"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
The long list of conflicts and coups throughout West Africa and the Sahel does make the question of achieving sustainable peace and security a recurring one. The countries are very diverse with regards to economic structures (and performance), ethnic composition, colonial history, geographic realities, climatic challenges and other key factors that may underlie specific drivers of conflict. Yet, as argued by Denece and Rodier, they all face persistent internal conflicts, jihadist terrorism, and / or the spread of criminal activity (2012, pp. 36-37). This points to a problem of power – or rather, the lack of power of state institutions.
Regardless of if we agree with Bodin, Weber, Hobbes or any other classical approach to the importance of the state’s “monopoly of violence”, the lack of this monopoly by states in West Africa and the Sahel is one key common characteristic that stands out. The two sides of the coin – legitimacy and capacity – are both important. It is also important to keep in mind that this goes beyond “governance”, a concept that has become so diluted in international development debates that it has become almost pointless, even if many of the efforts individually (less corruption, equality, etc…) are good in principle.
We can take the security sector as an example. The recent attacks in Mali, coup attempts in Burkina Faso, or the recent conflicts in Chad which necessitated an intervention by the French air force all show the perilous state of the security sector – and hence the monopoly of violence by the political leadership – in the region. As noted by Bryden and Olonisakin, “The potential for structural change remains limited across many African settings. National processes of [security sector] reform continue to face resistance and are being challenged by internal and external factors. Faulty assumptions which guide security sector reform interventions, and the sometimes conflicting strategies and interests of external stakeholders, limit the extent to which radical change is possible even in such settings. “(2010, p. 232).
While there can be little doubt that external actors can militarily impose order on a region and people (at least in the short term), whether they can imbue a state actor with legitimacy is not clear. In some cases – see the above example of the French intervention in Chad – one can even argue that external actors are even undermining the legitimacy of a regime most likely kept in place purely by force. That legitimacy needs to come from the people and the political process – whatever shape it may have.
Unfortunately, in the case of West Africa and the Sahel, there is limited reason for optimism in this regard. Chabal and Daloz once noted that, “Our (admittedly far from cheering) conclusion is that there prevails in Africa a system of politics inimical to development as it is usually understood in the West. The dynamics of the political instrumentalization of disorder are such as to limit the scope for reform in at least in two ways. The first is that, where disorder has become a resource, there is no incentive to work for a more institutionalized ordering of society. The second is that in the absence of any other viable way of obtaining the means needed to sustain neo-patrimonialism, there is inevitably a tendency to link politics to realms of increased disorder, be it war or crime… Consequently, the prospects for political institutionalization are, in our view limited. Nor is it likely that the recent democratic experiments in Arica will lead to the establishment of the constitutional, legal and bureaucratic political order which is required for fundamental reform. Such change would have to be driven by popular will. Only when ordinary African men and women have cause to reject the logic of personalized politics, seriously to question the legitimacy of the present political instrumentalization of disorder and to struggle for new forms of political accountability, will meaningful change occur.” (1999, p. 162).
The farce of “elections” taking place in Benin show that even in countries that are deemed to be “positive” examples of democratization, with regular elections, little politics is done through formal institutions (elections, parliament, etc.) Even Senegal managed to have a presidential election without a debate. Unfortunately, the politics of the formal institutions in many African states is often a Potemkin village. Citizens of these states will have to refuse to accept this for things to change. Only then can the political system and the state gain sufficient legitimacy to start working on the important task of gaining the monopoly of violence. Soldiers are of course also citizens, and there is (on the basis of self-reporting), some reason for optimism, as newer generations of soldiers may have a different attitude than their elders. For external actors, the guiding principle to any intervention should be to, “do no harm” to the development of citizen agency in these states.
10.5.2019, Niamey, Niger.
Bryden, A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (2010), “Enabling Security Sector Transformation in Africa”, in Bryden A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (Eds.), Security Sector Transformation in Africa (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces), pp. 219-233.
Chabal, P. and Daloz, J-P. (1999), Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument.
Denece, E., and Rodier, A. (2012), “The Security Challenges of West Africa”, in OECD, Global Security Risks and West Africa: Development Challenges, West African Studies.
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.