The Sahel Crisis: Politics, Prevention and Lessons Learned

10 Jul

Editor’s Note:  The following is the first blog post from Vanessa Mosoti, a talented junior associate from Kenya who has joined us for the summer from Princeton University, where she will finish her undergraduate studies beginning in September. In this post, Vanessa reflects on several UN events, including Security Council briefings, where issues involving states of the Sahel have been addressed.  Vanessa’s recommendations for moving beyond the current impasses and embracing a prevention-oriented framework are wise and worthy of adoption by UN officials with responsibility for Sahel response. 

The eruption of the crisis in Mali, a foreseeable denouement of a decades-long protracted conflict in Northern Mali coupled with a series of internal governance problems, should not have come as a surprise. Despite early warning signs, there is a marked lack of preventive diplomacy in the narrative of the Malian crisis. The international community had specific and identifiable opportunities in which to limit the eruption of conflict, but the statecraft was flawed, inadequate, or absent. Perhaps there is no amount of preventive measures that could have completely preempted the eruption of the crisis in Mali, but there certainly exists a litany of missed opportunities in which timely interventions at several key junctures might have significantly reduced, defused, and contained the violence.

UN dialogue surrounding the Malian crisis focuses understandably on the symbiotic relationship between security and development. And while the recovery of security and the realization of developmental goals must remain a top priority, issues relating to government legitimacy and accountability alongside the creation of a viable economy must also be addressed with similar vigor. As stressed in U.N. event “Countering Violent Extremism and Promoting Community Engagement in West Africa and the Sahel: Strengthening Multilateral Engagement” co-hosted by the governments of Burkina Faso and Denmark on the margins of the June 2014 review of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy, state fragility remains one of the biggest challenges to sustainable peace in the region. Any coherent response to the crisis must prioritize the building of a coordinated state from the bottom up—with national checks and balances, as well as participation from all citizens. Indeed, seeking a comprehensive response by all relevant actors underscores the challenge that the crisis in Mali is inherently political in nature. Of course, divergent views on the political roadmap to be adopted have had an impact on the crisis response, but continued Tuareg exclusion, as well as the exclusion of other marginalized groups (particularly in the North, where people remain bereft of critical security and social services), in the Malian political system virtually guarantees the continuation of the conflict and/or outbreak of future conflict.

A thorough solution requires that the Malian state address the fragmentation of Malian national identity. They are not alone, however. Issues relating to national identity pose challenges with which no African state is unfamiliar. The global spread of the nation-state is arguably the most significant institutional transformation of the modern era. The world today is a conglomeration of diverse nation-state driven societies. The rise of the modern nation-state, one can argue, precipitated the current world order and, subsequently and perhaps more importantly, modern formulations and understandings of concepts relating to identity—national, or otherwise.

A nation-state can be defined as a form of political organization under which a relatively homogenous people inhabit a sovereign state. Societies create national identities that separate people, suggesting fundamental differences between members of different nations. The formation of states and the ability of states to deploy their powers in a variety of social, economic and security contexts create these concepts of national identity. It is from the construction of a state that a nation is created, and not the other way around.  However, this requires important economic and political processes as a condition for the establishment of this combined nation-state—as it is, imaginably, difficult to create a homogenous community to replace the multiple communities of various faiths, peoples, and languages characteristic of preceding empires/kingdoms/colonies/chieftaincies. The nation-state attempts to form a singular identity from these multiple identities; therefore, national integration, the purpose of state power, requires a strong state—defined especially by military power—and the formulation of an image of a shared past based on some common experience and/or of a projected common destiny. African nation-states, however, are the legacy of Europe’s cavalier partition of Africa and their disregard for the complexities of African social, political, and geographic autonomous orchestration. National integration and the perception of this image of a shared past, reflective of the ability of a state to construct a singular identity and project power and legitimacy to all regions of said state, are especially difficult in the African setting—and the Republic of Mali is no exception. Thus, the eruption of conflict, when viewed in context, is utterly unsurprising.

At the Counter-Terrorism event, speakers also emphasized the need for a national infrastructure for peace—citing Ghana’s National Peace Council as one example. Multilateral engagement is key to sustainable regional peace. The purported goals of various interventions in Mali include at least some aspects of humanitarian aid, peacekeeping, and nation building. The intervening bodies seek to mitigate the conflict, alleviate some of the pressures of desertification, and create some semblance of a functional and peaceful governmental structure with high prospects of longevity. The establishment of security, obviously, also remains a priority. As I attended various U.N. meetings dealing with violent extremism, counter-terrorism, and specifically the Sahel crisis, it occurred to me that there are a series of lessons the international community can gather from these endeavors (implemented with varying degrees of success) that can inform future policies concerning intervention in conflict situations similar to that of Mali (i.e.: in the Wider Sahel):

1. Malians must possess ownership of their own peace processes. Ownership refers to Malians determining objectives, scheduling, and negotiation procedures. International actors, while critical, should play peripheral roles (as facilitators) to local and regional actors during negotiations.

2. There needs to be a thorough understanding of political and cultural norms by all parties involved. There is also a need to understand the range of local and regional actors involved in the crisis. There was, in negotiations and interventions in Mali, a lack of understanding of the nature of the conflict, the diversity of the actors, and the nature of the cultural processes behind individual and collective actions and decision-making.

3. Complete representation in mediation—of the wider Malian community and all parties involved in the conflict, civil society, military, etc.—matters in the success of negotiations. There needs to be a general, nation-wide consensus if there is to exist any hope of easy facilitation and long-term implementation of any denouements.

4. Mediators should develop strategies to better deal with spoilers—intrinsic spoilers (those who don’t want peace as it is not in their self-interest) as well as situational spoilers (those who don’t agree with specific provisions/arrangements but are generally seeking peace).

5. There should be provisions for political space for opposition in which groups can express their unhappiness without being shut out, termed rejectionist, or otherwise excluded from the entire process.

6. Regional bodies should provide adequate support to state institutions in crisis. Long-term commitment to provide resources and support after an agreement has been reached and a framework is implemented may be key to stabilization. This help should come in the form of new/repaired infrastructure as well as civic and civil society building measures, but not necessarily in the form of arms transfers or other incentives to state violence. It is nearly impossible to impose a victor’s peace in Mali, and providing the means for a monopoly on the use of violence to a fragile state increases the probability of the rise of rejectionists and spoilers.  Good societal structures and institutions can uphold the peace, legitimize the government, and establish an effective system of governance that serves as a model for the rest of the region.

7. Responsibility for carrying out any agreed upon terms of negotiations should fall onto local institutions as well as the government. The international community should assist these local actors especially (in ways delineated above) for as long as possible/necessary.

8. All potential solutions to the conflict should be derived from public opinion or they will not hold in the long-term. Negotiators/mediators/facilitators should make sure that the opinions of the public are well represented and prioritized in all peace discussions

As the Malian crisis is but one in a wider regional crisis, the biggest ‘lesson-learned’ is that preventive diplomacy is key. “Actions and inactions of international actors have a major impact on whether domestic actors make a conflict or cooperation calculus”[X]. Early action can lead to early cooperation. Trying to contain a conflict after it has already erupted is much more expensive (in terms of time, money, resources, and lives lost) than trying to prevent the conflict from erupting in the first place. Signals of impending conflict, as was the case in Mali, can be very clear. Policy should be geared towards the execution of preventive diplomacy at this time, before the situation is too difficult to contain. However, it is imperative that efforts of preventive diplomacy do not actually create additional incentives for violence, or exacerbate tensions in already fragile periods. The U.N. tends to act as a response agency instead of a prevention or containment agency—that is, the U.N. reacts to spills, instead of working to prevent the spills from happening in the first place. The world expects more than a glorified cleanup agency. More could have been done early on, so more should have been done.

[X] Hamilton, L. H., George, A. L., Goodby, J. E., Holl, J. E., Hurlburt, H. F., Jones, B., … & Zartman, I. W. (1999). Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Seized: Preventive Diplomacy in the PostDCold War World. B. W. Jentleson (Ed.). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Vanessa Mosoti, GAPW Junior Associate



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