Tuesday, 14.05.2024 - Wednesday, 15.05.2024 - Dakar - Senegal

5th edition Sahel-Sahara Dialogue "Between hybrid fragilities and competitive international agendas in the Sahel: what are the possible prospects for the region?"

From 14th to 15th May 2024, the fifth Sahel-Sahara Dialogue regional conference was held in Dakar (Senegal), organized by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Peace and Security Competence Centre (FES PSCC) on the theme "Between hybrid fragilities and competitive international agendas in the Sahel: what are the possible prospects for the region?" This 5th edition of the Dialogue was an opportunity to establish a permanent framework for dialogue between the countries of the region to improve collective security (Sahel-Maghreb-Gulf of Guinea) in line with current developments in insecurity in the neighbouring Gulf of Guinea region, to share relevant and effective experiences of resilience in the face of insecurity, and to produce strategic and feasible recommendations. The regional meeting was attended by experts, academics, representatives of sub-regional and international organisations and civil society, as well as representatives of state institutions and defense and security forces from ten (10) countries in the Sahel, Maghreb, West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea, for inclusive and progressive discussions on common security challenges.

For several years now, the Sahel has been going through a multidimensional crisis that is shaking and weakening the foundations of the region's states. Since 2020, this has been compounded by successive military coups in the central Sahel (Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger). This deterioration in security is also taking place in a geopolitical context marked by the strong presence of competing external players with antagonistic ambitions.

The Sahel region is a vast, mineral-rich territory of interest to a number of foreign powers (China, France, Russia, USA, EU, among others), who fear a deterioration in the security situation, a source of threats to their own internal security, but also a takeover by jihadists and competing powers of key strategic resources such as uranium. The region has a geostrategic value that justifies the strong presence of Western powers to reinforce their geopolitical and strategic positioning in the ‘global fight’ against violent extremism, which the Sahelian states are finding it difficult to win, as their defense and security forces are neither prepared nor equipped to deal with it.

However, despite the security responses developed over more than a decade and the strong presence of foreign powers in the Sahel, the expansion of the jihadists, which had seen a relative decline in 2013, has continued in recent years. Terrorist groups have reorganised, expanded their areas of operation and developed new modi operandi. In January 2023, the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) reported a deteriorating security context and a disastrous humanitarian situation in the Sahel. The UN Special Representative for the region noted that the Sahel continues ‘to face multidimensional challenges, unprecedented levels of insecurity and humanitarian challenges, socio-political instability exacerbated by the impact of climate change, and food insecurity exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine’. In addition, governmental and unconstitutional crises have a political, security, economic and social impact on the stability of the region and neighbouring countries. According to the index of state fragility, the countries of the Sahel are among the 25 most fragile states. Most of these governments are unable to control their territory. In Burkina Faso, for example, armed Islamist groups reportedly control up to 40% of the territory. Despite the Wagner group's ‘support’ for the Malian government, the Islamic State has doubled its territory in that country. In Niger, soon to be considered an exception, the situation has deteriorated further since the military coup of 26 July 2023.

The transnational and hybrid nature of the threats and challenges to security and stability in the Sahel, as well as their rapid regional spread, therefore, call for a global and coordinated response from the States in the region, and the integration of all categories of actors in order to respond effectively.

During the various panels, the participants not only analysed the problems but also drew up recommendations, taking account of the geopolitical context and its ramifications for regional policy and cooperation in the Sahel.

The conference panels focused on the following themes:

  1. Security dynamics in the Sahel: between internal fragility and exacerbated foreign influences.
  2. The Sahel, a testing ground for a new form of collective security?
  3. Participatory security: towards greater involvement of non-state actors in peace processes in the Sahel.
  4. Electoral processes and stability in contexts of political transition: the case of the Sahel region.
  5. Prospects for sustainable peace in the Sahel: what integrated solutions are needed to curb instability and insecurity in the region?

The exchanges and discussions highlighted several points and recommendations.

Firstly, the Sahel crisis is unfolding in an international environment currently dominated by the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, which are monopolising most of the international community's attention and resources. However, it would be absurd to regard it as a minor crisis, given its complexity, particularly its multidimensional nature, integrating multifaceted security, humanitarian, socio-economic, political, cultural and even religious aspects, its geographical scope, its longevity and the multiplicity and variety of both the players and the solutions advocated to bring it to an end.

Secondly, the Sahel is an area in which the territories of the various states that make it up form geographical continuities where ethnic solidarities are very strong. Weakened by internal and external factors, terrorism and violent extremism, which are in sharp decline in many parts of the world, are deeply rooted in the Sahel. Several groups linked to the international labels of the terrorist phenomenon, with strong links to each other and to organized crime circles, scour the region.  Their actions are responsible for the destruction of thousands of human lives and private and public property, with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Democratic values, for which the region was, until a few years ago, the continent's standard-bearer, are also being called into question. In several Sahelian states, the constitutional order has been broken by members of the defense and security forces, and there has also been a marked decline in national unity, with the gradual tribalisation of the state apparatus becoming common practice. Traditional cooperation partners are being rejected in favour of new ones, described as ‘alternative partners’, who are involved in the supply of military equipment and the operational application of the anti-terrorist response in particular.

However, about the central Sahel states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, it should be noted that, despite sharing the characteristics listed above, their national contexts are not uniform. Security, socio-economic, political and humanitarian concerns differ from one country to another. For example, in terms of security, the reconfiguration of armed rebel groups and their increasingly notorious links with terrorist groups, and their change of doctrine and area of action, create a specific context in Mali that differs greatly from those in neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. The same applies to the socio-economic, political and humanitarian contexts.

Finally, for a better understanding of the crisis in the Sahel, it is useful to consider the region as a continuum of the Maghreb, since the two regions have common populations with their own traditions and ways of life and share the same challenges today.

This shared assessment of the situation in the Sahel has led to the identification of a number of measures designed to improve the overall situation. These are as follows:

  • Make the Sahelian crisis visible by informing and raising awareness of the danger posed by its persistence and worsening, and of its effects at local, regional and international level.
  • Understand the Sahel crisis in all its complexity, while taking into account the specific national context and the close links between the region and the Maghreb.
  • Take account of the interests of the communities and states of the Sahel and the Maghreb, as well as those of players from outside these regions.
  • Return to constitutional order and strengthen democratic institutions, through the promotion and implementation of peaceful political processes.
  • Establish shared and decentralised governance.
  • To create and maintain a symbiotic link between development, peace and democracy.
  • Designing endogenous political models.
  • Favouring political solutions and accompanying them with military operations.

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