The Sahel region of Africa should be considered a region of opportunity, despite the “multiple crises” that people there are enduring; that’s according to Annadif Khatir Mahamat Saleh, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel.
The Sahel is a vast under-populated region stretching across Africa from Senegal in the west to Djibouti in the east, an area which is being destabilized by terrorism-related conflict, the effects of climate change and a lack of development.
UN News spoke to Mr. Annadif about the solutions to the problems the region faces.
What is the historical context of the Sahel region?
The people who live in the Sahel are far from the centres of decision-making of the countries that make up the region and so they live on the margins. But they are resilient and self-sufficient, living from commerce and nomadic farming.
Following political turmoil in Libya and before that, in Afghanistan, this region has become a sanctuary for terrorist groups who use religion to incite hatred. This is not Islam, it’s a corrupted form of Islam that these groups want to spread to serve their plans, taking advantage of the fact that most of the people in the Sahel are very sensitive to religious issues.
Because of lack of basic services, and infrastructure, some people can be tempted to adhere to the discourse of these groups, who, in some situations play the role of the State by offering services like education, health and justice.
Can you describe the situation today?
Today, the Sahel has been infested with terrorists. With the fall of Libya’s Gaddafi, the region has become an open arsenal, where arms circulate like bread; anyone can get hold of a weapon, and this provokes violence.
The region is also suffering from the impact of climate change. Before, nomadic herders and farmers coexisted well alongside each other, but with climate change there is less land to cultivate and less grazing land for herders, and this has led to more inter-communal strife.
In the past, local leaders would help to alleviate these conflicts, but they have been driven out by the terrorists, who in some cases, manipulate and aggravate disagreements between farmers and herders in order to extend their sphere of influence.
What type of crisis is the region faced with?
The region is facing multiple crises, for which the people of the Sahel are not responsible. These are global issues with global affects: we are seeing more illegal migration, more terrorist influence and the destabilization of states.
With a little support, Sahelian countries could make headway against these overlapping crises and provide a bulwark against terrorism. But it’s important that the international community remains engaged to support the efforts of the countries of the region.
What are the solutions to these deep-rooted problems?
Investing more in education is vital to articulate durable solutions. In a region which is 60 to 70 per cent made up of young people, it’s crucial to redouble our efforts to ensure that young people have access to education.
It’s important that the State, and public institutions play their role by ensuring the delivery of basic services and putting in place development infrastructures. There is no way out without development. And that requires a minimum of financial support.
It’s also important to see the Sahel as a region of opportunity rather than merely as a problem, and the people must be considered as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.
Where are these opportunities?
Most of the people of the Sahel want peace; they are hard-working, resilient and can live with very little. They don’t ask for a lot. The opportunity is there to exploit the resources which lie below the surface of the land, for example subterranean sources of water, minerals and gold.
The terrorists sell gold mined in the Sahel to finance their operations.
If these resources were properly exploited, if the people who live in the Sahel would benefit, that would be a way to stop the illicit flows of drugs, arms and people across the region.
Even if these people are poor and neglected, they are proud and attached to their region and will never want to leave.
How is the United Nations supporting these solutions?
The United Nations is a key partner in the Sahel, working in coordination of various partners to support the tireless efforts of the governments of the region.
As part of the implementation of the UN Integrated Strategy for the Sahel (UNISS), the UN is contributing to peace consolidation, and humanitarian aid and development through the work of dedicated UN agencies, fund and programmes, that are serving the people of the Sahel on a daily basis, to shape a better future.
Under the leadership of Mar Dieye, the Office of the Coordinator for the Development of the Sahel (OCDS), is actively engaged in mobilizing regional and international partners to hasten the implementation of development programs and projects as part of the UNISS framework.
The governments of the countries of the Sahel are doing what they can, and we should continue to support them. Their efforts are necessary but are not sufficient to put an end to the various challenges.
Given the evolving global situation caused by the Ukrainian crisis, I call on the international community not to neglect the Sahel region, and to maintain its financial support and political engagement in the region. We must all remain mobilized at this is critical moment that the countries of the Sahel are experiencing.