Community rivalries at the heart of Sahel insecurity

Given the myriad issues confronting the Sahel, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) endorsed the African Union (AU) 2014 Sahel strategy at its 449th meeting in Addis Ababa on 11 August 2014. The council described the strategy as a ‘framework for a holistic and coordinated action’. Hopes were high in policy circles that the region’s often-cited lack of coordination and coherent strategy for dealing with insecurity would be tackled and regional and international engagements enhanced.

Nine years later, however, the situation continues to deteriorate as the causes evolve. These include state marginalisation of groups, terrorism, intra- and inter-community rivalries, organised crime and violent extremism. Expressing his concern, AU Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat bemoaned ‘lacklustre African support for Sahel countries’, noting at the 33rd AU Summit that ‘the continent has not shown solidarity to its brothers and sisters in the Sahel’.

This is despite a strategy with governance, security and development at its centre alongside the AU Mission for Mali and the Sahel office to shape and spearhead continental efforts through strategic collaborations. Considering these efforts and the lack of commensurate gains, has the right set of resources, strategy and political will been rolled out?

Modest achievements

The 2014 Sahel strategy was adopted by the PSC two years after the Malian crisis began. It attempts to consolidate efforts around the rule of law, support for dialogue and reconciliation, promotion of human rights, regional electoral processes and humanitarian action for governance gains. It also strengthens regional cooperation to achieve security and promotes development as a major dimension of stability for the region.

Community rivalries have become the often-forgotten crucial factor fuelling insecurity

To fulfil its objectives and complementary instruments such as the Nouakchott Process, the AU has supported peace processes and elections in Mali. It has also responded to the political turmoil and humanitarian emergencies in the Sahel. Its most significant achievements overall have been fostering synergy among continental initiatives and serving as a starting point to address multidimensional complexities in the region.

These, with military interventions, helped to slow the rapidly deteriorating situation in the region, at least between 2014 and 2020. However, the AU’s efforts in line with the strategy and its partners' strategies have not been commensurate with the dynamics. The Sahel continues to face coordination challenges, over-centralisation of military actions and a lack of solid response to underlying complexities.

Prioritising social cohesion

The 2015 Fulani-Bambara-Dogon clashes in central Mali increased the intensity of violence among civilians, further cementing the Sahel trend. Last year, fighting in the Segou region saw significant numbers of human casualties in the Bambara and Dogon farming communities. There, community self-defence, hunter groups and militias continue operations against the presence of violent extremist groups, particularly the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jamâ’at Nusrat al-Islâm wal-Muslimîn.

In such places, terrorist groups have frequently orchestrated divides between communities to advance their agenda, with dire implications for social cohesion and stability. As a result, mistrust has grown and tensions have risen exponentially, culminating in inter-communal clashes. This scenario has long been visible, with multiple Tuareg rebellions and repeated deadly clashes between herders and farmers. Community rivalries are at the heart of insecurity as it has become an often-forgotten crucial factor fuelling security and associated challenges.

Expecting a 10-year-old strategy to address changing issues in a complex region is unrealistic

The AU strategy, however, despite its clear identification of three focus areas, neither prioritises nor centres community rivalry, but prioritising social cohesion is indispensable in resolving the Sahelian crisis. Three factors support this stance. First, the main asymmetric threats in the Sahel are civilian-driven, with groups and individuals involved having strong ties to communities across the region.

Secondly, doing so will foster framework adaptability, given that the results of continuous engagement with communities will inform strategies or, at least, their implementation plans. Thirdly, consulting communities would make strategies more relevant and map out what each is attempting to protect. Actual issues would be addressed rather than generalities. Indeed, there are no better peacekeepers than those who instigate violence, hence communities should be allowed to voice how they want to keep ‘their’ peace.

Lessons from Niger, Mauritania and Algeria can be used to incorporate the community dimension into the Sahel strategy. These countries have long histories of intra- and inter-communal peace, reconciliation and social cohesion dialogue, frequently generating peace treaties between protagonist communities and preventing terrorists from recruiting youth and exploiting local discords. These dialogues also involve terror groups, making these countries exceptions in an unstable region, with fewer conflicts and terror attacks.

Maximising PSC’s call for review

Amid the worsening situation in the region, the PSC has called for a review of the Sahel strategy. The United Nations Secretary-General and AU Chairperson have established an independent, high-level panel to assess security, governance and development.

The strategy needs to improve as the crisis has evolved. Expecting a nearly 10-year-old strategy to address changing and asymmetric issues in a complex region is unrealistic. The AU must revamp its response mechanisms and ensure flexibility to involve communities further and foster a bottom-up approach, easing the response to civilian-driven violence.

Niger, Mauritania and Algeria offer lessons on incorporating the community dimension into the strategy

Any new or revised framework must enhance the capacity of grassroots structures to serve as the bulwark of adaptation and resilience to the widening effects of the conflict. Community-centredness ought to be at the heart of national, regional and continental approaches.

Achieving this will require continuous and appropriate context assessments based on participatory and inclusive approaches towards isolating and centring key elements that have been overlooked, particularly community-centredness. Attention must be paid to this dimension of the crisis and responses and adaptation mechanisms developed that are context specific.

The AU should support member states to spearhead and mobilise communities to pursue peace through local dialogues and community initiatives. These lay the foundation for national, regional and continental interventions, which often address the strategic dimensions of complex dynamics rather than their inherent local structural relationships. This would pave the way for fruitful national engagements and realistic continental efforts under the auspices of the PSC and continental architectures.

Image: © SOULEYMANE AG ANARA / AFP

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