A new epoch beckons for the resilient Sahel

Friday, March 5th, 2021 17:15 | By

The last ten years have not been easy for the Sahel, but surprisingly the region has exhibited remarkable resilience under heavy odds. While the 2010-2020 decade has been the most trying so far, the Sahel confronted the multiple yet diverse and unnerving challenges with notable fortitude.

Since 2010, the Sahel region has endured tempests of stark political turmoil, rise in extremism and drought, among others. These situations have provoked desperate mass migrations along the Sahel and across the Mediterranean. They have intensified inter-communal violence, provoked human rights violations, undermined security, spawned illicit contraband conduits, destroyed public infrastructure, particularly schools and health facilities and largely led to disorder. A resultant ripple effect of such fluid situations is that on many occasions it has prompted severe humanitarian intervention to protect lives ensure access to food, shelter, sanitation and health services.

Political impasse in Mali has festered since 2012 after a spillover from the 2011 civil war in Libya that saw militants crossing borders and exporting insecurity. While a cessation of hostilities has stabilized in Mali, the political conflict and terror groups remains delicate and active respectively.  A surge of violence by various Jihadist militants going back to 2010 and 2012 has given rise to extremism around the Lake Chad Basin and the Liptarko-Gourma region challenging state authority and legitimacy.

As the Sahel grappled with the humanitarian emergency, the year 2020 opened with the leaders of the five Sahelian states Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger under the aegis of G-5 Sahel, holding a high-level summit in Pau, Southern France with the French President Emmanuel Macron. The outcome of the Pau summit stressed on greater and stronger cooperation on security and anti-terrorism. Shortly after the Pau Summit COVID-19 broke out and was soon after declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). COVID-19 has reset the entire world, and the Sahel is no exception to its debilitating effects. Of note however is that the Sahel region has managed to pull through the turbulence with sheer fortitude and remains unvanquished.

The G-5 Sahel, which is an inter-governmental cooperative framework, was established in 2014 to address the Sahel’s shared challenges of terrorism, organized crime, climate change and demographic growth. Alongside these cross-border issues, the region has had to handle the pandemic too. The follow up G-5 Sahel summit held in N’djamena, Chad this February 2021 attracted the participation of President Macron, European Council President Charles Michel, and EU High Representative Josep Borrell among senior UN officials. The N’djamena summit acknowledged that greater strides have been made in combating terrorism and resolved to devote more resources on strengthening state legitimacy through administration, access to justice, policing, food, water availability, education and comprehensive family health provision.  

A new epoch for the Sahel

We are now in the year 2021, which marks the beginnings of a fresh decade and a new epoch. The UN Decade of Action.

While a sliver of good news against COVID-19 pandemic epitomized by vaccines currently being rolled out has brought some relief, it is early to predict how 2021 will pan out for the Sahel, given that it is still handling complex humanitarian emergencies. At the same time disconcerting news about the Ebola outbreak and a second COVID-19 wave means, we remain vigilant on epidemic surveillance. Alongside our pandemic readiness the top five priorities for the region remain as the quest to continue de-escalating tensions in the region, balancing demographic demands, rephrasing development planning, maintaining security and sustaining peace.

The Sahelian as rightly acknowledged by the G-5 Sahel and development partners remains a region of great contrasts. It is one of the world’s largest, intractable and delicate humanitarian crises and at the same time it is a vast land of opportunity in terms of demography with a growing population, rapid urbanization, renewable energy potential and also classified as the most youthful region in the world. Though the security and political scenario in Sahel region is stabilizing, it remains fickle and more investments are needed to amplify peacebuilding efforts.   

The Decade of Action: Demography, Peace and Security

The volatility in the Sahel is imposing on the continent and the world in general a tremendous socio-economic encumbrance that demands workable solutions and rapid adaptation to solidify the gains made, secure lasting stability and accelerate shared prosperity for all.

UNFPA-WCARO has been working with governments and international partners through various multi-sectoral platforms to support development of initiatives targeting young people, women and children with the aim of curtailing rise in extremism, fostering demographic hope and insuring against the risk of radicalization. To better understand the Sahelian challenge and offer concrete solutions of restoring confidence in the region, UNFPA WCARO commissioned several studies to interrogate the Sahel’s past, present and future challenges and how to overcome them. To this end a forward-looking homegrown strategy, branded “Demography, Peace and Security” was launched late last year with broad-based, all-encompassing objectives of establishing forums of cultural, religious, young, women leaders for peace, security, population development and increasing access to integrated reproductive health services.

Other objectives include those of increasing access on social support to curtail gender-based violence, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse together with promotion of proper and affordable health care for the vulnerable. As a continent keen to maintain the current gains and protect the immediate, shorter and longer-term future, at the start of the decade of action, 2021 is incumbent upon us to pool resources and pick up from tangible evidence based solutions that will be key cogs in restoring shared stability, lasting peace and accelerated prosperity in the Sahel. This is possible by augmenting stronger, durable and sustainable governance structures that are accommodative and inclusive.

Embedding religious leaders, youth, women, civil societies organizations and governmental agencies right from the grassroots remains one of the best ways of building stronger, healthy families, handling humanitarian disasters, averting unnecessary loss of lives, combating extremism and dissuading religious, political and communal intolerance.

It is in this context that 2021 marks a new beginning for the Sahel.

As the Sahel races to accomplish the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), achieve Africa Agenda2063 and “build back better and stronger”, a decade of limitless opportunities and hope beckons for a region that has persevered all odds and shown strong determination to survive. Supporting the Sahel to come out of its complex crises  is not only the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do – to save lives, nip fundamentalism in its infancy, bolster tolerance and unleash the vast untapped demographic dividend in the region.

Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office. He oversees 23 countries. 

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