Shaping peace together in the Sahel

By Mabingue Ngom – The International Day of Peace, which is an annual special day, observed on 21 September around the world, has a distinct place in the Sahel. The United Nations established this special day in 1981 and in 2011, the UN General Assembly unanimously voted to designate the day as one fully devoted to non-violence and ceasefire among combatants across the globe.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Resolution on the Programme of Action on a culture of peace and the theme for the year 2020 is “Shaping Peace Together.” It is significant to note that this year’s theme as well as that of 2019, which was “Climate Action for Peace”, have had a strong resonance with the Sahel.

In his speech marking the 2019 International Day of Peace, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres highlighted the Sahel Challenge. ”If you go to one region in Africa, the Sahel, south of the Sahara Desert, you will see that climate change is accelerating drought and desertification. You have farmers and herders that have been in harmony for centuries, but now because of the lack of water and pasture, the herders are forced to move more and more into the areas where farmers have their own activities, and this is creating conflict between the two groups,” Guterres said.

“As they also belong to different ethnic groups and sometimes different religions, this gets involved into a pattern of conflict in the region and it helps the spread of terrorism in the Sahel becoming a threat to us all because terrorism as you know is today universal.”

Indeed, in 125-words, the UN Chief had underscored the dilemma of the Sahel and restated the well-known mantra that what happens in the Sahel does not remain in the Sahel as it spills over across borders becoming a universal quandary. Across the Sahel, an estimated 30 million people are currently under humanitarian duress emanating from the volatile political and ecological situation in the region.

The Lake Chad Basin straddling Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria alongside Central African Republic and Congo together with the Liptako Gourma region in Central Sahel shared between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger capture the essence of the Sahelian humanitarian crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has not spared the Sahel. If anything, it has added to the pile-up of the challenges afflicting the Sahel.

These two regions are in dire socio-economic, ecological and political crossroads as climate change and demographic bulges are piling pressure on the available scarce resources. Political intolerance, the surge of Al-Qaeda and its other offshoots in the Maghreb have disrupted development and weakened democracy and peace.

New studies of the Sahel are now shedding more light on the core challenge facing the region. “It is important to note that while poor governance, high youth unemployment rates, resource scarcity and poverty have contributed to these unfavorable conflicts trends, it vital to take into account demographic elements as well.” A Demographic Threat? Youth, Peace and Security Challenges in the Sahel by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) notes.

“Research in these fields suggests that there is a clear correlation between large youthful age cohorts or so-called ‘youth bulges’ and risk of political violence.”

The PRIO study released this month notes that high unemployment, and political and economic marginalization as some of the structural reasons why countries facing demographic challenges are more susceptible to armed conflict and terrorism.” Latest empirical data indicates that youth in the region account for more than 64% of the population in the Sahel.

Amidst the conflicts and instability of the Lake Chad Basin and Liptarko-Gourma regions, UNFPA has been working with the respective governments and like-minded development partners to advance demographic oriented initiatives that give peace a chance. UNFPA regional office for West and Central Africa has initiated a project on demography, peace and security, which is beginning to yield remarkable results.

Also, through a multi-sectoral platform, UNFPA supports endeavours of cultivating lasting peace, curtailing extremism and insuring against the risk of radicalization. It is in this quest for peace that the all-inclusive strategy, branded Lake Chad Basin Regional Coordination Platform for Communities’ Resilience, Youth and Women Empowerment was inaugurated in 2019. This platform buttressed with a ‘solutions-from-below” veneer is tasked with the broad-based, all-encompassing objectives of establishing forums of cultural, religious, young, women leaders for peace, security and development and increasing access to integrated reproductive health services.

Other objectives aligned with this demographic leaning peace-oriented platform include those of increasing access on social support to curtail gender-based violence, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse together with promotion of proper and affordable health care for the vulnerable. All these vices thrive in fluid situations of conflict and youth marginalisation.

Through these approaches, UNFPA’s end-goal of harnessing the demographic dividend has been one informed with a vision for the future.

The youth not only form the majority of the population but are also the greatest asset of the African continent. Some four years ago, the African heads of states and governments acknowledged this facet and elevated the demographic dividend as a go-to reference policy to leapfrog Africa’s development and safeguard lasting peace. Ensuring that young people become peace ambassadors, agents of reconciliation and key development actors of their countries is the cornerstone of our #PutYoungPeopleFirst campaign.

Embedding religious leaders, youth, women, civil societies organizations’ and governmental agencies right from the grassroots remains one of the best ways of handling humanitarian disasters, averting unnecessary loss of lives, combating extremism, dissuading religious, political and communal intolerance and “shaping peace together.”

Alongside the peace platform, in 2019 UNFPA regional office, rolled out the “Decade of Action” to scale up regional efforts geared towards removing all obstacles compromising the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by investing in communal tolerance, stabilizing the Sahel and promoting peaceful coexistence. “If well managed, Africa has the potential to effectively reap its enormous youth demographic benefits – ‘demographic dividend’ presented by its largest shares of population.”

The PRIO study concludes “However, in order for Africa to put its youth in a more advantageous position and offer them improved conditions for advancing their level of human capital, improvements in areas like education, healthcare and employment are key and necessary. “

The Sahel needs a robust “build back stronger” commitment as its guiding mission statement of hope, peace and prosperity as advocated by Africa Union’s Agenda2063. “Countering the widespread insecurity challenges and fragility in the Sahel, requires a more holistic approach.” The PRIO study notes. “This can be achieved by focusing on addressing the driving political and socio-economic structural causes of conflict, instead of the current strategy of seeking a military solution which has had limited success.”

It is in this context that the world cannot afford to forget nor give up on the Sahel, especially now when it is embracing its youth and cultivating its own brand of pacific coexistence. Increasing support and augmenting the gains already made in securing the Sahel to come out of its crises on the other hand, is not only the right thing to do – it is the smart thing to do for Africa. “Shaping peace together” remains our clarion call for the Sahel and Africa as a whole as we mark this year’s “International Day of Peace.”

Mabingue Ngom is the Regional Director of the UNFPA-West and Central African Regional Office. He oversees 23 countries.