States became overly dependent on international capital flow, which in turn was dependent on highly volatile international markets. It also meant that access to public positions became a matter of military power, foregoing any meritocracy. That enhanced corruption, kleptocracy and nepotism and considerably reduced the capacity of states to address the basic needs of the population. This brings us back to the present-day and the grotesque consequences of Covid-19. It is hard to imagine how the state can efficiently respond to the crisis, and absorb the millions of euros that it will receive in aid, equipment and food, when there is such an endemic level of corruption and diversion of public money.
A lot of these questions remain unanswered right now by international institutions. Blindly giving international aid and support to local authorities could potentially just trigger additional issues. If Covid-19 just becomes yet another source of income for local governments, it will only reinforce the existing security issues and further destabilize state capacity.
What has been the role of non-state actors (local leaders, religious leaders, communities, militias, NGOs) facing Covid-19?
We’ve seen that the presence of international actors and development agencies has been important. In terms of local authorities however, we cannot ignore the armed groups and organized crime. As far as criminal networks are concerned, their operation has barely been affected by the response to Covid-19. They have strong territorial implementation and strong capacity to transport either illicit drugs, weapons or counterfeit medicine. In many ways they were already prepared for the crisis.
Precisely because of that, if these illicit networks are overlooked, the consequences could be devastating. At the end of the day, criminal networks will be reinforced by this crisis. The informal sector will play an important role in providing food and basic wages, and informal jobs in illegal mining, logging and hunting will be even more attractive for a lot of young people across the region.
As for terrorist groups active in the Sahel region, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State subsidiaries have both peddled conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, which they frame as divine punishment against the Chinese and Occidentals because of their "oppression and repression against Muslims". Internally, however, they have however managed the crisis differently. Following Al Qaeda’ senior leadership, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has its very own centralized health department, was very quick to draft and implement health measures, which goes to show how well-oiled the jihadi machinery really is. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has had more difficulties on the other hand. Instead of reacting quickly and pragmatically, the IS-GS decided to rely mostly on Quranic and prophetic medicine.
Obviously the expansion of Al Qaeda and the IS-GS have had serious effects on the capacity of the state to respond to the crisis. They’ve blocked humanitarian aid in conflict areas, and are also controlling borders. A third of Burkina is controlled by armed bandits and local militias. On the contrary to Al Qaïda, Abdoul Hakim al-Sahraoui, a commander of IS-GS, has deliberately targeted civilians as well as humanitarian workers. On July 5 a UN aid helicopter was shot down in northeastern Nigeria, by suspected Islamist extremists. Unsurprisingly, many NGOs have suspended their activities as a result.
In parallel, there is another group of non-state actors that has seen its influence grow during the Covid-19 crisis: religious leaders. In Senegal, Macky Sall forbade social gatherings of any kind apart from in mosques. The fact that the opinion of religious actors becomes such an important element in public policy is revealing. If imam Mahmoud Dicko in Mali would not have recommended the measures of the WHO, many people would not have followed them. States have therefore found themselves needing to negotiate with such actors in order to maintain legitimacy and efficiency in their response to the crisis.
The influence and presence of islamic NGOs and charities has strengthened and expanded as the result of this situation. They are well structured, well funded and actively collaborate with local decision-makers. Moreover, they have managed to grow considerably in terms of territorial influence thanks to the outreach of their social services. Some of these religious NGOs have built maternity hospitals where no other institutions are present, and they provide massive medical donations all across the Sahel countries. Salafi associations conduct medical caravans in rural areas that have been abandoned by the state, making them indispensable in the fight against Covid-19. Far from basic religious zealots, they are extremely important and efficient social actors upon which a lot of communities rely on. This crisis has highlighted the genuine need for their presence, as well as their social and political power.
Copyright: Nicolas Réméné / AFP