Exploring actions to help building resilience in a region of opportunities
Interactive conference to mark the UNITAR Division for Peace Advisory Board side event.
March 29th, 2023 - 3:00 pm - 05:30 pm CET
After more than ten years of conflict and countering terrorism, the situation in the Sahel region remains unstable, putting thousands of civilians at risk, causing massive suffering, and forcing millions of people to flee and leave their homes. In these 5000 kilometres-long belt lands stretching from Africa’s Atlantic coast to the Red Sea, the humanitarian situation is extremely concerning, and security challenges reach unprecedented levels.
In 2022, more than 33 million people across Burkina Faso, the Far-North of Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Niger, and North-East Nigeria needed life-saving assistance. According to the UNOWAS (United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel), more than 10,000 schools are closed in the region with millions of children affected. About 7,5 million people are in a humanitarian emergency.
At the root of this situation, multidimensional challenges combine in a complex interaction which increases the instability in the Sahel but the areas for improvement are numerous in a region full of opportunities.
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An unstable situation and the factors of destabilization
2017 marked the creation of the Joint Force of the Group of Five (G5 Sahel) to counter-terrorism in the region. The withdrawal of Mali from the G5 Sahel in 2019 introduced new challenges but the Joint Force remains committed to securing the region, especially in the tri-border area. Armed groups – i.e., non-state actors such as Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to name a few, or local militias - have progressively adapted to the extremely rapidly changing local context and benefit from lucrative activities and illegal economy namely based on trafficking. These actors directly challenge the national governments of the region and highlight their failure to protect civilians from violence. National armies often remain under-sized to protect huge portions of territory, especially in peripheral regions, a vulnerability which armed terrorist groups exploit for their benefit. Moreover, human rights violations committed by national security forces often trigger the recruitment of volunteers.
Armed terrorist groups especially prosper under a certain number of circumstances as a result of armed conflict, poverty, climate change, food insecurity and political turmoil. The economic situation is the first explanatory factor that fuels violent extremism in the region and creates an immediate need. The multidimensional poverty and the subsequent inequalities – both linked to low levels of education and employment - exacerbate the tensions, especially for people living in highly peripheral regions where economic injustices and relative deprivation are fertile grounds for recruitment. Indeed, the widespread feeling among populations of having only marginal livelihood opportunities is an important factor driving violent conflict. The situation is even worse for women and girls who suffer greatly from the consequences of conflict and tensions and are the targets of gender-based violence which include widespread abuse and exploitation, trafficking, forced marriages and child marriages, unwanted pregnancies and rape. In January 2023, about fifty women were abducted by presumed extremists in Arbinda in Burkina Faso.
The socio-economic dimension of conflict is exacerbated by the effects of climate change which are particularly visible and felt across the Sahel. The region is specifically vulnerable to climate change and to the increasingly serious consequences of global warming: the frequency of climate disasters such as severe droughts and increasing floods lead to desertification and resource scarcity. Because of the climatic crisis, rural populations are often left with no work which causes rural exodus, in turn amplifying tensions in densely populated urban areas. Consequently, the decline of agricultural production is a direct threat to peace with growing competition over access to essential resources and supplies. The situation is alarming as a report by the United Nations Secretary-General presented to the Security Council in January 2023 emphasizes. It is estimated that more than 18.6 million people are experiencing severe food insecurity because of the combined effects of climate-related disasters and the shortages in wheat and fertilizers due to the war in Ukraine. Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria are among the hardest hit. Similarly, rising sea levels in coastal areas put local populations at risk of flooding.
Violence in the region is also the direct result of a widely shared mistrust from populations towards the national authorities and governments. The high level of grievance towards the government is one of the most important factors causing political instability in the region. The weak governance and consequently limited confidence in authorities and central states nourish a feeling of political neglect and marginalization which strongly undermines the quality of state-citizen relationships. The overall lack of trust combined with the tribal system has allowed the spread of the belief that the government only looks after the interests of specific groups and puts them before the common good. Ethnic tensions play a role in the configuration of forces and contribute to the struggle for power among groups. The lack of trust is particularly strong towards state security actors whose repressive actions and violations of human rights play a significant role in triggering violence. The conduct of state security actors has proved to be an accelerator of recruitment by radicalised groups and militias and is often identified as the tipping point by individuals who join armed factions. These perceived injustices are thus decisive in the rise of violence.
The need for a comprehensive response to counter violence and to foster peace in the region
The highly interlinked nature of the causes of instability and violence requires a comprehensive and all-encompassing response and strategy to tackle all challenges in the region. Given the intricate sources of conflict and the concerning humanitarian emergency, the window for sustainable action to prevent the spread of violence to other regions and countries and to respond to the current challenges is now.
Solutions to overcome the numerous issues that hinder peace in Sahel should go beyond the sole military dimension and address the root causes of instability. Prevention of violent extremism is at the heart of any long-term plan to defeat terrorism. Potential actions include the fight against impunity and a global effort to favour transitional justice. This implies confronting the issue of poor governance to restore the confidence of local populations in the governments and commit to building an inclusive social contract between national authorities and citizens. Strengthening the states and governments to restore their credibility and accountability is central to this process. Most importantly, breaking the vicious circle of violence requires considering a security sector reform to build trust in security organs and deliver on global human rights commitments to counter terrorism with rights-based approaches and the promotion of rule of law.
Governments must address grievances and ensure that the benefits of growth are also shared to avoid the feeling of desperation and deprivation which undermine any peace process. Populations should be given a path to advancement. Remarkably, it is essential to invest in the potential of young people and allow them to express their energy, talent, and enthusiasm. The Sahel is one of the youngest regions in the world with about 64 per cent of its population under the age of 25. Drawing on these young people and their capacities offer immense possibilities and youth employment is key to preventing recruitment by armed groups and eradicating violence.
Similarly, advocating for the inclusion of women in decision-making processes is a positive step for peace. The role of women in raising awareness of violent extremism is demonstrated as they involve local leaders in their efforts to promote peace. Ensuring the representation of women and youth at all levels is a key factor for positive change.
On the climate change front, enhancing the Great Green Wall initiative aiming at restoring 100 million hectares of land can unleash the vast potential for renewable energy. As only 49 per cent of people have access to electricity, solar and wind power can significantly improve food security, and help families and communities to process food. The use of targeted technologies is also helpful to try to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis and ensure equity in access to resources.
Preventing violent extremism implies deploying policies that encourage demobilization and reintegration of those who joined armed groups. This critical step includes developing counter-narratives, providing amnesty, and offering exit opportunities to combatants and militants. These conditions are essential prerequisites to bringing long-term peace. This can also only be achieved if reconciliation among communities is fostered to counter the tribalization of conflicts and politics.
UNITAR Division for Peace will contribute to the ongoing global conversation by:
- Communicating on the stakes in the Sahel and the need to promote the return of peace
- Raising awareness of the humanitarian emergency and giving visibility to the region in a dense international context
- Improving the understanding of drivers of conflict and violence to counter them and stop the spread of violence
- Exchanging on the multiple root causes of conflicts, violent extremism, and terrorism
- Discussing and exploring sustainable solutions and incentives to encourage demobilization from armed groups and reintegration
- Highlighting that, despite current challenges, the Sahel is a region of opportunities which is key to Africa’s development aspirations
- Bringing together high-level experts and actors to discuss solutions in favour of the prevention of conflict and violent extremism
Agenda – Advisory Board Side Event – March 2023
A joint face-to-face and virtual event will be organised on the occasion of the annual side event of the Division for Peace's Advisory Board meeting. The event will bring together actors working on conflict and violent extremism prevention to discuss possible ways for the return of peace in the Sahel. The discussion is aimed at the Division for Peace Advisory Board Members and the broader public to make a positive contribution to peace and the implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 16 (Peace, justice and strong institutions) of the Agenda 2030.
The panel discussion builds on the experiences and knowledge of experts and professionals on the Sahel to explore and identify the structural causes of conflict and violence and share expertise on sustainable solutions at the local, national or international level to develop resilience and help define the conditions for a return of peace in the Sahel.
Based on a cross-cutting approach, the discussion aims to open a space to link up the thematic pillars of UNITAR’s Division for Peace to overcome the current challenges in the Sahel and explore the many learning possibilities to help build resilience and foster peace in a land full of opportunities.
The discussion will focus on:
- Assessing the evolution of the situation during the last ten years
- Raising awareness of the humanitarian emergency
- Providing a space to identify the structural causes of instability and violence in the Sahel
- Highlighting the current challenges in the region at the socio-economic, security, climate change, human rights, and institutional levels
- Sharing expertise on sustainable solutions and approaches towards stopping the spread of violence, countering terrorism and better contributing to peace
- Deliberating on policies and innovative tools to support and improve prosperity, peace and security
- Identifying areas for potential projects and initiatives to help bring peace to the Sahel
- Mapping and connecting stakeholders for possible partnerships to foster cooperation among local, regional and/or international actors
- Emphasizing the numerous opportunities of the Sahel and the importance of the region in Africa’s development aspirations
In the end, all attendees and speakers will be invited for a Q&A exchange to draw conclusions from their knowledge and experience to date and identify ways forward.
Prevention of violent extremism
Peace and security
Conditions for peace
UNITAR Division for Peace, Advisory Board side event, March 2023, 4th Session
Moderation: Ms Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, UN Senior correspondent, and Vice-President of the Swiss Press Club.
15h00 – 15h10: Opening remarks, Mr Nikhil Seth, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director at United Nations Institute for Training and Research
15h10 – 15h20: Opening and introductory remarks from the moderator, Ms Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga
15h20 – 15h35: Brief remarks from the keynote speaker, Mr Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, President of the Centre4S and former United Nations Special Envoy in Sudan, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Burundi and Somalia and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA)
15h35 – 15h45: Brief remarks, Mr Fabrizio Lobasso, Sub-Saharan Africa Deputy Director for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Adjunct Professor of Economic Diplomacy, Soft Power and Country system (UNINT Rome)
15h45 – 15h55: Brief remarks, Ms Tanya Mehra, Senior Research Fellow and Programme Lead (Rule of Law Responses to Terrorism) at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague
15h55 – 16h05: Brief remarks, Mr Abdoul Kassim Fomba, National Coordinator of Think Peace Sahel
16h05 – 16h35: Panel discussion led by the moderator
16h35 – 16h50: Q&A with the audience, led by the moderator
16h50 – 16h55: Closing remarks by the moderator
16h55 – 17h00: Closing remarks, Mr Nikhil Seth, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Executive Director at United Nations Institute for Training and Research
17h00 – 17h30: Musical performance with Etran de l'Aïr (online)
Moderator: Ms Catherine Fiankan-Bokonga, UN Senior correspondent, and Vice-President of the Swiss Press Club.
Keynote speaker: Mr Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, President of the Centre4S and former United Nations Special Envoy in Sudan, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Burundi and Somalia and Head of the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA)
Mr Fabrizio Lobasso, Sub-Saharan Africa Deputy Director for the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Adjunct Professor of Economic Diplomacy, Soft Power and Country system (UNINT Rome)
Ms Tanya Mehra, Senior Research Fellow and Programme Lead (Rule of Law Responses to Terrorism) at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism in The Hague
Mr Abdoul Kassim Fomba, National Coordinator of Think Peace Sahel