The UFV hosts for the second time the Sahel-Europe Dialogue Forum to address the region's challenges

"Europe's southern border is not the Mediterranean, it is the Sahel"

AFP/MICHELE CATTANI - A group of French army soldiers on patrol in the Sahel

In Europe, a large part of the population tends to see Africa as a distant, alien territory. Yet only 15 kilometres separate us from the African continent. Once this short distance is overcome, we find ourselves in the Maghreb and, immediately afterwards, in the Sahel, one of the most convulsive regions of the present day. Terrorism, food insecurity and fragile regional governments are some of the main challenges in the region.

But the problems caused by these challenges are echoed in Europe. This is why the EU should not neglect the region, but rather make it a priority in EU foreign policy. 

To highlight the relevance of the Sahel and to promote dialogue with Europe, the Centre for the Global Common Good of the Francisco de Vitoria University (UFV) is organising the second edition of the Sahel-Europe Dialogue Forum, an event that brings together diplomats, members of the security forces, academics, journalists and other experts on the issue.

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Javier de Cendra, Dean of the Faculty of Law, Business and Government of the UFV, and Beatriz de León Cobo, coordinator of the Forum, were in charge of opening and welcoming the participants and speakers. Both stressed the great importance of the Sahel and the need for the rest of the world to get involved in the region in pursuit of its development and stability. "In order for the common good to advance, measures are needed at the local, regional, but also international level," said De Cendra, who also highlighted the region's great potential. 

De León Cobo, for her part, recalled a point that is sometimes overlooked in Europe: "the common good of the Sahel is our common good". As the coordinator of the Forum explained, what happens in the African area affects us all, which is why it is "our problem and also our opportunity"

Despite being a region that presents many challenges, the expert maintains that there are many committed people, something that undoubtedly "shows hope".

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Later, as part of the inaugural session, Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Think Tank Institute for Prospective and European Security, moderated a round table discussion with Gonzalo Vega, from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID); Djilmé Adoum, High Representative of the Sahel Coalition; and Robert Dussey, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Togo. 

Vega began by pointing out one of the main problems facing the Sahel: food insecurity, a challenge accentuated by the war in Ukraine and climate change. Alleviating the effects of this serious situation is one of the objectives of AECID, which has opened offices in several countries in the region. In fact, Queen Letizia recently visited Mauritania to see first-hand the development projects in the country.

For the Spanish agency, the Sahel is a priority area for cooperation. In recent years, AECID has carried out numerous projects in the region. Some of the issues on which the organisation focuses are projects related to agriculture, health, gender equality, sexual health and renewable energies. All of this with one objective: to promote the development of the countries and offer opportunities to young people.

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Adoum, for his part, stressed that the relationship between Europe and the Sahel should be based on "true and positive communication", emphasising humanitarian initiatives and the fight against terrorism. 

In the Sahel, 1 in 4 people are in need of humanitarian aid. However, forecasts are not favourable. As temperatures rise, the food and humanitarian crisis is becoming more acute. Therefore, in order to face the climate challenges, Adoum pointed to the use of contemporary technology as a fundamental element that could improve the lives of the 20 million people at risk, as well as the 4 million displaced people in the region. 

In this sense, Dupuy assured that the European Union "is committed for the long haul". Not only European countries closest to Africa are involved, but also NGOs from countries further north, such as Sweden and Norway, are working in the Sahel

Dussey, Togo's foreign minister, was blunt: "the African continent is at a critical moment in terms of security". The Togolese foreign minister highlighted armed and terrorist groups, but there are more.

"Today the region is facing various difficulties. The instability of the Sahel is a priority concern for the member countries, an insecurity that affects us all," he explained.

For this reason, Dussey called on the international community, and in particular Europe, to support the stability of the Sahel and West Africa. The minister recalled that the Sahel is relevant to the Old Continent, as the two are linked "by history and geography".

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Sahel: new allies, new influences

The opening conference was followed by the first masterclass led by Anne Savey, an expert on security, mediation and stabilisation in the Sahel.

The first to speak was the diplomat Sékou dit Gaoussou Cissé, Director for Europe at the Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Cissé once again underlined one of the main ideas of the forum: "to talk about the Sahel is to talk about Europe". "The southern border is not the Mediterranean, it is the Sahel," he added. 

Among the region's challenges, the diplomat listed weak administrative law and weak governance. On this last point, he pointed to the terrorist groups Al-Qaeda and Daesh, whose aim, according to Cissé, is to "delegitimise the state"

Terrorism is one of the main threats to Sahelian governments, but how can this scourge be fought if there is no military capacity to do so? Cissé warns that they do not have enough ammunition and arms supplies and that the EU does not send them either, as European law prohibits the provision of lethal weapons. "We have helmets and protective waistcoats, but we can't fight like this," he said.

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Cissé also criticised Brussels' double standards. "Millions and millions in armaments for Ukraine, but when the Sahel asked for them, the same did not happen," he lamented. 

It is for this reason that Mali's relations with certain European countries are not going well, according to Cissé. And it is in this situation that new alliances appear, such as Russia, Turkey, China, Iran and India, countries that are seeking their place in the region. 

Even so, Cissé stresses that there is no anti-French sentiment in the country. However, he also recalls that Paris "no longer accompanies them in the fight". "The EU does not want to sell us arms, so what do we do? 

Boubacar Haidara, a Malian university professor and researcher, continued in this vein. Haidara began by alluding to Mali's "rupture with its traditional partners in favour of other new partners". For the researcher, this dynamic responds to "a local need".

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Haidara pointed to the threat of jihadism - a phenomenon that appeared in Mali in 2012 and then spread throughout the region in 2017 - and the wave of coups d'état, which also began in Mali. According to Haidara, what is also beginning in the African country is anti-French sentiment and the search for new allies. How has it reached this point? The Malian professor points to "the failure of the military intervention in Mali", which "led the population to oppose it". 

To conclude, Haidara warns that "if the new ally does better than the traditional ally, it will be the end of Western influence in the Sahel"

Dupuy, for his part, stressed that Russia's objective through the Wagner group is none other than "to break French influence in the region". However, he points out that this organisation, as well as Russia's strategy on the continent, is not the only mechanism to achieve this. "Turkey does the same", Dupuy pointed out, giving as examples what he called "Bayraktar diplomacy" or the opening of Turkish embassies in the region.

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"It is necessary to build a social consensus and fight against climate change"

After discussing possible new actors in the Sahel, it was the turn of civil society, a key element in bringing about real change in the region.

Lourdes Benavides, from the NGO Oxfam, stated that inequalities were at the root of all the challenges in the Sahel, highlighting the gender gap. Therefore, as Benavides pointed out, international aid must be directed towards reducing these inequalities.

Badié Hima, Director of NDI (National Democratic Institute) in Mali, praised the role of NGOs in the region, since even in areas without basic social services where there is no state presence, these organisations are present. Even so, NGOs find it very difficult to work because of insecurity.

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For Hima, military interventions are not enough to address regional challenges. "It is necessary to build a social consensus and to fight against climate change," he explained. 

Finally, Sylvestre Tiemtoré, coordinator of the Permanent Secretariat of NGOs in Burkina Faso, clarified that it is necessary to act in the face of problems "before, during and after". There are one-off operations against armed groups, but then they withdraw and these groups return, creating the problem again. 

The same goes for environmental and climate challenges. Burkina Faso has lost 19% of its fertile land to deforestation in the last 10 years. "States are committed to deforesting but have no resources," he said. In this context, Tiemtoré mentions the Great Green Wall, an initiative to help alleviate the consequences of climate change, which would undoubtedly help the current situation in the Sahel. 

Due to droughts and other problems linked to climate change, 37 million people will suffer from famine in the region. At present, basic necessities are becoming increasingly unaffordable

Another challenge facing the region is the high unemployment rate among young people. Tiemtoré therefore proposes to support innovative job creation initiatives, pointing out that both Burkina Faso and Niger are cotton producers, which could create thousands of jobs for young people.

EU-Sahel: security cooperation

The first day closed with a masterclass on cross-border threats: crime and terrorism. Henri Gómez, Head of Operations EUCAP-Niger; Hervé Flahaut, Head of Mission EUCAP-Mali; Francisco Corrales Galindo, Head of Operations GAR-SI Sahel; and Mahamat Abakar, Head of the Defence Division, Executive Secretariat of the G5 Sahel, took part in the discussion.

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Europe, through its national security forces, cooperates with Sahel countries. Through training and joint missions, they dismantle human, arms and drug trafficking networks. The aim of these operations is none other than to ensure that the different gendarmeries of the Sahel countries achieve sufficient autonomy to work on their own, as Corrales Galindo explained. Bakar, for his part, affirms that this independence has not yet been achieved, although he points out that "there is hope".