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How Covid-19 Exposes the Wounds of the Sahel

Three questions to Guillaume Soto-Mayor

How Covid-19 Exposes the Wounds of the Sahel
 Guillaume Soto-Mayor
Lead research engineer, CNAM Security and Defense Research Team

States in the Sahel have long been battling with political and economic instability, and debilitating security crises. How does a region of weak states and parallel economies respond to a global pandemic? Are non-state actors more influential than the actual governments? How have illicit networks adapted to the crisis? We asked three questions to the lead research engineer at the CNAM Security and Defense Research Team, Guillaume Soto-Mayor. 

What are the impacts of Covid-19 in the Sahel ? Could it foster additional crises?

The Sahel is facing several simultaneous crises in terms of food insecurity, political and economic instability and social injustice. It is what makes this region a critical place among Yemen, Afghanistan and other conflict-ridden regions of the world. These crises are fueled by one another, repeatedly. In addition to 50 million people being at risk of falling into food insecurity, the main danger is that the Covid-19 might trigger additional political struggles. However the magnitude and interrelation of these multiple crises is difficult to quantify, due to the lack of reliable information.

According to the latest data, West Africa has reached a total of 105,457 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 1,836 deaths. By comparison, Latin America, whose size is almost half of Africa’s, has now exceeded 3 million cases and 130,000 deaths. Senegal, one of the most advanced Sahel countries in its response, has 8,243 cases confirmed as of now, and 150 reported deaths. Mali, despite its 19 million inhabitants, only has 2,423 confirmed cases, and 120 deaths. Niger has barely reported 1,100 cases, with only 68 deaths. The only thing we know for sure is that these numbers are inaccurate and significantly underestimated.

The World Health Organization has already warned of a "silent epidemic" in Africa as early as May, as testing had not been prioritized. In fact, 4,200 tests per million inhabitants had been carried out by July 7, only half of the Asian figure by the same date. We thus have very little idea of the real number of confirmed cases or deaths in the region. Not only does this show the scarcity of reliable testing, but also the lengths to which African governments have gone to prevent news of actual infection rates. They might be worried that the real numbers might affect foreign direct investment, but in reality they are exposing the ineffectiveness of the state to ensure that the most basic health services are provided to the population.

In the meantime, state budgets remain under strain, as they have been for a long time. Governments now face budgetary trade-offs between food, health and economic emergencies. Some measures have been implemented by ECOWAS, by the African Union and the World Bank, to ease the financial burden, but they are far from sufficient. Development partners will be facing many coordination challenges, due to the complexity of the institutional landscape and the number of players (local and international) involved in the response. Sahelian states are significantly dependent on external aid in order to pay public wages and to run a number of key public sectors. They will therefore be highly vulnerable, should this aid be insufficient or badly implemented. In addition, a lack of preventive action, the closure of health centers and the absence of the state will be more severely felt than ever by local populations. 

Due to Covid-19, Sahel states will likely experience the same self-feeding cycle, where one crisis reinforces the next

Due to Covid-19, Sahel states will likely experience the same self-feeding cycle, where one crisis reinforces the next. In fact, the most sensitive period is going to be from the end of May to the end of October, before the first harvest. This is a key moment in the Sahel, and the looming food crisis could have even more devastating effects this year. A rising number of displaced people, growing food insecurity and lack of access to basic resources could indeed have serious political and security consequences.

One of the best examples of the link between the security crisis and Covid-19 must be examined in the case of pastoral communities, who have faced serious challenges long before the coronavirus outbreak. In the last decades, and even more so due to climate change, these communities have had to deal with significant fodder shortages and competition with landlords over land access, water and resources all across West Africa. Now, they also need to face the closure of markets and closed borders. This has been causing a major displacement of pastoralists to peri urban areas, adding pressure to the large metropolises, where criminality and impoverishment are on the rise, and where there is already a lack of basic services.

Pastoral and rural Fulani communities have also been heavily targeted by military forces and armed militias all across the Sahel. Human Rights Watch recently stated that 180 bodies, thought to have been killed by government forces, had been found in Djibo, in Burkina Faso. The men killed were mostly Fulani, the largest ethnic group in pastoral communities. Their grievances and sentiment of injustice has often been leveraged by terrorist organizations for recruitment purposes. Having long been discriminated against, and lacking access to basic services and economic opportunities, the Fulani are now especially exposed to the consequences of Covid-19. To bring the loop back to full circle, jihadist or criminal networks will probably find it even easier to recruit among young unemployed Fulani, based on their experience of ethnic discrimination and injustice in the face of this pandemic. 

Another example of the additional crisis that might be fostered by Covid-19 is the proliferation of counterfeit medicine. A high number of counterfeit testing kits and protection gear has been reportedly sold all across West Africa.Data on this matter is scarce, but most of this medicine is believed to originate in India and China, and enters West Africa through the Gulf of Guinea, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana and Senegal. The selling of counterfeit medicine in the region, especially tramadol and ephedrine, has been thriving for the last two decades. Coronavirus-related medicine therefore provides yet another financial opportunity for well-established illicit networks.

Relying on the same routes and people, Covid-19-related products have rapidly reached Sahel markets. Easy and cheap to purchase, they become highly attractive to uninformed and poor buyers, which could lead to serious health consequences. Again, the surge of this illicit activity serves to strengthen a number of criminal networks, who in turn weaken the legitimacy and efficiency of governments. It is yet another example of the difficulties of Sahel states in addressing the crisis, during which the absence of solid regulation and their lack of efficient law enforcement capacities are coming to light.

The absence of solid regulation and [...] lack of efficient law enforcement capacities are coming to light.

What impact has the Covid-19 crisis had on state authority across the Sahel? Has it eroded or been reinforced, why? 

State presence in the Sahel is complex and is debatable in many territories. As already mentioned, there has been considerable action taken by a number of state and extra-state authorities across the Sahel. Governments have implemented strict lockdowns, closed down airports, closed key passages in cross-border points and restricted them only for essential trade.

At the same time, we’ve seen that many of them have already lifted lockdowns, out of fear that the momentum, if not properly used, could have devastating economic consequences. Uninformed decisions undermine the imposition of lockdowns just as much as their easing. Both of them can increase the sentiment and reality of economic injustice that many segments of society already feel. Ultimately, what can be observed across multiple Sahel states is their inability to properly provide for their populations. 

As it currently stands, there are many areas in the Sahel that are deprived of food, health or education. Because of the severity of lockdowns, humanitarian access has become even more difficult as logistical hurdles now impede aid delivery. Due to the closure of schools, UNICEF has reported that millions of children across the Sahel have now lost their only stable access not only to education, but to basic nutrition and sanitation services as well. Restriction of cross-border movements has considerably limited market access and hampered intra regional trades in seeds and fertilizers. Curfews and closed markets have had harsh impacts on commercial trade upon which millions are dependent on. 

States have prepared response plans, accounting for millions of euros. Mali, for example, has put in place financial measures to support the agriculture sector. In Burkina Faso, small shops have opened in order to sell cereals, and Senegal has delivered a million food kits to the most vulnerable population. Several important donors have stepped up their intervention (ECOWAS, the World Bank, the WFP, AFD, and the EU’s "Team Europe" with its 20 billion support package to Africa). The implementation of any of these measures is however challenging, given the absence of state capacities in a lot of regions. 

It is important to mention that this erosion of the state in the Sahel is a dramatic consequence of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the Washington Consensus, the IMF and the World Bank imposed conditions on their loans to governments in the Sahel, to create attractive fiscal and monetary environments for foreign investors. These included eliminating tariffs and market liberalization, encouraging the privatization of state enterprises and encouraging the restructuring of local economies in order to foster comparative advantage in local markets, leading them to abandon their least profitable activities. 

Blindly giving international aid and support to local authorities could potentially just trigger additional issues. 

Across West Africa, loans with immensely expensive interest rates have not only indebted local states but have also forced them to privatize public services. The result of that has been significant inequality, most notably in rural areas, where populations are forced to make choices on basic necessities. It has also meant that a lot of subsistence crops (such as plantain or manioc), were destroyed and abandoned, while land was expropriated against little indemnization. Many countries that were major producers of rice or other agricultural products, were forced to export it and import lower quality grains to feed their own population. The vicious circle becomes apparent once again.

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

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