It is unfortunate that Senegal is diverting resources to a war with Yemen when terrorist groups are threatening West Africa, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Johannesburg - Senegal has shocked the continent by being the only non-Arab country to join Saudi Arabia’s military coalition against Yemen.
Senegal’s capitulation to Saudi pressure and incentives serves only to drag another African state into what some consider an illegal war outside the continent where it does not have direct interests at stake.
This comes at a time when the West African region is beset with the more immediate challenges of combating terrorism and building the capacity to create an African rapid response force, which could intervene within days of the outbreak of a crisis.
On May 5, Senegal’s Foreign Minister Mankeur Ndiaye confirmed that Senegal was sending 2 100 troops to Saudi Arabia as part of the international coalition cobbled together for its war effort in Yemen.
Senegal is one of three African countries which have agreed to participate in the coalition, the others being Morocco and Sudan.
Andrew Lebovich, a security analyst who specialises in West Africa, says: “The most obvious potential benefit for Senegal would be closer political and economic ties, and almost certainly direct cash payments from Saudi Arabia to Senegal.”
It is clear that Saudi Arabia is using its vast petro wealth to compel Sunni majority countries to join its coalition.
Senegal’s President Macky Sall recently announced that Saudi Arabia would invest heavily in the government’s development programme known as Programme Senegal Emergent 2035.
Up until last year, Sudan had allowed Iran to supply weapons to its Houthi rebel allies in Yemen through facilities in Sudan. In the wake of Saudi promises to invest heavily in Sudan’s agricultural sector, Sudan joined the coalition against Yemen.
Morocco is indebted to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, who pledged $5 billion (59bn) in aid to Morocco until 2017.
Saudi Arabia has struggled to convince friendly nations to commit ground troops, and even Saudi overtures to Pakistan – a long-time ally and recipient of considerable Saudi funding – were rebuffed by the Pakistani parliament last month.
Ndiaye has defended his country’s participation in the coalition as an effort to “protect and secure the holy sites of Islam – Medina and Mecca”.
The reality is that Senegalese troops are being used to secure Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen. The younger generation in Senegal largely rejects the government’s line, questioning on social media why their country’s troops are being sent to fight a war that is not theirs.
Opposition politicians have widely criticised the decision, with Modou Diagne noting: “Saudi Arabia is not threatened and neither are Islam’s holy sites.”
Senegal’s civil society groups have also protested against the sending of “cannon fodder”.
Amnesty International has called Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen illegal, with its Senegal specialist Seydi Gassama saying: “There are no legal grounds to intervene as there is no UN mandate.”
In an effort to counter the criticisms, Senegal’s government has claimed that its troops would be “fighting terror”.
The problem with this argument is that the Houthis and their allies are not terrorists but part of Yemen’s political fabric, and had been part of a UN-brokered power-sharing deal that was on the verge of being finalised when Saudi Arabia launched its air strikes against Yemen.
If Senegal is concerned with fighting terrorism then it only has to look to its immediate region where collective efforts are required in order to combat the growing scourge.
Last year Sall warned that Africa was facing a mounting terrorism crisis, saying: “The continent is in the heart of the storm.”
While Sall acknowledges the threat terrorism poses to his region, he is diverting his troops and resources to a war with Yemen. This is unfortunate when a growing number of terrorist groups are threatening West Africa.
Boko Haram is expanding its tentacles beyond Nigeria, even kidnapping boys in Cameroon. AQIM (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) is a Salafi-jihadist militant group that threatens a large stretch of Mali, and Ansar Dine wants the imposition of strict sharia (law) across Mali.
These are Senegal’s real threats, not the Houthi rebels vying for political control of Yemen.
Senegal’s president has downplayed African criticism of French intervention on the continent, describing its military intervention in Mali and the Central African Republic as having been positive.
But if Senegal worked more vociferously with its other African partners to create President Jacob Zuma’s proposed African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (Acirc), France would not need to get involved in Africa’s crises.
Acirc has a real chance of success because the proposed 1 500 soldiers would be a nimbler force that could be deployed within days and is an interim measure until the African Standby Force is operational.
It is the operationalisation of such forces which the continent should be prioritising, while we resist pressure from big powers to get embroiled in their foreign wars.
* Shannon Ebrahim Independent Media’s foreign editor.