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What India can do to prevent continuous conflicts in the Sahel Region

The Sahel is the most under developed regions of the world spread across West and north central Africa. In pure geographic term, Sahel means coast or shore. The region extends between vast stretches of African savannah and Sahara and is vastly a semi arid region which is home to over 150 million people. The countries of Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Mali , Niger, Nigeria and Senegal are the ten countries of this region. This region has nearly 79 % of the people living in the rural areas and has one of the highest poverty rates of the world with over 30-50 percent of the population living on less than $1.20 a day. Climatic conflict with an unstable political system, rising poverty, food insecurity, large gender inequality ,and frequent armed conflicts makes the region most vulnerable to threat of violent ethnic conflict and religious extremism.

Weaning western influence

The Western powers led by Britain and France have followed a policy of Mercantile imperialism on West African region. The disintegration of African identity began with the Berlin conference of 1885. Also called Congo conference, this led to the passage of The General Act of Africa eventually leading to the split of African continent between various colonial powers and the scramble for natural resources of Africa. In the twentieth century, this mercantilism was replaced by installing of puppet regimes at various parts of this region to suit Western interests which eventually led to the internal conflicts between various groups of the region. The rising Militant Islamism found shores in the region due to its weak political and institutional unit. It was in 2012, The National Movement for Liberation of Azawad, which largely composed of civil war returnees from Libya occupied Northern Mali. The aspiration, anxieties and backwardness of the region were then cleaverly exploited by Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa ( MUJAO). There is a larger presence of Islamic state of Greater Sahara in the Western part of Niger since 2015. The Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) or Nusrat- Al – Islam is the official wing of Al Qaeda in the region which is very active at present. The MUJAO was an Al Qaeda offshoot in the region triggering widespread insurgencies across the region. Eventually French forces had to undertake Operation Serval in 2013 to free Male from extremism. But the seeds sown by these Jihadist, extremist organization soon grew to other regions of the Sahel. Between November 2018 and march 2019, a report suggests that civilian casulaities in the region grew by 7000% in Burkino Faso, 500 % in Niger 300 % in Mali. The people started viewing West with an eye of suspicion and increasingly started protests against the West through the usage of Militancy. The region was prominent supplier of natural resources to European and Western powers. Niger alone accounted for nearly 25.4% of European Union’s supply of Uranium. . In the twenty first century, an assertive China began to take greater interest in the region to support their rising global ambitions. . Chinese then started exploiting the countries of the region by providing them with financial assistance and Military support. The Russians provided aid to the region and promised unconditional Military support to the region. This led to a situation where influence of the West has nearly weaned and that position is now taken over by China and Russia.

Coup in Niger, latest to the region’s troubles

Niger is a very poor country in the region which shows large signs of desertification. Although when compared to other countries of the region, Niger is a democratic country. IThe country is largely dependent on foreign aid to support its Budget, lives on subsistence agriculture. The country has been exporting its rich Uranium ore to the European Union and other countries. The country produces nearly 7 percent of Uranium in the world and majority of its production is being exported to France. However the people of the region started feeling that French have been exploiting them. The present coup is triggered around the ousting of President Muhamed Bazoum by head of Niger’s Presidential guard Abdourahmane Tchiani. The UN, US, Germany and France have condemned the coup and demanded the restoration of Muhammed Bazoum back to power. However the rebels have not agreed to this, escalating the struggle to an armed conflict. The supporters were seen massively waving off flags of Russia and singing praise for Russia. There has been considerable support for Russia amongst the people of the region.

What India can do

India has always been seen as a champion of democracy across the world. We are known for our ability to engage in dialogue with the West while being a champion of the East. The North South divide came to almost a close in the twenty first century due to our active diplomatic engagements. At present, we must first try to provide greater humanitarian assistance and human resource training to the conflict ridden area. We must try to train the countries to engage pro actively in governance through ITEC slots. Our initiative to include African Union as a permanent member of G20 is a step in the right direction. The African Union has already launched two initiatives in the conflict ridden region. One was Nouakchott process in 2013 and AU strategy for Sahel in 2014. These two mechanisms aimed at cooperation and coordination amongst Sahel countries has to be encouraged further. We must also engage with G5 Sahel grouping ( Chad, Niger, Burkino Faso, Mali and Mauritania) and also with Economic Community of West African States( ECOWAS). India should explore possible economic cooperation in areas of natural resources. We can use our good ties with Russia in this regard. The rise of extremism must be combated through UN security council mechanisms and democracy must be restored. Warring tribes and groups must be brought to knees through dialogue and deliberations. Only if the West sheds its imperial attitude and only if China and Russia keeps the mercantilist ambitions at bay can a productive dialogue happen under India in the region.

(Adarsh Kuniyillam is a Parliament and Policy Analyst).


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