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New approach needed to battle extremism in the Sahel

Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol on the road of Gorgadji in the Sahel area. File picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol on the road of Gorgadji in the Sahel area. File picture: Luc Gnago/Reuters

Published Mar 29, 2021


All the efforts to neutralise jihadist groups in the Sahel over the past eight years have had little effect in ridding the region of IS and Al Qaeda linked groups. Ironically the situation has only gotten worse, and escalating levels of violence have raised alarms both in North Africa and in European capitals.

As extremist groups gain ground and expand their territory across borders, local communities suffer and the level of the terror threat in Europe increases.

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The failure to effectively stem the growth of Jama’at Nasr al Islam wal Muslimin - Al Qaeda’s affiliate in the Sahel, and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara, is evidence of a flawed counter-terrorism strategy.

The time has come to shift from a reliance on a heavy handed military approach to dealing with jihadist groups to one that prioritises the need for good governance in the region as an antidote to the scourge of extremism.

Years of military attacks against jihadists in an attempt to prevent them from overrunning towns and holding territory have come to nought as they have succeeded in moving from Northern Mali to the centre of the country, and across borders to South West Niger and the North and East of Burkina Faso.

According to the International Crisis Group, armed attacks by jihadists have increased five fold since 2016 and ethnic violence has ballooned. This is despite the counterterrorism military operations carried out by the G5 Sahel Joint Force, France's Operation Barkhane, and the EU's Takuba Task Force which have tried to coordinate their efforts.

A bottom-up approach to dialogue is taking shape to fill the gaps left by state-led diplomatic efforts. Just a year ago France, which has played a leading role in fighting extremist groups across the Sahel, was promising an increase in troop levels, but in a meeting last month of G5 Foreign Ministers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, France seemed to want to reduce its military footprint in the region.

Possibly an acknowledgment that the existing strategy is not producing results, and anti-French sentiments on the ground have been escalating.

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But there has been no recoiling from the predominantly military approach to the crisis, and the Takuba task force recently deployed150 special forces from European countries to the Sahel.

As protests emerged in Mali in late January against the French military presence, there were more rumblings that national governments are considering negotiating with jihadist groups.

Last year Malian President Boubakar Keita had indicated that he was prepared to negotiate with militants. Prime Minister of the transition in Mali, Moctar Ouane has made it clear that they intend to go forward with the discussions begun by former President Boubacar prior to his ouster.

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On February 4th, Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister said his country is looking to start negotiations for peace with armed groups in the North and East. Up until recently the government of Burkina Faso had refused to enter into dialogue with militants, but have now shifted their position on talks.

This suggests that national governments are taking back the initiative in bringing stability to their countries. But their success very much depends on their ability to curb excesses by their security forces against the civilian populations. Human Rights Watch has released a statement that Sahel nations need to address allegations of atrocities by their security forces.

More importantly, national governments need to look introspectively at their governance records - the failure to provide services like health care and education to their people, high levels of official corruption, and the urgent need for financial reform.

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These are the root causes of popular frustration across the region, and led to the extensive unrest and subsequent military coup in Mali in August last year.

Without addressing underdevelopment across the Sahel and the consequences of climate change on peoples’ livelihoods, poverty and frustration will continue to provide fertile ground for extremists to attract new recruits.

As rural dwellers turn against each other and tensions increase within and between communities, jihadists take advantage of the discord and fill the power vacuum. National governments should prioritise resolving local disputes, and facilitating dialogue between communities in conflict.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is now calling for increased diplomacy and political engagement across the region. Bottom-up efforts by non-governmental organisations are emerging to facilitate dialogue and reduce communal violence.

Organisations such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, Search for Common Ground, Geneva Call, and Promediation have attempted to facilitate dialogue and fill the gaps left by state-led diplomatic efforts.

As Southern Africa we can learn lessons from the failure to effectively stem the growth of Jihadist groups in the Sahel.

There is an opportunity for the region to adopt an approach in Mozambique that is not solely focussed on a military strategy against jihadist groups, but one that also addresses governance issues, and the need to tackle underdevelopment, local frustration, and marginalisation.

Rather than solely prioritising a military strategy in Northern Mozambique, we could encourage a shift in focus to addressing the lack of human security and the need to improve service delivery.

Access to decent health care and education are all issues that are of great concern to locals in Cabo Delgado and the surrounding communities.

The frustration and poverty of locals are capitalised on by jihadist groups, who then promise them a better life.

Just as national governments in the Sahel need to address abuses by their security forces against civilians, so should governments in our own region.

As the SADC region devises a concrete strategy to deal with the insurgency in Northern Mozambique, we should look northwards to see what we can learn from their struggle against extremism.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.

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