Developments in the Sahel could be worse than the crisis in Ukraine
While global attention is riveted on Ukraine, a potentially worse crisis is unfolding in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia is taking advantage of the instability.
Jihadist threats, poverty, climate change and COVID have prompted people in the region to demand solutions. Their frustration is reflected in military juntas overthrowing democratically elected regimes, including in Burkina Faso on January 23. Russia is seeking to expand its influence in Africa by offering military support to juntas – and seems to be finding it. On January 24, demonstrators in Ouagadougou chanted “no to France, yes to Russia.”
Burkina Faso’s coup follows three others in the region over the past 18 months – one in Guinea and two in Mali. Last week, citing “multiple obstructions” by the Malian regime, France announcement he would withdraw French and allied troops from Mali. Meanwhile, the Russian proxy militia, the Wagner Group, would be deployed there (although the Malian government deny this). Wagner is the same paramilitary group that was sanctioned for destabilizing Ukraine, Libya and other countries.
Earlier this month, Ghanaian President and Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States, Nana Akufo-Addo noted the coup in Mali was “contagious” and that the trend “must be contained before it devastates our entire region”. There is already 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the Sahel (the Ukrainian conflict has so far 1.5 million) after a 16 times to augment in terrorism since 2016, and a 33% increase in extremism last year.
While Russian adventurism in the Sahel is new, the region’s problems – extremism, terrorism, armed conflict, food insecurity, corruption, the erosion of democratic norms – are not. Russian intervention will not solve them.
To avert “devastation” in the region and provide an alternative to Russian-backed strongmen, the United States and its partners must help African governments address the real drivers of instability.
The Sahel is the poorest region in the world. It is also severely affected by climate change, which causes crop failures. About 36 million people are expected to be acutely food insecure in the Sahel and West Africa during this year’s lean season, up 24% from 2020. Add violence, displacement and COVID-19, and there is already a humanitarian crisis, with 3.5 million in the central Sahel who need humanitarian aid today.
But this may only be the beginning, as the rapid population growth of the Sahel cuts through all of these risk factors, exacerbates them and no doubt leads to many of them. Its population has doubled since 2000 and is expected to more than double by 2050 (from 92 million to nearly 200 million). In Niger alone, people can triple in the next 35 to 40 years.
Such explosive growth would undoubtedly exacerbate the region’s hunger and security challenges and threaten to overwhelm government services aimed at meeting people’s basic needs.
One obvious thing to do to prevent this dystopian future is to bend the region’s growth curve, including by advancing gender equality and helping women and girls take control of their lives and decisions. in matters of procreation.
Studies show that societies with the greatest gender inequalities are prone to greater violence and instability, and that gender inequalities in the Sahel are among the worst in the world. Many girls and women do not have the choice or the means to obtain an education, access health care, refuse child marriage or plan and space births, resulting in high rates early marriage, early motherhood and maternal and infant mortality.
Birth rates in the Sahel are already three to four times higher than in the United States and many other countries, but could soon climb even higher. As the pandemic leads to increased school closures, economic and food insecurity and gender-based violence, an additional number 10 million girls could be forced into early marriage by 2030.
The population of the Sahel is one of the most dynamic in the world, and also one of the youngest, with a significant “youth bulge”. Many young Sahelians are unemployed, face an uncertain future and are easily targeted for recruitment by extremists.
For any country with such demographic trends, providing basic services would be a challenge, but in the Sahel it is a Sisyphean task. Given the projected population growth, it would be necessary to sustained annual GDP growth of 11% just for to keep the status quo in the Sahel – with its current levels of poverty, hunger, substandard schooling and other deficits – not to mention making things better. Such growth is not likely.
So what can we do? A new Atlantic Council report calls on international donors to do what Sahelian governments have been reluctant to do: promote women-centered development projects, boost girls’ education, curb child marriage and expand access to family planning.
Investing in the empowerment of women and girls is essential to advancing human rights; it is also a community-centred approach to tackling the Sahel crisis, more beneficial than other types of aid – and more powerful and far-reaching than the projection of military power in the region, such as the Russia seeks to do so.
As the Sahel amply demonstrates, regions that fail to address gender inequality do so at their peril. And since gender inequality can exacerbate population growth, civil unrest, terrorism, migration and instability, unchecked gender inequality in one region also jeopardizes countries elsewhere.
The United States is already a key partner in counterterrorism efforts in the region. With the French withdrawal of security support in Mali, the United States has a unique – and potentially fleeting – opportunity to significantly reshape its assistance architecture in the Sahel.
First, the United States should bolster implementation of the peace agreement between the government and former rebel movements in Mali, through high-level diplomatic engagement and increased military assistance linked to cohesion between the government and the former rebel movements. This would give the transitional government in Mali a reliable and proven pro-democracy security partner and reduce the chances of Russia/Wagner repeating its pattern of destruction. It would also reassure neighboring countries in the Sahel as they face growing security threats that their flank will not be fully exposed.
Second, the United States should vigorously address the root causes of instability in the Sahel. By partnering with other donor countries, international development organizations and socially responsible businesses to invest in the education, economic empowerment, health and rights of women and girls on an unprecedented scale , the United States would not only help the region avoid the spiral of poverty, hunger, conflict and migration, it would also strengthen global security.
Philip Carter III is an independent consultant and senior researcher at the Population Institute. A retired career diplomat, he held several senior positions in the State Department’s Africa Bureau, as well as Ambassador to Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire and Deputy Commander Civil-Military Engagement at U.S. Command for Africa.
Bisa Williams East special adviser for Mali at The Carter Center and leads the Center’s efforts as an independent observer of the implementation of the peace accord in Mali. She is also a Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Williams was a career former US State Department Foreign Service officer who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs and Ambassador to Niger.