Securing West Africa and the Sahel needs disarmament to be matched with development

Dr Adeoye O. Akinola is a senior researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan- African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that appeared in The Star on 28 October 2020.

On October 6 2020, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) lifted the sanctions on Mali, to the relief of Malians and the leadership of the conflict- ravaged country. Despite the traditional pessimism about Ecowas, it successfully mobilised against the military incursion into power in Mali. The Ecowas mediation team to Mali, led by the former President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, had no time to celebrate as his country, Nigeria, soon became embroiled in protests against the administration of his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari.

After days of protests – tagged #ENDSARS – in Nigeria’s major cities, calling for the scrapping of the Special Anti- Robbery Squad (Sars) due to its extreme brutality and lawlessness, Nigeria’s Inspector- General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the dissolution of this notorious police unit on October 11, this year. Yet, the protests persist. In Côte d’ivoire, the opposition leader, Seth Koko, prevailed on Ecowas to appeal to the incumbent president, Alassane Quattara, from contesting the October 31 election. Thus, Ecowas’s attention – and that of the global community – have turned to Nigeria and Côte d’ivoire, while also keeping an eye on Mali. In Mali, the National Committee for the Salvation of the People ( CNSP), controlled by the putschists, has appointed a former defence minister, Bah N’daw, as a civilian president; the coup leader, Colonel Assimi Goïta, as vice- president; and Moctar Ouane as the prime minister.

The CNSP has also removed a clause that gave the vice-president the authority to replace the president of the transition if the office is deemed vacant. This was a partial victory for Ecowas. West Africa and the Sahel have become the theatre of violent conflicts. The number of violent Fulani herdsmen in the Sahel are undocumented, but Boko Haram and Al Qaeda boast of about 15 000 and 5 000 members, respectively.

In the Sahel, four countries are currently experiencing armed conflict: Nigeria is battling to contain Boko Haram’s terrorism, which has killed more than 50 000 and internally displaced 2.1 million people; security is being challenged by pastoral conflict in Chad; Sudan is engrossed in violent protest and, concurrently, combating armed conflict; and Mali is struggling to contain violent extremism and a military putsch.

The Sahel has experienced other threats from the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, the Group to Support Muslims and Islam (linked to Al- Qaeda), the Tuareg/ Fulani herdsmen, pastoral warlords, Boko Haram, and oil militancy. Despite the interventions of the 15 209- strong UN peacekeeping mission and the 5 000 French troops in the Sahel, the joint- force of the G5 Sahel, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan, the West African Multinational Joint Task Force, the efforts of the UN offices for West Africa, the Ecowas’s mediation team and the national security forces of member- states, the region is still under a siege and sitting on a time- bomb. While the AU and other sub- regional bodies such as Ecowas and Intergovernmental Authority on Development are committed to “Silencing the Gun in Africa by 2020” , the guns keep blasting – loud and louder – in the Sahel.

The Sahel is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, with abundant human and mineral resources. However, the World Economic Forum reports that about 33 million citizens are confronted with food insecurity and inequality.

The youth are hungry and angry: about 30% of 349 million West Africans live on less than $ 1.90 (R30) per day. Violence – a lucrative means of livelihood for many – has become the “legitimate” response to irresponsive political leadership and hostile economic policies. The former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, shocked the global community when he publicly asserted that the battle against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was one of extreme poverty.

The Covid- 19 pandemic has presented another dilemma: it has exacerbated structural violence as well as existing fragilities in the region. States – both in the global North and South – have become more nationalistic and protectionist. Foreign aid and humanitarian assistance are expected to decline systematically. Thus, West African states and those in the Sahel must show more financial and logistical commitments to regional efforts at security and development.

It is easy to mobilise people against a deposed government, as witnessed in Mali, where massive jubilation occasioned the overthrow of President Ibrahim Keïta in August. Violent conflict has become the mainstay of much trigger- happy youth who are forced to provide basic infrastructures for their families and communities due to governance failures.

Thus, a call for disarmament must be matched with human development programmes and improved public service delivery. The security- development nexus is very real across the Sahel region. Without security, attempts at the development will remain an illusion; and without development, it is impossible to attain sustainable security.

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

dr adeoye o akinola
Dr Adeoye O Akinola
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