by Laurent Bossard, SWAC Secretariat Director
The “War of the Sahel” may be one of the major events of the 2010s. A decade after the September 11 attacks, the international conflict that has just begun in Mali in fact involves the entire Saharo-Sahelian belt, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. No matter what the modalities, this global conflict is likely to last, and half of West Africa is directly threatened by the conflict. To free the area from the rampant criminal organisations that feed off drug trafficking, hostage taking, arms trade, human trafficking and cigarette smuggling, there is no other option than regional solidarity.
The concern is not just about the spread of the conflict throughout the region, or the flight of some of the armed groups of northern Mali into neighbouring countries. It is also about the geographical reconstitution of the criminal networks that sustain and are sustained by terrorist groups. Regional routes for drugs and other contraband are already reorganising themselves.
However, West African solidarity has no chance of being effective if it is not supported by improved trans-Saharan co-operation. It is inexact – and in some respects unjust – to circumscribe the terrorist threat to the Sahel. This threat originated and developed within the confines of North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa; it is a common problem in a common space. North African countries will have to play their role in the “Sahel war” – not only because the “Sahel” covers a large part of their territory but also because they run the risk of seeing the Islamists and criminals tightening their vice on them.
The Club is not the place where military strategies are discussed. Rather it is a space for dialogue where it is possible to begin, from today, a reflection on the post-war phase, however distant and uncertain.
To this end and at the request of the Members, the SWAC Secretariat proposes to approach this process of reflection from the perspective of relations between West Africa and North Africa. Everyone agrees on the fact that the region can only be secured and stabilised in a sustainable manner through closer co-operation between the North and the South of the Sahara; the same logic must apply to development strategies. This will be one of the SWAC priority areas of the next biennium. Within the Club, West and North African experts will work together on the hypothesis that the “economic and commercial desertification” of the Sahara is a result of a lack of interest, and recognition of the complementarities between the two sides of the Sahara. Perhaps one of the root causes of the persisting insecurity between the two regions is that they have too long turned their backs to one another.
The first edition of the Sahel and West Africa Week, held in Ouagadougou last December, bore witness to the vitality of the “New Club”, driven by the will of its Members to help build an even stronger coalition in support of regional integration; the launch of the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative (AGIR) is one illustration. On this occasion, ECOWAS and UEMOA, supported by CILSS, once again demonstrated the strength of their leadership. In the perilous months ahead, West Africa will need this regional leadership more than ever.