By Calum Drysdale
On Saturday, 17 West African countries came together to fund a resurgent effort against jihadi violence in the region.
At a summit in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, on Saturday, West African leaders addressed the growing instability in the region by pledging $1 billion in the fight against militant Islamism in the region.
This group of nations, made up of the 15 ECOWAS countries and representatives from Mauritania and Chad, announced, at the end of the summit that “financial resources” were being mobilised “for the fight against terrorism”.
Funded from 2020 to 2024, the plan aims to reinforce the military operations of the countries worst hit by jihadism and would also work to counteract cross broader violence. Further details were not forthcoming and will be announced at another summit in December.
Jean-Claude Brou, President of the ECOWAS Commission, at the start of the summit, mourned the human, economic and political toll of the jihadi attacks and reminded delegates of the human cost of the violence. According to him there had been “2,200 attacks in the last four years, 11,500 dead, thousands wounded … millions of displaced, and economic activity has been greatly affected,”.
Brou announced that the commission had come to the decision “contribute financially and urgently to joint efforts in the fight against terrorism.”
This comes after groups linked to both al-Qaida and Islamic state strengthened their hold on parts of the region.
Only last year, Islamic state militants clashed with Niger and US soldiers, claiming the lives of four US and five Nigerien troops.
Once a redoubt of calm in the Sahel, Burkina has been, for the last three years, the victim of a local insurgency that has fed off the chaos spilling over the border from Mali, itself caught up in an existential battle against Islamism.
It is not yet clear if simply providing money will be effective in slowing or even stopping the tide of jihadism in the region. The struggles that the French army have experienced fighting jihadis in Mali have shown that even a well-funded and armed force may not prevail against ideologically fuelled local guerrilla forces.
Christophe Ayad, a Middle East and Africa analyst for French daily newspaperLe Monde wrote that external forces often “do not understand the local conditions such as how to deal with this clan, that tribe, this political group or that militia.”
According to a study by the American think tank NSI, the spread of jihadism is caused by a whole series of factors. While the people of the region were not typically religious zealots local social, political and economic problems can drive discontentment, which acts as the best recruitment agent for these groups. Factors such as a lack of education have been suggested as possible causes for the violence. The population boom in the region has created a large group of young people, who feel marginalised by their lack of opportunity and disenfranchised by inefficient political systems. A number of factors have contributed to make this feeling of youth discontent much more serious. The effect of climate change on these communities has also been significant as it has made droughts, wild fires and epidemics more common, destabilising farming communities that already teeter on the very edge of subsistence.
Widespread illiteracy rates are another cause of discontent as they preclude youths from accessing the more prosperous employment opportunities offered in cities. This is best seen in a group that is actively fighting against this stranglehold of education. Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadi group’s name translates as ‘Western education is forbidden’.
Another important factor is the large “expanse of ungoverned space” in Sahel nations which groups like Islamic State use to grow in. The lack of public policy to reach into these already isolated areas, along with abuses of power by governments coupled with either the perception of or genuine corruption all play a part in the complex situation.
These factors are all in line with the testimony of some of the armed groups’ recruits’ attitudes which are often made up of deep resentment towards authorities and a lack of trust for the political elites, believing that they only work to serve the interests of a small group or particular ethnic group that they feel has clung on to power to the detriment of people like them.
Brou also called on the aid of the United Nations to strengthen its West African peace keeping mission (MINUSMA) that has been aiding local peacekeeping efforts in Mali since 2013.
This is not the first initiative by local governments to act against the rise in Islamist attacks. In 2017, five countries – Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania – supported by former colonial power France, launched the G5 Sahel taskforce, specifically to fight jihadism.
However, the group was plagued with problems right from its conception when it was dismissed as “a coalition of weaklings” by a regional security expert. He suggested that the armies of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, all in the process of reconstruction, following various crises were not in a position to operate effectively against the highly organised jihadis.
Soon after the group’s official launch, the headquarters in Mali suffered a bomb attack, further weakening the groups image, already damaged by rumours or a lack of finance, training and equipment that limited effectiveness and their numbers. For the moment, the force numbers 4,000 troops, when 5,000 were originally planned. It is this group that will be receiving much of the money pledged by the West African leaders. While its record is not promising, the regional leaders hope that an influx of money, coupled with an economic stimulus package for the more economically deprived rural areas that have acted as recruitment pools will simultaneously deprive the armed groups of their sources of recruits as well as defeating them on the battlefield.
However, Niger’s Issoufou dismissed suggestions that the G5 Sahel taskforce was ineffective.
“The G5 is far from dead. The (summit’s) final communique shows the support for it within ECOWAS,” he said.
The scale of the issue facing West Africa is enormous. According to the US think tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the number of radical Islamist-linked attacks in the Sahel has doubled each year since 2016. Last year, the tally was 465 — more than one a day. Clearly this is a problem that the region will be facing, for years into the future.
There is no simple solution in buying more weapons, more ammunition or more soldiers. The reasons that the recruits have for being willing to put their lives on the line are not trivial, nor can they be dismissed as simple religious mania. If West African nations want a peaceful future, they will recognise this and divert money intended for military purposes towards supporting communities in the Sahel, the root cause of this regional violence.