Investing in Peace and the Prevention of Violence in the Sahel-Sahara: Voices from Africa

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While military and security responses to violence and its multifaceted consequences in the Sahel-Sahara region may be necessary, they have limits, and have, at times, produced adverse results. Alternative strategies that leverage the resilience capacities of local communities in the region remain understudied and undervalued. These alternatives were the focus of a recent meeting in June in Algiers on the prevention of violence in the Sahel-Sahara. On the margins of the UN General Assembly high-level week in New York, on 28 September, several policymakers and practitioners from the region, who had participated in the Algiers meeting, met at IPI to present the meeting’s main conclusions and recommendations, with particular focus on those they believe could be implemented by local, national, regional, and international actors.

This September 28th discussion, co-hosted with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) of Switzerland, identified the main factors that can contribute to effective responses to violent extremism in the Sahel-Sahara. These include fostering healthy governing-governed relations, safeguarding and enlarging the space for civil society engagement; unleashing the potential contribution of the media, of culture and education, and designing the appropriate role of security and defense forces. Panelists showcased the lessons learned and best practices arising from implementation of these measures by local actors.

Moderator and IPI Senior Adviser Youssef Mahmoud emphasized that prevention efforts can only be sustainable if they are lead and owned at the local and national levels, rooted in a regional or cross-border strategy, and well supported at the international level.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), added that “the more we listen to local communities, the better we become at shaping targeted solutions and shaping partnerships, rather than imposing externally defined solutions.”

Mr. Chambas highlighted the “pressing need” to foster space for dialogue: at the local level between the people and the state, as well as between communities and defense and security actors to best support governments’ work to promote peace.

“We need to acknowledge that security alone cannot bring about peace,” he said. Security, development, and human rights are interlinked. Exclusion, poverty, and social injustice often drive young people towards radicalization, he said, and to counter this “we need to offer alternative income-generating activities and bring social services to these communities where the presence of the state is weak or absent.”

Echoing the call to move beyond military solutions, Dominique Favre, Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Switzerland to the UN, said that although it may seem easier to respond to violence with violence, this is not a sustainable solution. The prevention approach recognizes that the response must not only come from state governments, but must include all actors.

He noted that to apply a prevention approach to violence, one must seek to understand the factors that lead individuals towards violent extremist groups and to be able to act directly on the root causes. It is not enough to tackle the consequences, he said, there must be a demonstrated political will and daily action to build peace and transform the root causes of violence, without which the same factors will continue to have the same deleterious effects.

Mohamed Anacko, President of the Agadez Regional Council in Niger, discussed the lack of economic opportunity as a possible incentive to join these armed groups. Migration has always been an important economic activity in Agadez, according to Mr. Anacko, but the adoption of a recent law criminalizing illegal migration has left those who lived off of smuggling—including the youth—without a job.

These unemployed youths constitute a recruitment opportunity for promoters of violent extremism. “It is important to propose an alternative to this youth,” he said. In Agadez, a reconversion plan has been implemented targeting those who previously made a living off migration. However, he said, this plan is not sufficient. Mr. Anacko called on international partners to support the youth by creating more opportunities.

El Haouès Riache, Ambassador and Counterterrorism Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Algeria, shared Algeria’s experience in addressing violent extremism and the broad outlines of the national reconciliation strategy devised to address its consequences. This included engaging in dialogue whenever possible with those who were formerly radicalized, creating partnerships with civil society, religious leaders, private and public sectors, and above all with citizens, including women and youth, he said. He made special note of the fact that “women—as wives, fiancées, and mothers—played a significant role in the reintegration of former fighters.”

Mr. Riache said that Algeria’s experience offered lessons for other countries plagued by violent extremism. “The military solution is not enough,” he said. “It is necessary to resort to non-violent means to act on the root causes and to foster dialogue, mutual respect, tolerance, as well as to build and promote social cohesion and trust between states and citizens.”

Lori-Anne Théroux-Bénoni, Director of the Dakar Office of the Institute for Security Studies of Senegal, made the point that there is too little empirical evidence available on:

  1. Engagement and non-engagement strategies (i.e. why one person who is prone to recruitment did not join certain groups and identify factors of resilience);
  2. The role of women;
  3. The perception of local populations to the threat and their understanding of the efficiency of the response;
  4. The efficiency of prevention of violent extremism policies in place and their concrete impact.

She argued that “the need to make this evidence available and accessible is urgent,” since those who have this data are not always those who have access to decision platforms and influence at the national, regional, or international levels. This causes a discrepancy between  the understanding of the threat and the solutions offered.

There are two ways to obtain this information, she said. One is through talking to former fighters to understand recruitment strategies, and the other through understanding motivations behind their joining extremist groups and their subsequent exit. It is also important to impress upon the defense and security forces the importance of factoring in human rights considerations within their conceptualization and analysis of the threat.

Larry Gbevlo-Lartey, African Union Special Representative for Counterterrorism and Director of the African Union’s African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), invited the audience to question the meaning of “good governance” and “inclusive” policy implementation. “Does the government structure really go down to the community level and are the communities really involved in what decisions are taken by those who have political power,” he asked.

He said that the Westphalian conceptualization of national security as territorial integrity and non-interference “can bring about a lot of impunity” and corruption in leadership, and that today, the concept of national security needs to change to provide for the people. “If we cannot do that and we are going to use national security as a tool to suppress the people,” he said, “then we should expect a reaction.”

He said that there is no shortage of counterterrorism or prevention of violent extremism frameworks in the African Union. “We have so many,” he said. The problem, he explained, lies in their implementation.

Omezzine Khélifa, Executive Director of the NGO Mobdiun in Tunisia, told a moving story of a man who chose to study poetry over joining an extremist group to demonstrate how art and culture can contribute to prevention efforts and the importance of introducing both aspects in education from an early stage.

She argued that education should be a space where dialogue, debate, and questioning are possible. “One must listen to understand, not only to help and solve,” she said. But certain advocacy can only be possible through the work of civil society, she added, which has better access to youth, given their general mistrust of the government.

In the current context where certain laws are being adopted to restrict the space of civil society and its capacity to engage with marginalized communities, she emphasized the importance of government support. “Such organizations go into the most remote areas where states don’t always have access,” she explained, “and it is important to ensure enough resources for civil society, especially when states are given so many resources for the prevention of violent extremism.”

“If states and civil society truly work together as allies and a sufficient financial resource is ensured, much more tangible results can be achieved,” she concluded.

The event was a follow-up to the “Third Regional Conversations on the Prevention of Violent Extremism: Investing in Peace and Prevention of Violence in the Sahel-Sahara,” which took place on June 24-25, 2018 in Algiers. The conversations were organized by UNOWAS, IPI, the FDFA of Switzerland, and the African Union’s African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), with support from the government of Algeria. A brief from this meeting is available in English, French, and Arabic here.

Remarks were given in both French and English.