by John J. Metzler,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
UNITED NATIONS–The vast swath of nine countries bordering the southern reaches of the Sahara desert are marked by poverty, drought and chronic instability. Yet these oft-forgotten lands are increasingly making the headlines as in the case of Mali a few years ago, when militant Muslim factions made power grabs against weak and often unstable governments. The widening attacks by the Islamic jihadi group Boko Haram in Nigeria underscore the challenge.
Now the UN and its humanitarian partners have launched a massive $2 billion aid appeal which shall offer humanitarian assistance to the twenty million people who are short of food and the nearly three million people who have been uprooted from their homes. People who have lost hope and could be the prey of terror groups.
“Escalating violence is a deeply worrying pattern that threatens hard-won gains in curbing the trend of growing needs in the Sahel,” states Robert Piper, the UN regional coordinator. He stresses, “Violence in northeast Nigeria, the volatile situation in Mali, and the crisis in the Central African Republic are creating more suffering for communities that are already amongst the poorest in the world.”
The UN’s relief coordinating Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warns, “High levels of chronic vulnerability persist in the Sahel. Early in 2015 an estimated 20 million people are food insecure…acute malnutrition is expected to threaten the lives and development of 5.8 million children under five years of age.”
Equally, the spreading conflicts and humanitarian crisis has particularly affected Chad, Mali and Niger.
The Sahel comprises the geographic and climatic zone of transition between the Sahara to the north and the savanna to the South. Over 145 million people live in the nine selected countries.
The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos stresses, “We need the support of the international community and sustained government leadership to ensure that we do not forget the people of the Sahel.”
Take Mali for example. The former French colony had a reasonably democratic government until 2012 when a combination of tribal militias and Al-Qaida terrorists tried to takeover. Although quick and focused French military intervention stopped the onslaught and stabilized the situation, the country of 17 million is amongst the poorest in the world.
The UN’s Sahel plan has slated $377 million for Mali mostly in the area of food aid; nearly one million people face severe food insecurity while 1.8 million more are moderately affected. Equally the UN must deal with 143,000 refugees as well as large numbers of internally displaced persons from the earlier conflicts.
The Sahel’s regional instability is highlighted by the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Libya which borders both Chad and Niger.
Escalating terrorist attacks inside Libya such as the savage beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt, as well as a growing climate of lawlessness, highlight the “imminent danger confronting Libya, its people and the wider region” warned the UN’s special envoy Bernardino Leon. He told the Security Council that, “Extremist groups with radical ideologies, associated with Al Qaida have been on the rise since the end of the armed conflict in 2011.”
Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi stated the challenge to the Security Council; terrorism flourishes “in a front stretching from the Middle East to North Africa to the Sahel.”
He added that Libya has become “a hub for terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel.”
Americans have witnessed the unstable aftermath of the Libyan revolt which saw the bloody attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 which killed the American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three security personnel.
Given that ISIS and its armed allies are turning already fragmented Libya into another ethnic tinderbox, and that Libya, even during the days of Colonel Ghadafi’s regime, had long meddled in the Sahel region, it’s vital to understand the ethnic, transportation route and often criminal smuggling ties which connect Libya with the Sahel.
Thus the Sahel’s importance goes beyond the obvious. Rebuilding a fragile humanitarian foundation in an already poor area facing the spillover from regional conflicts such as Libya remains crucial as part of a wider security architecture. Humanitarian aid may serve as a firebreak to keep violence from spreading to a tinderbox region.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).