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The Causes of Instability in West Africa

“L’insécurité au Sahel telle qu’elle sévit aujourd'hui date du début des années 2000, même si son ampleur s’est accrue de façon progressive.”[1] As part of the Africa Day Series, H.E. Mohamed Bazoum, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Cooperation, and Nigerien and African Integration Overseas, discussed the situation in Mali. Bazoum’s goal was to present a unique perspective on the situation and to establish a dialogue on how the security situation in West Africa could be improved. Bazoum argued that this insecurity is linked directly to the Algerian civil war since it pushed the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat[2] (GSPC) to northern Mali.  

Originally, “ce qui pour ce groupe terroriste était au départ un pis-aller imposé par les contraintes d'un rapport de forces qu'il pensait provisoire, a fini par devenir une situation pérenne non dénuée d’avantages stratégiques pour une organisation à qui le principe de réalité a fini par dicter de réviser son agenda et peut-être même son objet.”[3] Once in Mali, the ex-GSPC created the group, Al-Qaeda au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI)[4], an organization that favored this location due to its proximity to Algeria and distance from Malian civilian and military authority. The lack of natural resources in this region left it vulnerable in this regard. This area is now subject to wanton illicit activities, such as human, arms, and drug trafficking. In fact, “the desire for profit, along with the trafficking culture, are nurtured by what the Minister called “l'économie de la violence”[5] and stretch well into Bamako.

In his opinion, the Mali National Pact (1992) granted too many concessions to the militias. One of the greatest mistakes in this agreement, according to the Minister, was that it promised more than it could deliver to the rebels and left the door open to future demands. Bazoum asserted that because the Malian government was unable to satisfy the 1992 commitments, it led to further destabilization of the region because the militant groups were now able to point to the government’s inability to deliver on its promises and justify their rebellion. In an effort to co-opt these groups, the government promoted many of them to high-level positions in the army. The Minister charged that this maneuvering integrated a culture of trafficking into the military infrastructure and that this hierarchy was contaminated by patronage, corruption, and illegal business impropriety. 

Minister Bazoum also mentioned the inefficacy of the Algerian Accord of 2006 that failed to curtail the Tuareg Rebellion. In the same fashion as the National Pact, the Accord could not satisfy the rebel groups’ demands. Along with the shortfalls of these peace agreements, the Sahel’s insecurity is a byproduct of Economic Community Of West African States’ (ECOWAS) failure to help Bamako counter the rebel presence. Another reason the Minister said that ECOWAS has proven to be unsuccessful is owed to the near legitimization of the coup organized by the military with ties to drug-trafficking operations in Guinea Bissau.  In effect, mixed signals have been sent to not only rebels in Mali but to Boko Haram in Nigeria as well. This suggests that ECOWAS is ill equipped to combat insurgency at the regional level. To promote the legitimacy of ECOWAS as a regional peace-keeping force, the organization needs to approach these issues collectively.

Other Obstacles to Regional Security

H.E. Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, began by stating that “it is quite unfortunate that Mali, a country that used to be an ocean of stability in West Africa, has degenerated to what it is now.” His experience as a historian has afforded him a certain purview on security issues facing West Africa, such as how “the Berlin 1884 decision to partition Africa...was done in accordance of the interests of colonizing powers” and divided the continent along artificial boundaries. He continued by describing how most of the region’s current instability can be linked to the wars of liberation. In Guinea-Bissau, for instance, the importation of arms and pervasive trafficking in the military undermine the legitimacy of the civilian government and are, in part, the cause of the recent coup. Finally, he turned his remarks toward Nigeria by saying, “I assure you that there have been many efforts on the part of my government to deal with [Boko Haram]…I assure you that we are going to handle it.” In his opinion, this group is not the most pressing West African security concern and he has “confidence in ECOWAS…because it has a track record of success…and it has proven to be the most effective regional organization in Africa.” He concluded by asserting that “ECOWAS’s position towards a non-democratically elected government is very clear…we cannot be tolerant of the situations in Mali and Guinea Bissau.”

Challenges to Development in the Sahel

In much the same way as Minister Bazoum, H.E. Al-Maamoun Baba Lamine Keita, Malian Ambassador to the United States, recognized that Bamako made too many concessions in the 1992 National Pact and that has contributed to the volatility of the Sahel. However, he noted that despite the situation in the North, there are government institutions in the capital that are trying to develop the country. “The situation in the North is completely destabilized,” and “there is a crisis of government and leadership.” The mobilization of the separatist movement and international groups (e.g. AQMI, and Boko Haram) in the Sahel has proven to have deleterious effects on security and human rights. These militants are starting to move without freely. “The United Nations and the U.S. have confirmed their support” of ECOWAS’s leadership and their comportment to quell the restive areas in the North is illustrative of the “mutual respect among all interested actors.” Ambassador Keita finished by stating that the road back to democracy in Mali will only take place if the government is supported by ECOWAS and the international community.

The Future of Cooperation in West Africa

Steve McDonald, Director of the Africa Program and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity,  brought the discussion full circle by commenting that “ECOWAS’s past and future role is and will be to build a truly integrated security and economic community” to confront regional problems. ECOWAS will be able to do this, said H.E. Cyrille S. Oguin, Dean of ECOWAS and Ambassador of Benin to the United States, if it promotes civic education. “Civic education is important; education is the base of all of our behavior,” and the civilian and military leadership need to be instructed in proper governance for their people. In terms of Mali, the government should “play the role of the supporters of democracy” and “[needs] to rally” to that ideal so it can counteract the junta’s influence. To that end, Ambassador Oguin posited that Mali was fragile and ECOWAS ought to help strengthen the country’s bases for democracy to promote stability and development throughout the region.


[1] “The instability in the Sahel as we know it today dates back to the 2000s, even if its intensity has increased as of late.” 

[2] Salafist group for preaching and combat 

[3] “this terrorist group believed that their relocation to the North of Mali would be temporary; however, their presence became perennial because of the strategic advantages that this region provided them. As a result, the group revised not only its agenda, but also its target.”

[4] Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb

[5] “an economy of violence.”