For many in the Sahel, 2021 signals the continuation of a degrading situation, burdened by multiple crises, with no end in sight. 2020 marked the deadliest year for civilians in the central Sahel, with more than 6,600 civilians killed in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger between October 2019 and the end of the year, compared to 770 in 2016.
Internal displacement has quadrupled in the last two years, with the total number of internally displaced civilians reaching more than 2 million in early 2021. This surge has triggered a humanitarian crisis that urgently requires food and health support; of the 13.4 million Sahelians currently in need of humanitarian assistance, 5 million are children.
The geographic spread of violent extremist groups has continued to expand and is no longer only concentrated in the Liptako-Gourma region, but the Mali, Niger, and Burkina borders, and the Lake Chad region as well. Against this backdrop of increasing violence and displacement, it is more important than ever to continue supporting local civil society, private sector, and youth actors to promote democratic values under attack in the Sahel.
Extremist groups have added fuel to their violence by framing their grievances against specific ethnic and/or religious groups and reviving historical divisions. This tactic has put more lives at risk and is contributing to increased national destabilization of fragile states in the region. These terrorist groups have also started to venture into traditional political channels to challenge what they claim to be “western values” that are incompatible with life in the Sahel and African traditions. Moreover, they have been attacking not only the components of democracy in the Sahel, but the intellectual elites who they accuse of corruption, supporting foreign interests, and being disconnected from local concerns. The high level of corruption and the increase in poverty has given credence to the dangerous leaders of these terrorist organizations who are seeking to enter the political arena in a formal manner before shifting to their real agenda.
There are many public, private, civil society, and academic actors that are supporting the implementation of democratic values and ethical approaches to fighting corruption in the countries of the G5 while resisting the call to violent extremism
There is little confidence that the security-focused approach will succeed as it is; French forces are considering reducing their numbers or even completely pulling out of Operation Barkhane altogether. The withdrawal of forces from the Sahel stands to effectively open strategic corridors for violent extremist groups to take advantage of the power vacuum. In the past, the struggle for power in the aftermath of the departure of foreign troops has left national armies weakened and without tactical or financial support, thus increasing civilian displacement. We all remember the price paid by the Nigerien military and civilian population when the Islamic State (ISIS) attacked a military base in mid-December 2020, leading to the death of 71 soldiers and more than 25 injured in addition to other civilian massacres in the region.
On the development front, the Sahel has gotten more international financial support in the past few years than ever before. Despite these increases, the tangible results have not been widely seen or felt, as the poverty rate has not decreased and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened dangerously. Popular social movements in the G5 Sahel have called for transparency, public accountability, and the inclusion of citizens in the decisions and monitoring processes of public development programs. G5 Sahel governments must now find ways to appease these movements or risk being kicked out of office, as was the fate of President Keita in Mali. The movement leading the Malian insurrection claimed that the country lost about half a billion USD each year to corruption. While no real data can validate this claim, the theory was supported by an international donor evaluation report produced through Bureau du Vérificateur Général (BVG), that identified the “non-compliant use of donor funding” that amounted to $1.5 billion between 2005-2017, in addition to deep-rooted, structural corruption in Mali. That being said, bad governance is all over the Sahel, not limited to Mali.
Of course, the Sahel cannot be represented solely through insecurity and the growing sentiment against democracy. There are many public, private, civil society, and academic actors that are supporting the implementation of democratic values and ethical approaches to fighting corruption in the countries of the G5 while resisting the call to violent extremism. Recently, Burkinabe think-tanks organized popular debates around the origins of campaign funds and collective governance, as well as a discussion with youth and civil society actors on the intrinsic links between democracy and accountability. Virtual participation allowed for members of the regional diaspora, as well as local Africans from other countries, to participate and collectively discuss the main challenges to their government systems. Participants were also able to collaborate on finding solutions, such as educating people about government corruption and pushing for increased collective engagement in the accountability space.
In Mauritania, the ongoing legal investigation against the former president and over 300 high-level personalities has also awakened an interest in justice and accountability as a core component of democracy. Associations and youth groups are now calling attention to an anti-corruption law that is missing several infrastructural changes and supportive legislation to enable its activation. In Chad, some human rights groups are calling on the application of an “asset declaration standard” for all public officials, but despite the persistence by advocacy groups, very few anticipate the campaign will be a success.
The issue at hand is that these champions’ failures to move forward on good governance culture is synonymous to losing space to terrorist groups who are now active on guerrilla fronts as well as in the “classic” political system.
There is an urgent need to mobilize in support of democratic values and principles in the Sahel. By building the capacity of civil society, the private sector, and youth, they will be able to act as the main socio-political change agents in the region and safeguard the proper use of any donor or public funds. By supporting grassroots efforts for change, we not only challenge violent extremist groups and their radical arguments, but also support building a governance culture that will yield demand for proper accountability and transparency systems at all levels in the long term.
Only locally-driven action will be sustainable enough to achieve these goals, and that action cannot be done without investing in capacity building and social action. Violent extremists continue to adapt and change their tactics to evade defeat and increase their sphere of influence. In response, champions for democracy in the region must also be adaptable and draw support from foreign and domestic allies in order to save lives, defeat corruption, enact sustainable development, and create lasting change in the Sahel. The temptation to go to the other side and join the popular wave is growing by the day.