Developments in the Sahel could be worse than Ukraine crisis

Activist Mamadou Drabo, leader of the Save Burkina Faso movement, announces that Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba has taken the reins of the country
Associated Press/Sophie Garcia

While global attention is riveted on Ukraine, a potentially worse crisis is unfolding in Africa’s Sahel region, where Russia is taking advantage of instability.

Jihadist threats, poverty, climate change, and COVID have left the region’s people clamoring for solutions. Their frustration is reflected by military juntas ousting democratically elected regimes, including in Burkina Faso on Jan. 23. Russia is seeking wider influence in Africa by offering the juntas military support — and seems to be finding it. On Jan. 24, demonstrators in Ougadougou chanted “no to France, yes to Russia.”  

Burkina Faso’s coup follows three others in the region in the last 18 months — one in Guinea and two in Mali. Last week, citing “multiple obstructions” from the Malian regime, France announced it would pull French and allied troops out of Mali. Meanwhile, Russia’s proxy militia the Wagner Group is reportedly deployed there (though the Malian government denies it). Wagner is the same paramilitary group that was sanctioned for destabilizing Ukraine, Libya, and other countries.

Earlier this month, Ghanaian president and chairperson of the Economic Community of West African States Nana Akufo-Addo said the coup in Mali was “contagious” and that the trend “must be contained before it devastates our whole region.” Already there are 3 million refugees and internally displaced persons in the Sahel (the Ukraine conflict so far displaced 1.5 million) after a 16-fold increase in terrorism since 2016, and a 33 percent jump in extremism last year.

While Russian adventurism in the Sahel is new, the region’s problems — extremism, terrorism, armed conflict, food insecurity, corruption, erosion of democratic norms — are not. Russian intervention won’t solve them.

To prevent “devastation” in the region and offer an alternative to Russian-backed strongmen, the U.S. and its partners need to help African governments address the real drivers of instability.

The Sahel is the world’s poorest region. It’s also severely impacted by climate change, which is causing crop failures. An estimated 36 million people are expected to be acutely food insecure across the Sahel and West Africa during this year’s lean season, up 24 percent from 2020. Add violence, displacement, and COVID-19, and there is already a humanitarian crisis, with 3.5 million in the Central Sahel needing humanitarian assistance today. 

But that might be only the beginning, because cutting across all these risk factors, exacerbating them and arguably driving many of them, is the Sahel’s rapid population growth. Its population doubled since 2000 and is projected to more than double again by 2050 (from 92 million to nearly 200 million). In Niger alone, the population may triple in the next 35-40 years.

Such explosive growth would undoubtedly exacerbate the region’s challenges with hunger and security and threaten to overwhelm government services aimed at meeting people’s basic needs.

One obvious thing to do to prevent this dystopian future is to bend the region’s growth curve, including by advancing gender equality and helping women and girls take control of their lives and reproductive decisions.

Studies show that societies with worse gender inequality are prone to worse violence and instability, and gender inequality in the Sahel is among the worst in the world. Many girls and women lack the choice or means to get an education, access healthcare, refuse child marriage, or plan and space childbirth, resulting in high rates of early marriage, early childbearing, and maternal and infant mortality.

Birth rates in the Sahel are already three to four times that of the U.S. and many other countries — but may soon climb yet higher. As the pandemic drives up school closures, economic and food insecurity, and gender-based violence, an additional 10 million girls may be coerced into early marriage by 2030.

The Sahel’s population is one of the world’s the fastest growing, and also one of the youngest, with a large demographic “youth bulge.” Many Sahelian youths are unemployed, face uncertain futures, and are easily targeted for recruitment by extremists.

For any country with such population trends, providing basic services would be a challenge, but in the Sahel, it’s a Sisyphean task. Given projected population growth, it would take sustained annual GDP growth of 11 percent just to maintain the status quo in the Sahel — with its current levels of poverty, hunger, substandard school enrollment, and other deficits — let alone improve things. Such growth isn’t likely.

So what can be done? A new Atlantic Council report calls on international aid donors to do what Sahelian governments have been reluctant to do: Promote women-centered development projects, boost girls’ education, curb child marriage, and widen access to family planning.

Investing in empowering women and girls is essential to advance human rights; it is also a community-centered approach to combatting the Sahel crisis, more beneficial than other kinds of aid — and more powerful and far-reaching than projecting military power into the region, as Russia is seeking to do.

As the Sahel amply demonstrates, regions that fail to address gender inequality do so at their peril. And since gender inequality can exacerbate population growth, civil unrest, terrorism, migration, and instability, unchecked gender inequality in one region also imperils countries elsewhere.

The U.S. is already a cornerstone partner in counter-terrorism efforts in the region. With French withdrawal of security support for Mali, the U.S. has a unique — and potentially fleeting — opportunity to significantly reshape its assistance architecture in the Sahel.

First, the U.S. should bolster implementation of the peace agreement between the government and former rebel movements in Mali, through high-powered diplomatic engagement and increased military assistance pegged to cohesion between the government and the former rebel movements. This would give the transitional government in Mali a trusted, proven, pro-democracy security partner and reduce Russia/Wagner’s chances of repeating its pattern of destruction. It would also reassure neighboring Sahel countries as they deal with mounting security threats that their flank won’t be wholly exposed.

Second, the U.S. should robustly address the root causes of instability in the Sahel. By partnering with other donor nations, international development organizations, and socially responsible companies to invest in the education, economic empowerment, health and rights of women and girls on an unprecedented scale, the U.S. would not only help the region avoid spiraling poverty, hunger, conflict, and migration, it would also strengthen global security.

Phillip Carter III is an independent consultant and senior fellow at the Population Institute. A retired career diplomat, he has held several senior positions at the State Department’s Africa Bureau, as well as ambassador to Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire and as deputy to the Commander for Civil Military Engagement at the U. S. Africa Command.

Bisa Williams is special advisor for Mali at The Carter Center and leads the Center’s effort as independent observer of implementation of the peace agreement in Mali. She also is a senior fellow and lecturer at Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. Williams was a former career Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State who served as deputy assistant secretary of African affairs and ambassador to Niger.

Tags Africa African women Birth control Burkina Faso civil unrest Coup d'état Extremism family planning Food insecurity Mali Russia Russian aggression Russian foreign policy Sahel Terrorism Wagner Group west africa Women's rights women-owned businesses youth bulge

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