COVID-19 in the Sahel: Berlin Should Use This Moment for a Reset

23 April 2020   ·   Nadia Ahidjo, Bram Dijkstra, Delina Goxho

The countries of the Sahel now face a triple threat: the pandemic, climate change, and conflict. German policymakers should urgently increase humanitarian funding. But Berlin should also look beyond the pandemic and use this moment to re-evaluate a European policy approach that has failed to stabilize the region.

In last week’s Financial Times, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and 17 other world leaders called for an ambitious humanitarian and economic stimulus package, writing that “only a global victory that fully includes Africa can bring this pandemic to an end”. For some parts of the continent, however, COVID-19 presents as much a political and security challenge as a health emergency. In the Sahel, where governments already struggled to respond to both the insecurity and humanitarian catastrophe prior to the pandemic, a full-scale outbreak can create a perfect storm.

Niger and Burkina Faso are among the countries with most confirmed cases of COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa and numbers are increasing rapidly in Mali. Governments in all three countries have announced a state of emergency and imposed curfews, border closures, and full or partial lockdowns to contain the outbreak. In Europe, such measures have shown to be necessary but painful; in the central Sahel they risk further instability by disrupting livelihoods and access to essential services.

Increase Humanitarian Funding and Adjust Existing Engagement

The countries of the Sahel now face a triple threat: the pandemic, climate change, and conflict. An estimated 24 million people across the region are in need of urgent humanitarian aid and the number of displaced people reached 5.2 million – making it one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. Despite the UN Secretary-General’s recent call for a global ceasefire, fighting and attacks continue. Already, casualties from terrorist attacks have exponentially increased over the years – Burkina Faso alone saw a 2150% increase in fatalities from 2018 to 2019.  

German and European governments should urgently increase humanitarian funding and adjust their existing engagement in the region towards combatting the virus. But German policymakers should also look beyond the pandemic – where real international leadership is needed – and use this moment to re-evaluate a European policy approach that has failed to stabilize the region.

Suspended Diplomatic Initiatives and Limits to Troop Deployments Will Worsen the Situation

A first obstacle is the suspension of international diplomatic initiatives as governments in Europe and the Sahel struggle to deal with the containment of the crisis and its political and economic fallouts. An EU-Sahel Summit foreseen for 26 March has been postponed until further notice. This year’s process to renew an EU-wide Sahel strategy is in flux, making an already opaque process even less accessible for rights groups advocating a change of course.  

Similarly, security forces are already trying to limit interventions, which will inevitably lead to operational shortcomings in the region’s security coalitions. By comparison, US, British and French forces are already withdrawing some or all of their troops from Iraq. The French Ministry of Armed Forces is considering to alter the rotation of French troops stationed in the Sahel as a result of the health crisis. As a prolonged pandemic could make it difficult to deploy new personnel to peacekeeping operations terrorist groups will seek to exploit instability and chaos to gain support. While the added value of overlapping and shifting security interventions has rightfully been contested hasty drawdowns can endanger civilian lives in the short term.  

Use the Opportunity to Change the European Debate on the Sahel

State and non-state groups alike may seek to tighten civic and political space to entrench their positions under the pretence of corona containment. In Niger, at least three people were killed last month by security forces during protests and several well-known human rights defenders have been imprisoned in connection with the lockdown. Tampering with electoral timelines in Niger and Burkina Faso – both set to go to the polls this year – could increase social and political unrest in already low-trust contexts. The inability to deploy international monitoring bodies would further challenge the integrity of the vote and other already mistrusted institutions.

German policymakers should use the opportunity of the current dynamic to refocus the debate on the Sahel and overcome a sense of ‘Sahel fatigue’ in Brussels and European capitals. Domestically, that will be a test for the whole-of-government approach it has invested in, for instance through the establishment of an inter-ministerial Sahel Task Force as well as an Operations Manual based on the 2017 Guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace.

This coordinated approach needs to be elevated at multilateral level, too. Germany’s role in the Alliance for the Sahel body, its holding of the EU Council Presidency in the second half of the year and its co-hosting of a pledging conference for the Sahel in June provide platforms to advocate for coherence and to review a European approach to an increasingly strategic region in the EU’s foreign policy outlook.

Berlin needs to overcome its deference to France

This would mean overcoming its deference to France, which has traditionally dominated European decision-making on the Sahel but is also faced with increasing anti-French hostility in the region. Germany, on the other hand, is perceived as a more neutral actor but has not sufficiently capitalised on this advantage. As has previously been argued on the PeaceLab blog, Berlin can use this advantage to push for a more comprehensive strategy that places politics at the heart of a solution. This would give greater weight to peacebuilding approaches that seek to mitigate civilian harm, protect human rights and involve civil society and local governance structures. But more than that, it would require a focus on domestic politics including the revamping of a moribund peace accord and taking steps towards inclusive dialogue.

German policymakers are right to be sceptical of the French counter-terrorism approach. A more comprehensive strategy would address underlying issues of governance, access to health and education, and livelihoods. In addition, in the highly opaque decision-making context on security in the Sahel there is an absence of spaces for civil society to directly engage with donors on their needs and the impacts of military cooperation and security intervention. Germany should advocate for donor governments to involve those communities most affected by violence and displacement on their needs to both create better policy solutions and to legitimize these voices at home. A continued European focus on military engagement – in a region where governments and their security forces can be predatory, corrupt or lack the capacity to meet the needs of their people – risks diminishing the very bonds between governments and citizens it professes to support.  

The current coronavirus pandemic will shift European resources inwards in order to attend to domestic needs and keep their economies afloat. But European solidarity should extend beyond its borders if it aims to offer a meaningful partnership with Africa. Only months ago, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer suggested Germany could not allow itself to “duck away” from responsibility in the Sahel without facing serious security consequences. Berlin should shift its approach accordingly.


Stabilisierung Sub-Sahara Afrika COVID-19

Nadia Ahidjo

Nadia Ahidjo is an African feminist who is passionate about human rights and conflict transformation. She is currently based in Dakar where she works at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa.

Bram Dijkstra

Bram Dijkstra is a Senior Advocacy Specialist on Africa at the Open Society European Policy Institute, based in Brussels.

Delina Goxho

Delina Goxho is an independent analyst, PhD Candidate at Scuola Normale Superiore, and Associate Fellow at Egmont Institute. She works on remote warfare, security force assistance and the Sahel region. @delinagoxho