Abandonment is not a solution to the Sahel crisis

In a joint communiqué on 28 January, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger announced their decision to withdraw from ECOWAS, a regional bloc established to foster integration among its members. The withdrawal reflects a strategic shift from the three Sahelian states, which are distancing themselves from their former allies. It also follows the request by the Malian government for the withdrawal of both the UN peacekeeping force MINUSMA from the country (a process finalised in December), and Operation Barkhane, the former French forces in the country. The former colonial power France also saw its defence attaché expelled from Burkina Faso, and its embassy closed in Niger.

As the three countries become closer to Russia, in light of the new political context as well as the war in Ukraine several donor governments, including Sweden, decided to suspend their development aid. But for the communities most affected, abandonment is not a solution to this crisis.

A Pinasse boat stranded in the Inner Niger Delta near Konna, Mali. Photo: Ousmane Makaveli Traore/International Alert.

The security situation in the three countries remains worrying. Extremist insurgent groups show no sign of subsiding despite years of significant international military efforts to eliminate them. Conflict fatalities surged in 2023, with thousands of civilians being displaced, many essential services still non-existent, and a humanitarian crisis going from bad to worse.

In areas where a large majority of the population depends on agriculture and livestock to support their families, the unpredictable and worsening weather conditions linked to climate change, as well as restrictions imposed by violent extremist groups, are exacerbating poverty. This is also leading to national and international migration and driving many local conflicts, some within and between communities.

In this context, the consequences of abandonment could be severe.

The Sahel has an incredibly young population, with 65% of people under the age of 25. The precarious security situation, limited economic opportunities as well as feeling marginalised and deprived of their rights, leaves them vulnerable to armed groups or forced into dangerous emigration routes. Burkina Faso and Mali are now among the top countries of origin for forcibly displaced migrants arriving by sea into Europe.

The conflict in the Sahel is not confined to national borders either. According to several studies, it is already directly affecting coastal countries. Jihadist insurgencies operate primarily in border areas, and historical, ethnic and cultural ties lead to porous borders, limiting the traditional division often referred to between the Sahel and coastal countries. Strategically significant west African coastal states including Togo, Benin, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are not immune from spillover effects.

Inaction could allow these problems to worsen, jeopardising regional stability and creating an environment ripe for political and social instability.

Despite the challenging context, grassroots peacebuilding approaches can alleviate these drivers of conflict and support more peaceful outcomes. There are a range of local solutions to improve climate resilience, including sustainable agricultural practices and inclusive natural resource management. Young people can be provided with leadership and conflict resolution training, allowing their energy and ideas to be channelled towards peaceful solutions.

International Alert interventions in Mali, for example, have fostered inclusive participation of women and young people in conflict prevention mechanisms and decision-making processes related to natural resource governance. In certain areas where Alert works, women now represent 21% of members in land commissions and 30% of participants in capacity building sessions relating to the rural land code. Young people now represent 37% and 23% respectively. Previously, no women were involved and young people were largely excluded. This inclusive participation has empowered marginalised groups to engage in the peaceful management of natural resources. 

Women actively involved in peace processes have achieved gains that their male counterparts and certified mediators were unable to, including playing a pivotal role in the release of healthcare workers held by armed groups.

The participation and intervention of women with traditional authorities in the mediation process have proven crucial in resolving disputes between community members.

To male elders, the visible impact of women’s participation in resolving conflict and securing tangible gains serves as a powerful testament to the effectiveness of inclusivity. It challenges preconceptions and fosters a broader understanding of the valuable contributions that women can make.

Any successful peacebuilding efforts will rely on sustained investment in capacity building programmes for women-led groups, indigenous leaders and civil society organisations, supporting peace and stability at a grassroots level.

Mediation, dialogue and inclusive community organising can maintain a commitment to good governance that will help an eventual return to a democratic constitutional order.

Supporting these efforts can seem fraught with risk for international organisations, but engagement with local communities need not be seen as providing legitimacy for unconstitutional actors. Proactively engaging with the underlying drivers of conflict can help prevent escalation, support preventative measures and slow the spread of further regional and global instability.

The political context makes peacebuilding efforts more difficult but also more necessary. Traditional channels often rely on intergovernmental cooperation, which we have seen disintegrate in recent months, following sanctions and withdrawal from ECOWAS, the departure of peacekeeping forces and the expulsion of diplomats. But the people affected do not have the option to disengage. As peacebuilders, we are in a position to work directly with communities and help prepare for the eventual return of a peaceful and constitutional order.

The Sahel stands at a crossroads, and at Alert our continued commitment to peaceful outcomes is unwavering. By addressing root causes, supporting grassroots initiatives, and engaging with local communities, we can contribute to stability, prosperity and sustainable peace. It’s our shared responsibility to ensure a brighter future for the region and its people.

Update 27/03/2024: The recent suspension of the military agreements between Niger and the USA poses further risks to the management of security in Niger and the Sahel. A further withdrawal of American engagement and funding could have serious consequences for the well-being and living conditions of communities already living under sanctions. Families are now facing chronic vulnerability, increasing the level of crime and discontent among young people in Niamey and surrounding areas.