people have been displaced again since the start of the year, forced to flee insecurity. The presence of the Multinational Joint Force, which made possible, during its deployment a few years ago, to regain control of certain territories and to curb the rise of armed groups, does not seem sufficient to secure the region in the long term. So while urban centers have been secured, entire rural areas remain under the control of armed groups.

In the Liptako-Gourma region, on the border between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the security and humanitarian situation has worsened since the end of 2018: more than 2,000 civilians have been killed there between November 2018 and March 2019 according to The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The insecurity caused the new displacement of 440,000 people, including almost 300,000 in Burkina Faso. More than 3,000 schools are now non-functional, depriving thousands of children of education, in one of the poorest regions of the world.

However, the G5 Sahel states (Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad) set up a Joint Force in 2017 to hunt down armed groups and secure border areas. In addition to regional efforts, the national armies of the different countries are all deployed in conflict zones, where states of emergency have been declared. Security and defense budgets have increased, national, regional and international security initiatives have multiplied - the latest at the G7 meeting in August with the announcement of yet another "Partnership for the Sahel ”, without much success. On the contrary, the increase in the number of conflicts between community militias and the ethnic character of certain confrontations in the center of the Sahel, further complicate the security situation and questions the merits of a state response too often limited to a commitment military.

When will there be political solutions?

Faced with the insufficiency and in some cases the nuisance of purely security responses, it is time for the heads of state of ECOWAS to change their approach to promote political solutions to the crisis facing the Sahel states. While it is commonly admitted in official statements that the situation will not be resolved only through a security approach, alternative actions are slow to materialize. On the contrary, the increasingly assumed attempt to consider security objectives and spending as development actions, far from offering a credible alternative, reinforces a security approach towards the challenges of the Sahel and the idea that only an investment in the security sector can overcome conflicts.

The causes of the crisis in the Sahel are however known and well documented: far from being solely the result of an alleged radicalization of part of the population, the insecurity is above all due to the frustrations of long-marginalized, nurturing communities a feeling (real or perceived) of persecution by state authorities and whose claims, around issues of governance, gender justice, access to economic opportunities or redistribution of wealth, are ignored. The effects of climate change, which today threaten access to natural resources for populations whose livelihoods depend heavily on it, cannot be ignored.

It is, therefore, necessary to address the political causes of the crisis, by listening to the needs of communities (without stigmatizing them for their alleged allegiance to armed groups) and by creating spaces for dialogue around the demands of the men and women living in conflict zones. The recommendations from consultations with civil society do not seem to have been taken into account in the conclusions of the ECOWAS extraordinary summit on the fight against terrorism.

However, improving local governance, access to fair justice, respect for human rights, and access to economic opportunities that take climate issues into account are real avenues for emerging from the crisis and should be subject to substantial financial and human investments, strategies, summits, mobilization, as well as the strengthening of national armies. Only recognition of the political causes of the crisis will allow the implementation of suitable solutions that will guarantee peace in the long term. On the contrary, to persist in this security approach, which continues to show its flaws, risks fueling the conflict. Meanwhile, thousands of men, women, and children, displaced by the crisis, cut off from their livelihoods, without sufficient access to food, water, health, or education, are those who pay the price.

About the author

Aurore Mathieu is a Regional Humanitarian Advocacy and Campaigns Manager for Oxfam in West Africa. She covers humanitarian crises in the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin and benefits from several years of experience in advocating for the protection of civilians in conflicts. This article was published on September 20, 2019, by WHATI, the citizen think tank of West Africa.