Rising violent extremism, asymmetric conflict, climate change, and now depressed Covid-19 driven economic outlooks have created a situation of perpetual crisis in the region. Fatigue, recession, and crises of governance are pushing away traditional international security actors. But the Sahel region remains at a crossroads.
Last year, in his first declaration after the World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the executive director and former governor of South Carolina (1995-99), David Beasley, asked the world not to forget about the people in the Sahel. He is right; today more than ever, the Sahel region is in need of more robust support from the international community. While significant national, regional, and international resources have been directed toward strengthening security in the Sahel, what is needed is stronger investment in development, not just in security.
Where do we stand?
Intercommunal violence and persistent attacks by terrorist groups continue to undermine the stability of the region. According to the Institute for Strategic Studies (ISS), terror attacks in the Sahel have increased five-fold since 2016. The Covid-19 pandemic is compounding the security and humanitarian crises, in part by disrupting supply routes and causing food shortages.
The number of Sahelians living in extreme poverty is projected to have increased by more than 1.3 million in 2020 alone. According to UNHCR, in the next two years, about two million people will be internally displaced and more than 845,000 will seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
Climate change has exacerbated an already volatile situation, with negative consequences on agricultural production and food security.
The Sahel will most likely be the region with the largest number of people affected by global warming, with temperatures projected to rise 1.5 times higher than the global average. At the same time, nearly 90% of Sahelian rangelands and 80% of farmlands are degraded, including soil erosion. In Niger alone, farmers lose 100,000 hectares of arable land each year due to unpredictable rainfall, extreme temperatures, and drought affecting water points that are of paramount importance to pastoralists.
The Sahel: a global matter
According to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the Sahel’s population contributes very little to climate change and yet it “suffers the most” from rising temperatures and unpredictable rainfall: “Famers and breeders who used to live in harmony now fight against each other for lands that are more and more reduced, and this is making an unstable situation even worse.”
Addressing the Sahel multidimensional challenges is clearly not only an African issue. As the last frontier, terrorism – often financed through illegal trafficking – is a matter of global concern. The Sahel countries bore the brunt of the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, with militants and stockpiles of weapons pouring over the Libya border.
The international community can contribute significantly to mitigating the climate and economic crises that heighten the region’s insecurity.
How to tackle today’s equation
The UN projects that by 2100, one in three inhabitants of the world will be African, and Nigeria’s population will exceed that of China. The population of the G5 Sahel countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger) alone is expected to more than double to around 170 million by 2050. Populations of Sahelian countries are growing faster than any other region in the world. With an average of 15.2 years, Niger has the lowest median age in the world.
But insecurity threatens youth education in the Sahel where attacks on schools have increased sixfold since 2017. Addressing the UN Security Council in June 2021, Mohamed Bazoum, president of Niger, highlighted that every school that closes is a door of opportunity that closes.
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Children who are not in school may be lured into a life of violence in the turbulent Sahel. This is what happened in Solhan, a village in Burkina Faso which faced the deadliest attack in the country’s history. On 4 June, extremists massacred more than 130 people. Assailants were mostly children aged 12 to 14. As Joseph Ki-Zerbo, a Burkinabé historian wrote, we must educate or perish. As of March 2021, in the region, about 13 million children were out of school due to increasing insecurity and Covid-19.
In the Sahel, education can – and must- be a game-changer. For instance, building safer boarding schools would keep girls from dropping out of rural schools, and in turn delay marriage and reduce the birth rate. In addition, increasing the focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) should lead to more skills development that will yield more inclusive growth and assets into economic dividends.
Green resilience and inclusive development can help build back better and greener from Covid-19 and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
We can slow climate change, halt biodiversity loss, increase food production and create green jobs in the Sahel. The region is endowed with large transboundary regional watersheds and groundwater reservoirs that could meet the current and future needs of West Africa.
However, less than 1% of this potential is currently in use. Through practical solutions such as better seeds, irrigation, and fertilisation, the region can increase its yields by 50%. Tapping into African solutions in a region where the majority of the workforce is engaged in subsistence agriculture is critical. The implementation of the Great Green Wall for the Sahel and Sahara Initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares of land from Senegal to Djibouti and to create 10 million jobs, will help deliver the Paris Agreement as we have just entered the UN Decade for Ecosystem Restoration.
In a region where less than 20% of the population has access to electricity, the International Development Association (IDA) and other initiatives such as the European Union Green Deal can leverage the Sahel’s solar potential to help countries undertake a just and rapid transition, turning the region into a solar powerhouse. Recently, IDA contributed to establishing and improving the management of more than five million hectares of pastureland. We have the means and know-how to bring to scale the region’s opportunities.
With a stronger IDA and increased concessional financing, donors could help Sahelian countries diversify their rural economies, attract private investments, broaden access to markets, promote women’s empowerment and youth inclusion, improve education while creating infrastructure. The Abidjan’s Declaration related to IDA-20 is our blueprint towards achieving a true human transformation of our populations. This is how we will unleash some of the Sahel’s potentials, bring stability back to the region, and make the region a thriving one.