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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: The Sahel Region of West Africa: Permanent Crisis?

Washington, DC, USA - Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, professor and chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., moderated a round-table discussion on "The Sahel Region of West Africa: Permanent Crisis?" hosted by the Washington DC Office of Peace and Security Affairs of UPF on November 13 at The Washington Times building.

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Summary - It is estimated that more than 18 million people are affected by the crisis in the Sahel region of Africa — a massive belt of semi-arid land below the Sahara desert crossing Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Mali, northern Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal. The ecological and humanitarian crisis is caused by poor rainfall and failed harvests, and aggravated by the conflict in Mali that has seen scores of people fleeing to neighboring countries as refugees. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the United Nations on Sept. 26 on the needs in the Sahel and focused particularly on the violent extremism by al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali. Armed attacks, kidnappings, arms trafficking, and human trafficking threaten the entire region. The Sahel is dealing with extremely important and complicated problems where humanitarian, political, and security concerns intersect. The participants of this round table agreed that a military approach is only one component of a much needed solution which should also include a regional, long-term, sustainable strategy of economic and social development among the key actors: governments, international institutions both intergovernmental and non-governmental.

(Moderator) Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, professor and chairman of the African Studies Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Hosted by the Washington Office of Peace and Security Affairs of the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) from 2:00 to 4:30 pm on Tuesday, November 13, in the Green Room of The Washington Times

Attendees included: Dr. Sulayman Nyang, Chairman, African Studies Department, Howard University; Mr. Tebege Berhe, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Ethiopia; Mr. Léon Koffi Konan, Counselor, Embassy of Cote d’Ivoire; Ms. Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy analyst, CATO Institute; Ms. Elisabeth Decker, graduate student, Johns Hopkins University SAIS; Mr. Freycinef Azo, graduate student, International Policy and Management, SIT Graduate Institute; Ms. Sephora Kerebon, MBA graduate, Nyack College; Dr. Antonio L. Betancourt, Director, Peace and Security Affairs, Washington DC Office, UPF International; and Dr. William Selig, Deputy Director, Peace and Security Affairs, UPF International.

Dr. Sulayman S. Nyang, Chairman, African Studies Department, Howard University The word “sahel” in Arabic means “border” and refers to the zone between the Sahara Desert in the north and the savannas in the south. It is a region with a long and rich history. In a sense, what is happening today is the culmination of a number of historical kingdoms and empires. Arab traders dominated the area for hundreds of years. Interestingly, what stopped the Arabs from conquering the region south of the Sahel were the devastating effects of the tsetse fly and black fly. If not for these insects, all of Africa might well be Muslim. Aside from opening the trade routes, the Arabs brought the dromedary, or one-humped camels, from the Middle East (“Roman Palestine”) to the Sahel. After the Arabs, the European powers -- France, England, and Italy -- came to the region. The year 1960 was a milestone and is called the Year of Africa because so many colonies gained independence and became UN members, primarily from France: Cameroon, Togo, Mali, Senegal, Madagascar, Benin, Niger, Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), Côte d'Ivoire, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo, Gabon, and Mauritania.

In mid-2010, a major famine fell upon the Sahel when the same conditions conspired: high temperature killed the crops, leading to health problems, diarrhea, malnutrition, then to starvation. Meanwhile, poor farming methods and soil erosion contribute to further desertification of the region.

Dr. William Selig, Deputy Director, Peace and Security Affairs raised the issue of “donor fatigue.” Americans are a generous people as can be seen in the aftermath of 9/11 or most recently to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. The work of international agencies such as the Red Cross, World Food Programme, US AID, UNICEF, WorldVision, OXFAM, CARE is greatly appreciated. However, it hard for Americans, who are so blessed with material abundance, to fully grasp the magnitude of the situation in some parts of Africa, and sad to say, there doesn’t seem to be a point when the need for assistance will end. It appears to be a permanent crisis that can only be relieved by outside sources.

Dr. Antonio Betancourt, Director, Peace and Security Affairs – The problem is that donors in the developed world have to give assistance not just because of morality or in order to receive something in return. There are deeper, more long-term reasons, namely for survival. If we don’t deal with it now, it will come back as a bigger, more difficult problem. So if we don’t offer a dollar to address the problem today, then later it will cost $20 to repair, then $50 and so on. It is in the interests of the UN and the European powers to take care of the crisis now to avoid the long-term consequences that will result in disasters of an even greater scale. It is the responsibility of the US, the African Union, the European Union, the UN and the countries themselves that are directly affected, to confront the crisis and bring long-term solutions. It is the responsibility of the countries in the region to work with the international community and use the assistance given to create sustainable solutions.

Mr. Tebege Berhe, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Ethiopia – Regarding donor fatigue and the idea that people are tired of giving assistance to the various crises in Africa, one of the main problems is that there is no link between humanitarian relief assistance and economic development. We need to equip ourselves with a long-term strategy and vision. We need to position ourselves to better deal with the next crisis, whether natural or man-made. This is what is missing most of the time. The government, as the main actor, must take responsibility and have a vision. It should not just leap from one crisis to the next, but rather have a plan in place, which can at a minimum, be able to prevent or minimize the damage to the next crisis, whether it be drought, etc. In the case of Ethiopia, the great famine of the mid-80s devastated the nation and an estimated 1 million people died. Since 1991, the nation removed the communist government, and has taken a different course towards handling the issues of drought, climate change, and desertification. We have started to make preparations for the next crisis. Huge food reserves are located in different parts of the country. If international agencies aren’t going to give us assistance, then the nation is taking steps to take care of our own people. A productive safety net is being established to help those in chronic need so they are not forced to sell their cattle and can maintain their livelihoods. We have been successful in creating an early warning system that will not overburden the basic infrastructure. Yet, we are not out of the woods. We do depend on international assistance, but the government is trying to take care of its people. There is definitely a tendency to expect foreign assistance, but the key is to link assistance with economic development.

Dr. Nyang – The experience of Ethiopia can provide important lessons for the region, namely, this nation experienced not only revolutionary social change, but also dealt with the uncontrollable climatic changes which led to starvation and famine. Governance and economic development came together, and in the language of Secretary Hillary Clinton, built the necessary institutions and mechanisms. Ethiopia faced the crises head-on, developed the strategies of response, and instead of waiting for outside assistance, the government took responsibility for its citizens.

It is clear that at the core of these crises is the issue of poverty and the inability to have basic human needs met which are further exasperated by corruption, poor governance, social instability, misuse of resources, disease, and conflict. We must deal with poverty. It affects our very survival. We must find solutions.

Let us talk about Mali. As in the case of Ethiopia, Mali went through a one party dictatorship then gradually moved towards military rule for 20 years which then led to a democratization process in 1992, with Mali's first democratic election. Amadou Toumani Touré was elected in 2002. Prior to the military coup d'état in March, Mali was seen as one of the most politically stable countries in the continent. But now what has happened?

In January, rebels with links to Al-Qaeda (MNLA) took control of the north, declaring independence from Mali as AZAWAD. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has refused to recognize AZAWAD. In May, the Ansar dine, an Islamist group with ties to the Tuareg groups (which rebelled in Niger and Mali in the early 1990s), announced it had defeated the MNLA and was in control of all the cities of northern Mali.

In the midst of Mali’s humanitarian and development needs, drought and political instability, thousands of Malians are displaced and fleeing to the bordering nations of Mauritania and Niger.

The African Union (AU) and ECOWAS want to send troops (from Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger) to help Mali’s government retake the region. The proposals will be submitted to the UN Security Council before the end of the year, but meanwhile the world is looking on with extreme concern.

While Mali was celebrated in the US media as a model democratic government along with Botswana, Ghana, Mozambique -- Mali is now dealing with multiple crises, terrorism, trafficking, smuggling, violence, and criminality in the midst of poverty and economic underdevelopment.

Elisabeth Decker, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins SAIS – Mali may be looked upon as a successful democracy in the making, but we should be focusing less on democracy and more on the economics of the country. A country that is completely impoverished, and yet is electing democratic leaders may not truly represent the involvement of the people. Their rights may not be properly honored, yet all the world cares about is whether they have elections. Economic development is very important and the best means to deal with the current crises, and in this case, is more needed than elections.

Dr. Betancourt - Democracy is not going to solve all the problems. There is a tendency in US policy to focus on elections as if elections were a panacea. Democracy can be manipulated. A minority can control the democratic process, as in the example of colonial America when only the land-owners were legally qualified to vote. What is needed is to focus on institution-building and strengthening the rule of law as Secretary Clinton has said. Parallel to building the economy there must be laws to protect property. Laws must be modernized and meet the international standard of law.

In many developing nations, the resources are controlled by a minority, as little as 1% may control the livelihood of 99% of the population. Cooperation is needed between the government, the private sector, and international institutions including also responsible NGOs and possibly the United Nations, but with a clear idea of what they want to achieve.

In my native Colombia, we experienced poverty due to various social and economic reasons, but I don’t remember ever seeing donors coming in as in the history of Africa. There were no government programs to help the people who were displaced by the paramilitary or the leftist guerrillas, but somehow we took care of each other and learned best practices to overcome the difficulties our country was facing. The people were forced to take control over our own destiny. Eventually, the US and other international entities came in and implemented programs, but democracy by itself was not enough to solve the problems. Democracy doesn’t work unless coupled with economic development.

Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst, Cato Institute – Unfortunately, in many parts of Africa and the Middle East, there has been an overemphasis by U.S. foreign policy makers on democracy promotion rather than economic development. For instance, Washington praised Mali as a democracy, but democracy implies self-governance. Mali, however, lacked control over its territorial integrity, which is a critical pillar of nation-state sovereignty. What we have seen across Africa and the Sahel is a very weak correlation between humanitarian relief and sustainable development. If we want to look for a long-term solution to such problems as terrorism and poverty, than enhancing local means of development would be the best way to do so, not simply through donor relief. Our human instinct is to help others, and I am a huge proponent of humanitarian aid in times of crisis. But humanitarian assistance is not a panacea for resolving economic development problems and their underlying causes. What we see, as a result of dependency on foreign assistance, is entire populations unable to deal with new crises as they emerge. There is an inability of populations to help themselves. So we need to take both a short-term and a long-term view, but in addition we need to listen to those on the ground when programs are implemented. One problem with donor funding and international aid agencies is that many of them are not responsive to local recipient needs. Such agencies must act with regard to local customs and culture. They must listen to people on the ground, but also understand that a long-term strategy for helping others does not lie in short-term monetary relief.

Deputy Chief Berhe, Embassy of Ethiopia - The situation is quite complicated. Al-Shabaab, the Somalia-based al-Qaeda Islamist group, controls large areas of Somalia. Al-Shabaab soldiers have attacked Ethiopian troops in areas close to the border. Ethiopia is determined to protect its sovereignty and is ready to cooperate with the US as well as with other regional powers.

Ethiopian troops have served in UN and African Union peacekeeping missions, including: Côte d'Ivoire, Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, and Darfur. We have tried to play a constructive role as much as possible for two reasons: One is our own security, and second, because despite the legal borders, we are all the same people -- Africans with a common history and culture.

Dr. Nyang - The Universal Peace Federation is concerned with building a culture of peace. How can the US and the international community deal with the domestic problems in Mali that affects governance, democracy and poverty? We cannot ignore the issue of poverty, nor can we turn our backs on terrorism wherever it exists, including in the US, Spain, or England. We must be very serious about this issue. If you want peace then you must deal with terrorism and it’s source, which is poverty.

Mr. Léon Koffi Konan, Counselor, Embassy of Cote D'Ivoire – We have a lot of problems and there is a tendency to wait for the international community to provide the necessary assistance to relieve our problems. I am very grateful to UPF for organizing today’s discussion. Regarding the problems in Africa, there is sometimes a quick decision to choose a military solution, but based on my experience, a military solution is not always the best answer. Why? Because after the military process plays out, there are always winners and losers, and sooner or later the losers will seek revenge or want payback.

That is why there is a revolving door of violence in Mali. There are now three different forces occupying the northern part of the country. Mali is a huge nation, and a large part is desert. Finding a military solution to remove those rebel troops will not be easy. They will need a lot of logistical support and human resources. To sum it up, we must implement a multi-pronged strategy that incorporates a military approach and an economic component.

Dr. Nyang – We can agree that we want a Somalia without terrorist groups. But where will those solutions come from? In the past, Nigeria provided aid to Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is Africans helping Africans. Nations then face the choice: send funds or soldiers.

Dr. Betancourt - Poverty does exist and the enemy is always seeking to take advantage of these social conditions whether it is in Mali, the Middle East, or South America. They are using this vulnerability not with a desire to bring improvement but as an exercise of power. Too often, the West wants to give credibility to our enemies such as with the idea that the suicide bomber believes so much in a cause that he is willing to martyr himself, rather than the reality which is that he is being paid to die. There is an economic incentive being offered that motivates these people. One son will blow himself up so that his parents and siblings will be able to eat for a year. These people are compensated for their sacrifice.

Deputy Chief Berhe, Embassy of Ethiopia – Military solutions are only part of the solution. There is a political or ideological component that must be dealt with. You don’t kill ideas with bullets and bombs. There must be a two-prong approach. Military force when necessary but there must also be a parallel political process to figure out why and how to overcome those challenges. This process cannot be separated. One is not more important than the other. The weakness of the extremist Islamists is that the leaders are following a different standard. They are using religion as a means to convince the followers to believe their reward is in heaven. I don’t believe that the leaders themselves believe this. They send some poor guy on a suicide mission but the leaders themselves don’t believe it. Look at Osama bin Laden. He was discovered hiding in the ground like an animal. The best way to deal with them is to deprive them of the sympathetic population groups of society because for one reason or another, the alternative vision that they present is a dead end.

On September 26, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the Sahel issue and outlined the UN’s Integrated Regional Strategy:

First, the strategy will help the countries of the Sahel to stem the terrorist threat, fight organized crime and control the proliferation ofThis will include tackling money laundering and improving border management.

Second, the strategy will promote inclusiveness, conciliation and mediation to decrease tensions within and between countries. Regional forums that bring together government officials, religious leaders, civil society and cross-border communities will be part of the

Third, the strategy will seek to strengthen the short- and long-term ability of communities to cope with extreme climatic conditions and marketThis means building regional mechanisms for early warning, disaster risk reduction, livelihood support, and social protection. 

Fourth, the strategy will place great emphasis on environmentalThe countries of the Sahel need to better regulate their extractive industries, improve water resource management, adapt to climate change and regulate land tenure and access. Harnessing cheap, renewable energy must also be seen as an essential component of any effort to combat environment degradation. 

Finalizing and implementing the strategy will require broad consultations with our implementing partners, including regional organizations, bilateral partners and the Member States of the region.

Conclusion - The problems in the Sahel demand long-term multifaceted solutions. The problems of hunger, flooding, terrorism, corruption, etc., need sustainable solutions. International donor support must continue, and most fundamentally, we cannot give up. Hope must continue. We cannot forget the millions of men, women, and children who need our help.

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