6 Sept 2013

Why does Sahel matter for Africa-Europe relations?

by Damien Helly. Even if there is now a new president in Mali following a hastily organized election process, development, governance and security in the region of North-West Africa, a region also called the Sahel (we are talking of people in Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Libya, Chad but also neighouring countries) is still a matter of concern for African and European policy makers.

Question 1: Why does Sahel matter for Africa-Europe relations?

In fact there are several intertwined crises in Mali and Sahel:

There was a governance crisis in Mali itself, but also a security crisis in the region very much related to organised crime and corruption, long lasting tensions in the North involving disenfranchised groups. Some of them collided with radical islamists.

The fall of Gaddafi regime, accelerated by a NATO and Europe-led military intervention worsened the situation in the region:

It forced some armed groups formerly working in Libya back to Sahel (Northern Mali in particular) and who had to find new work and business.

This recent background is extremely important to understand that, in addition to colonization and post-colonial relationship as well as development cooperation partnerships, Europeans have also played a political and security role in the region since the beginning of popular protests in Northern Africa in 2011. France particularly in French speaking countries and its former colonies, but other member states too.

Instability and then humanitarian crises in the Sahel became a regional, continental and international issue, a shared challenge for Africans from all over North-West Africa.

And still, the one who actually played and is playing an instrumental role in Mali, is France, one individual member state of the EU, sometimes on behalf or sometimes instead of the Union as a whole.

This is why this region matters for Africa Europe relations.

Question 2: What are the implications of the crises in Mali for Africa Europe relations?

The way Africans and Europeans worked to address the crises in Mali and the Sahel is an indication of the actual way of how their relation works. One year ahead of the Africa-EU summit in 2014, it was very useful to look at how Africans and Europeans interacted and cooperated.

First, The crisis in Mali was a reality check and, according to me, a reste for Africa-Europe relations. It emphasised the role of influential member states (in Europe and Africa) over continental and regional organisations.

Secondly, it triggered some reactions within the AU to ensure genuine African ownership of crisis response mechanisms. That was illustrated by the decision to create an interim rapid intervention force.

The first message I took from this crisis is that there is a need, in the Africa Europe relationship, while maintaining the overall framework of continent to continent relations, to work more on geographical and political differentiation and on tailored approaches towards specific issues and dialogue, and not only to talk of those bureaucratic frameworks which rule development aid budgets.

Question 3: What is ECDPM doing in the region?

What we are trying to do is to link policy to practice, when it is deemed necessary. First we try to have a better understanding of the regional dynamics and of the role of Europe in the region. We focus in particular on existing regional strategies for the Sahel written by the African regional organisations like ECOWAS, the EU, the United Nations. We try to compare them, to identify their comparative advantages and added value, and to see if there are synergies between them.

Secondly, we consult with experts and practioners in the region about the needs they see and have regarding existing and upcoming regional strategies.

This takes time, and the consultation phase is a constantly evolving effort which requires some flexibility. Sometimes also people just consider that strategies are useless and they prefer to concentrate on their actual concrete work in their town or neighbourhood. Which is fair enough.

When it is relevant, we are ready to facilitate the dialogue between policy makers and development/governance/security practitioners, to help their work for the development of the region and its people, on a number of concrete topics of regional relevance: from cattle breeding, food security, water management, security sector governance or energy provision, to give you examples.

When there is a need, we can play a facilitation role to support dialogue between, on the one hand, those who write and promote these regional strategies, that is to say the policy makers, and on the other, those who actually implement concrete development work, the practitioners, those who work directly with people from Mali, Mauritania, Algeria, Niger, every day.


Damien Helly is a ECDPM Policy Officer on EU External Action. Follow Damien on Twitter: @DamienHelly


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