The Sahel: Establishing governance in the central Sahel

The central Sahel crisis has its epicentre at the tri-border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. A complex mix of non-state armed groups, including jihadists and self-defence groups, is a primary cause of instability in a region. They are the symptoms of diverse and interlinked root causes in an area where trust in government has been lost and a youthful population is vulnerable to recruitment by a myriad of non-state actors. Long-term solutions to the crisis cannot be achieved without the return of government control to the tri-state region but the governments of the Sahel require serious reform.

In the previous blog the central Sahel crisis affecting the tri-state border region between Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger was introduced. The challenges facing this region are immense: land degradation linked to climate change, food insecurity, migration, socio-economic deprivation, unemployment, and a young and uneducated population which is growing. This would present a serious problem even without the spread of non-state armed groups, whose presence is undermining the work of humanitarian actors attempting to deliver aid and development programs. The security response is also part of the problem: the security forces in the region have been accused of human rights violations and are alleged to have been more lethal than the jihadist groups they are fighting, who in turn are only one type of armed group causing trouble. It is a mess and requires serious reform but here we are putting the security side of the crisis aside and focusing on how effective governance can be brought to the tri-state region.

Violence is rarely a direct cause of armed conflict and is an outcome of other root causes, such as those noted above. The finger of blame for the crisis is generally pointed towards the jihadist groups who came to prominence in Mali in 2012 and would later gain a foothold in the tri-state region.  This is incorrect as they are a part of the crisis, are only one type of non-state armed group, and exploit existing political and socio-economic situations to gain support. In the tri-state region the absence of government authority and influence has left a security vacuum to be exploited by violent non-state actors. Bringing the government back into peoples lives, however, is not solely about security, and control will only be regained if issues such as a lack of jobs, money, and political representation (for example) are addressed. People’s lives need to be measurably better, and they need to see the prospect of a better future for themselves and their children.  This is the long-term, but without it, the security forces of the respective governments and their European allies can keep hammering away and achieve temporary success at best.

The immensity of the challenge for the governments should not be underestimated: the problems they face would also challenge more effective governments. While it would be very reductive to place the blame for the crisis upon climate change and non-state armed groups, both alone would be a significant challenge without the myriad socio-economic and political problems. This needs to be recognised prior to any critique of governance in the area.

It is also difficult to treat the three countries separately, as despite nuances and differences in their situations, the movement of armed groups and refugees across borders and ethnic groups which straddle said borders means that the consequences of the crisis are shared and events in one country are easily transferred to another (this does not include refugees from sub-Saharan Africa transiting through on their way north). In this context, the central Sahel crisis is a conflict complex due to the movement of people across borders and solutions need to apply to all three collectively. We should not forget differences, for example Burkina Faso is seen as having the best chance of addressing the crisis and does not have the wider open spaces of Mali and Niger in the north, or a substantial Tuareg population.

Of the three, it is Burkina Faso that is the most stable, having an elected President and the most recent coup was in 2015. Niger held free fair elections following a coup in 2010 and underwent its first peaceful transfer of power in 2020. Mali is a different matter altogether, experiencing military coups in 2012, 2020 and 2021. It should be noted that all three countries have political oppositions. The inability of all three governments to counter the increasing levels of violence has brought into question their ability to provide security for their people and maintain an effective monopoly of legitimate violence. Political events in Mali have been detrimental to its relationship with France, who will be scaling back their forces and have declared Operation Barkhane over. The French military mission is unpopular at home and there will be an election in 2022, but President Macron has said that France will not support countries where there is no commitment to democracy.

More indicative of general performance is their consistently low positions in the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) with Burkina Faso ranked 182nd, Niger 189th, and Mali 184th in the 2019 Index. There are 189 countries in total and countries are measured on life expectancy, education, and standard of living. We should note, however, that our interest is not in the general performance of each government (important as this is in the overall picture) but in their ability to project their authority and reduce the levels of violence, while not being part of the problem through human rights abuses by the security forces and corruption by officials.

In the previous blog I noted that political solutions to the crisis needed to draw on upon Sahelian expertise with African and international support. International actors, such as the European Union and the aid and development agencies, have a major part to play in supporting local and regional actors, but it is ultimately down to the people of the three countries to decide on the pathway out of crisis and what support they need. It is one thing to call for representative governance, which would be expected to listen to peoples demands and act, and another to proactively take this into account when the government’s concerned are not all representative or do not show signs of becoming so. Nor do they have the resources to do so if they wished, hence outside help will still be needed.

Which brings us to the report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel, which is ambitious in scope and specific in its targets. The foreword to the report is as scathing as one would expect given that it describes the crisis as one so severe that it warrants global attention. It is directed at the Sahelian governments and cites failures of governance as resulting in loss of life, opportunity, and dignity. As to the origins of the crisis:

‘The crisis has its early roots in the failure to build the national state and to foster integration at national and subnational levels, subsequently entrenched by governance failures such as serious deficits in the management of diversity, in citizens and imbalances in public investment. Structural adjustment programmes, growth of the criminal economy and the proliferation of military interventions not answerable to the state all contributed to the progressive weakening of states’ capacity to govern and to provide essential services, further deepening the governance crisis. In spite of this complex history and resulting frustrations and divisions, political solutions to address these underlying issues are persistently overshadowed by the priority given to military responses.’

The contributors do not rule out security responses to the crisis, and they are not alone in calling for a shift from prioritising military responses, but they do argue for a people centred approach with clear areas for improvement. These are based on four pillars, each of which has two indicators (IDs). The first pillar is the prioritisation of the protection of civilians (ID1-number of attacks on civilians; ID2- mechanisms for monitoring civilian harm), the second is the creation of a political strategy to address the root causes of the crisis (ID3- dialogue with all the conflict actors; ID4- transparency in defence budgets), the third pillar is to respond to human emergencies (ID5- funding that is commensurate, on time and responsive to need; ID6- ensuring humanitarian access), and the fourth is to combat impunity (ID7- zero tolerance of abuses by the security forces; ID8 – boosting the capacity and resources of the justice system).

All four pillars and their associated indicators form a combined approach, one which makes the governments more accountable. Political reform, accountability and a people-centric approach form the thrust of the argument. To be absolutely clear, the aims of the report are complementary to a military approach, which is still needed, and international actors still have their part to play. Indicators one, two and seven, for example, are specifically concerned with the military approach. We should also note that while the second pillar is concerned specifically with addressing the crisis of governance in the Sahel, the eighth indicator (from pillar four), which addresses the justice system, is a critical component of the strategy to improve governance. Here I will focus on the third indicator only, which is part of the second pillar.

This builds on the dialogue that is already taking place largely unheard behind the noise of violent attacks, the security actors, and the consequences of the violence. It is concerned with all the actors involved: international institutions, governmental institutions, armed non-state actors, international and national NGOs, and community level actors. Examples include MINUSMA getting communities talking to each other again, mediation by the High Islamic Court of Mali to lift a village siege and talks between the Dogon and Fulani communities facilitated by external and internal actors. There have been instances where jihadist actors have been involved in mediations in areas that they control. The emphasis is on supporting the work of civil society actors, setting out coherent frameworks to improve coordination between local initiatives, promoting inclusive dialogue, sharing what has been learned from other initiatives in the region, and for the African Union to grant a new and expanded mandate for MISAHAL (Mission for Mali and the Sahel).

The report seeks to move from a baseline of poor coordination between local dialogue initiatives to the adoption of a coordinated framework by the three governments for local political initiatives, which can then work towards a comprehensive political solution.

The emphasis on dialogue will not solve the problems in the central Sahel by itself, nor is it expected to, but it builds on mediation and negotiation that is already taking place and by placing the emphasis on local solutions enables civil society actors to return to roles that they previously occupied. It also exploits local expertise and knowledge and brings back to the fore conflict resolution measures grounded in local conditions. Improved coordination between conflict resolution actors avoids unnecessary overlap of resources and allows for ideas that have worked in one scenario to be applied to another. This is grassroots conflict resolution in action, which will benefit from improved investment and coordination. It is perhaps more important to note that it has produced results in the central Sahel, as it does elsewhere.

How this will work in relation to criminal gangs and the jihadist groups, alongside other conflict actors who have vested interests in the status quo, is another matter. The ultimate end is to bring the territories of the central Sahel back under the control of their governments, but with the caveat they are legitimate representatives of the people of the region. This is a huge ask, requiring change respective to all four pillars and the rebuilding of the social contract between the state and the people. It can only happen from the ground up and greater emphasis needs to be placed on the return of effective governance accountable to the people.

The complicated conflict environment of the central Sahel with its multiple actors and factors has proved impermeable to top-down approaches, but local initiatives are taking place regardless. The financial cost of providing support for this is tiny when compared to the military expenditure on the crisis and a significant amount of money is lost through corruption related to defence spending. A coordinated local, regional, and international financial and political investment in the non-military solutions to the problem of governance will not resolve the crisis alone, but nor will any solution be found without it.

The next blog will look at the non-state armed groups in the region.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using research for earlier blogs and news sites, which includes BBC News. A report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel has been introduced above and discussed as the main focus of this blog. It can be accessed at:

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