Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger... the Sahel quagmire (2)

by Admin
| 8 minutes
Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger... the Sahel quagmire (2)

I am back in Mali to finish up one project and waiting on decisions about new ones. New ones in those regions I wrote about in the first instalment of this blog post. The needs of the people are abundantly clear - the reasons as well to those that follow the Sahel a bit closer: the absence of government and governance, the lack of perspectives, population pressure and  and climate change. And of course the security situation. Is it the chicken or the egg?

I have just finished a brief field visit to Gao, in northern Mali - and that does not make me a specialist on the issue - but a few observations stuck with me. As part of my assignment I had to visit different 'directions régionales' - the regional authorities that are responsible for coordinating and delivering government services - and I was surprised at the frankness with which they told me, an outsider and a foreigner, how they were unable to perform their duties.

No services delivered...

Over the years I have heard government officials sugarcoat issues, be apologetic about the underperformance of their offices but never have I been told - without the faintest sense of shame (for lack of a better word) that they were unable to do their job. No embarrassment, no excuses... just a statement of fact.

Already in 1992, Mali had embarked on a decentralisation process - as another piece in the puzzle to undo the remnants of colonialisation. Historical forms of statehood were based on federative models that the French then centralised all power when they governed the Sahel, but the sheer distances from capital to citizen and different aspirations of the peoples that live in these spaces have always been a barrier to both the functioning of the state and the delivery of services to the population.

Some families live far, far away from the centre of administration ... I will admit do that. But a lot has been invested in decentralisation: in May 2019, the World Bank "...approved a $50 million grant to support Mali’s efforts to implement the decentralization and institutional capacity development agenda in local governments..." Actually, the grant is part of a larger package of almost $100 million from the Bank, and more from governments, to support the Malian government’s efforts to decentralize and improve access to health and education services. 

Whatever the reasons (and almost everyone has a theory), the services just do not reach the people - nor the regional directorates. The World Bank has identified as a partial explanation, the "...complex procedure(s) ... to transfer financial resources to service providers".

I am not a specialist in decentralisation but when the regional director of the veterinary services - just like his colleague from the health department - flat-out tell me that "...the services can not and do not go to the villages", something is wrong.

Seriously wrong.

They don't go because they do not have the funds to buy fuel for their cars, if they have cars. Mostly they drive chinese-made motorbikes. Besides, even when they try, there are too many no-go zones; in the security vacuum left by the rebellion in the north, several self-defense militias have formed, seeking protection from intercommunal violence and militant groups are also profiting from chaos and illicit trade. And then there are the terrorist groups active in the center and western border regions.

Chicken or egg?

Decentralisation was meant to provide communities in the north with more autonomy to prevent local groups from taking up arms

The security situation in (the north of) Mali needs no explaining, but as one interlocutor from a local NGO made clear, "... this is to a large extent because of the lack of a sustained government presence to begin with. Certainly, we have the rebellion in the nord, but that can be explained in part by the absence of the authorities since years, the lack of basic services, of upkeep of infrastructure...".

It is interesting that when researching this article there was an abundance of policy papers, analysis and academic research that all pointed out the failures of the decentralisation policy, some almost prophetic in their outlook. But then again, hindsight is 20/20.

Actually, the 2012-version of the government's decentralisation policy was meant to provide communities in the north with more autonomy in the hope that inclusion in governance would prevent local groups from taking up arms, but as a 2015 report by the Clingendael Institute makes clear, "...since independence in 1960, Mali’s precarious national unity has been built upon conflict and distrust between communities. Even within Tuareg and Arab clans, schisms and rifts have significantly weakened the political impact of rebellions and encouraged a policy of divide-and-rule by the central state." 

So that backfired!

Not that those that reject the central government in Bamok are averse to law and order. As Liesbeth van der Heide illustrates in an excellent piece in Foreign Policy, "... Alghabass Ag Intallah, the leader of the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) - a rebel alliance -  published a set of policy measures for the region including regulations for road traffic, narcotics, and alcohol trafficking, settling territorial disputes, health issues, and the role of religious authorities in dispute settlement. .. To underline the CMA’s ability to enforce these regulations, Ag Intallah also announced the launch of Operation Re-education, a two-week police operation."

The 2015 peace agreement reaffirmed the need and intent for decentralisation; it commits the government to greater political decentralization and increased development in the north, in exchange for armed groups ruling out territorial separation.

But at the same time, all seem to also labour for, or pressure, the government in Bamako to re-assert  its authority over the entire country - in itself not incompatible with transferring some competencies to the regions - but it sends mixed messages. And in the current security context, 're-asserting control' is often (an attempt to) recapturing territory that is not followed by a comprehensive package of services.

The school closures as discussed in the first instalment, the return of healthcare workers or the judges does not happen.


The overwhelming lack of human, material and financial capacity; corruption and weak internal control mechanisms; and limitations on civil society to ensure respect for human rights...

Justice or rather the absence thereof, is part-and-parcel of the conflict. Many even see it as a driving factor, especially in the intercommunal conflicts. The opening paragraph of the International Development Law Organisation's page on the Sahel is actually a scathing indictment: "...The absence of an effective response to crime and conflict - such as banditry, cattle theft, attacks on roads and markets, as well as illegal detention and other injustices committed by state agents - contributes to the deterioration of State legitimacy and creates a breeding ground for jihadist and organized crime groups."  

The failure of the justice systems in the Sahel countries are well known and interlinked:  the overwhelming lack of human, material and financial capacity; corruption and weak internal control mechanisms; and limitations on civil society to ensure respect for human rights.

In an excellent article on the topic, researcher Rahmane Idrissa asks the (rhetorical) question: "How local conflicts in the Sahel-Sahara over justice, or rather its absence, get dragged into tensions between outsiders?"  The author refers to Max Weber who defines the  state as "...a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory"  when pointing out that the State de-legitimises itself when maintaining that Fulani herders who take retribution for stolen cattle are aligned with the jihadists - or when the state legitimises the violence of one group against another in such community conflicts... 

The EU in it's Sahel Strategy almosts inverts the idea by laying the blame for the lack of justice at the doorstep of the actors of violence (and the EU is not alone in this idea): "...internal conflicts and recurrent rebellions in regions affected by insecurity, render the Sahel countries and their populations vulnerable to the activities of AQIM and organised crime networks" not recognising that these networks of crime and terrorism are as much the result as the origin of a lack of decentralised state power in the disenfranchised regions. 

So which is it, the chicken or the egg?

Defining or definitive conclusions as with all things Sahelian are impossible, so back to the egg (lack of decentralisation) and the chicken (conflict in the Sahel). In the avian world of real chickens, the question has long been answered by science:

Eggs are much older than chickens. Dinosaurs laid eggs, the fish that first crawled out of the sea laid eggs, and the weird articulated monsters that swam in the warm shallow seas of 500 million years ago also laid eggs. They weren’t chicken’s eggs, but they were still eggs. So the egg definitely came first...

As to the the Sahelian metaphorical quagmire, I am convinced that the eg and the chicken co-evolved: that the weak states, the lack of decentralisation in the sense of bringing services closer to the people that need them, while ensuring through a strong central state the capacity to deliver such services and the safeguarding of equal and impartial access to such services is guaranteed are part of the explanation.

But the persistent violence and conflicts have rendered setting up a decentralised system difficult: the distrust of the central government towards the far-flung corners of the state will not diminish when the peoples fight the state with actual weapons; civil servants can not be reasonably expected to risk life and limb in active war zones without the guarantees of all actors... and as nature abhors a vacuum (Aristotle), so does power. When the state - centralised or decentralised - is absent, others will take over. And not always with the best interest of the people or the state at heart!