Opening Remarks by Angel Gurría
Munich, Germany - 14 February 2020
(As prepared for delivery)
Dear Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure to launch the Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC)’s report on the Geography of Conflict in North and West Africa at the Munich Security Conference, the world’s leading forum for debating international security issues.
The level of insecurity in the North and West African region escalated at a threatening rate over the last few years. The sharp increase in armed attacks on communities, schools, health centres and other public institutions and infrastructure has reached unprecedented levels, with violence disrupting livelihoods and access to social services.
Growing insecurity has also exacerbated already chronic vulnerabilities in the region, including high levels of malnutrition, poor access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
This is unprecedented. It is a threat to our entire globalized world, and we must talk about it. We must find viable solutions, together, to tackle a crisis that has the potential to affect all of us.
This is why this report is an essential contribution to better understand the current situation in North and West Africa, a global security hotspot and a region confronted by the resurgence of violent extremist activity.
The region is facing a critical situation
The security situation in North and West Africa is a source of growing concern. Since the early 2000s, tensions have challenged the legitimacy and stability of several states in the region.
Governments are increasingly confronted with new forms of political violence, and the geography of these conflicts is often elusive due to the large number of actors involved, their shifting alliances and their transnational movements. Between 2011 and 2019, an increase of nearly 250 percent in the number of violent events was recorded.
The last five years were the most violent ever recorded in the region with over 16,000 violent incidents and 60,000 fatalities through end-2019. The rise in political violence in the region is explained by a combination of factors and is not the result of one particular source of violence. Current conflicts feed on local grievances around natural resources that have been left unaddressed by central governments.
External factors have also contributed to destabilise the region. Many of the violent groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda were expelled from Algeria. The spillovers of the Libyan civil war has also worsened the security situation in the region. Conflicts tend to involve numerous non-state actors with different agendas, but all share the common trait of targeting civilians with alarming frequency. Some recent examples include the brutal attacks on two villages in Burkina Faso, in which at least 36 civilians were killed, as well as the attack against a military academy in Tripoli.
Clearly, such a rise in violence calls for more efforts and better co-ordination among all actors involved, in order to ensure the return to stability.
More specifically, Western Africa is facing unprecedented political insecurity. This is largely due to a combination of rebellions, jihadist insurgencies, coups d’état, protest movements and illegal trafficking of drugs, arms and migrants. In Western Africa, between 2011 and 2019, the number of violent events jumped from 581 to 3,617.
The number of associated fatalities surged too, rising from 3,361 recorded in 2011 to 11,911 in 2019.
The backdrop to this accumulated violence is a globalised security environment in which the boundaries between what is local and global, what is domestic and international, or what is military and civilian-related, are increasingly blurred.
Armed conflicts are increasing in complexity
While violence is rising, it remains unclear whether violent organisations are intensifying their efforts in particular areas, whether they are choosing to spread insecurity to a growing number of regions, or if they are relocating under the pressure of government forces.
The new Spatial Conflict Dynamics indicator (SCDi), introduced in this report, addresses many of these pressing questions. It examines both the intensity and concentration of violent events since 1997 across three major hotspots of violence.
These are Mali and Central Sahel, the Lake Chad region (notably the movements of Boko Haram in Nigeria), and Libya. What the results show is clear: violence is increasingly targeting civilians and border regions.
The geography of conflict is changing
The location of conflicts within a region shows great geographical variations. They can take place within the borders of a country or, as it is increasingly the case, across national borders. Indeed, border regions attract a disproportionate and concentrated number of violent events and casualties. More than 40 percent of violent events and associated fatalities are recorded within 100 kilometres of a land border.
Moreover, the number of regions experiencing local intensification of political violence has increased significantly faster than other types of conflicts since the mid-2000s.
Military interventions struggle to achieve long-term stability
The deterioration of security has led African countries and their partners to launch military interventions to stabilise the region, prevent the spread of extremism and end violence against civilians.
However, these initiatives face many obstacles. For example, we are witnessing a rise of regional tensions across state borders after armed groups, defeated by counter-insurgency efforts, relocate to neighbouring countries.
The SCDi shows that, while military interventions have generally reduced the intensity of violence in the short-term, and achieved their military objectives of stopping rebels, destroying the bases of violent organisations, or removing dictators, they have not brought about durable conflict resolution. Conflicts in the region have local roots; insurgencies emerge because of grievances, real or perceived, that should be addressed through civilian procedures and means. The use of the SCDi helps to show how military interventions can create both spaces and moments where violence is suppressed, but will not generate durable solutions to the political circumstances that gave rise to the violence in the first place.
The region’s specificities call for innovative responses
This shift and relocation of political instability across international borders must encourage policy makers to further monitor the geography of violence at regional and multistate levels. A simple focus on one country alone, or even a smaller set of states, fails to grasp the essential aspect of shifting political violence. This can lead to additional difficulties in detecting the direction and implications of such a shift when it occurs. States in the region – and the international community – must promote regional initiatives to restore state legitimacy, increase investment in border regions and improve protection of civilians — creating secure regions where inclusive forms of policies are put in place and a strong dialogue between states, local actors and populations is reinforced.
The OECD, through SWAC, aims to contribute to the global security agenda by providing informed analyses and innovative perspectives to enrich and provide a more focused security discussion. Regional policy responses must pay more attention to the geography of conflicts, to the unpredictable dynamics of political violence, and to the complex interactions between all the actors involved.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The situation in North and West Africa continues to be of serious concern and urgent action is needed. Challenges in the region are numerous, but so are the opportunities. Opportunities that can only be seized by bringing more stability to the region, to its institutions, to its people.
As an African proverb goes: “Peace is costly, but it is worth the expense.” But let us remember that peace is best pursued in partnership. Only by acting collectively will we achieve better and sustainable solutions to promote stability in North and West Africa, and contribute to the global security agenda.