The Sahel region faces a number of governance, development and security challenges, which are often interlinked. While some of them are specific to individual countries, others are similar across borders or are transnational in nature. In order to address these challenges, the Heads of State of Burkina Faso, Chad, France, Mali, Mauritania and Niger announced in January 2020 the creation of the Coalition for the Sahel, which aims at ‘providing a more collective and inclusive response to the Sahel crisis’ and at ensuring ‘coherent action at the regional level’. In April 2021, the Council of the European Union (EU) adopted conclusions on a new EU integrated strategy for the Sahel.
In the framework of the Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) , EPLO organised in May 2022 a second meeting with the aim of gathering civil society recommendations on how the European Union should contribute to peace and stabilisation in the Sahel (see the blog article about the first meeting, which took place in March 2020, here). In particular, the discussions focused on how the EU should support responsive, inclusive and transparent governance; improved delivery of public services by state authorities, including in relation to articulating civilian and military/security efforts; and building trust between state authorities and populations. The meeting was organised to inform the ongoing revision of the Roadmap of the Coalition for the Sahel, in particular its third pillar relating to providing ‘support for the return of the state and administrations in the territory’ through a civilian and political surge.
What follows is a summarised version of the key recommendations that were put forward by the civil society participants (the meeting report is also available in French).
1. The European Union (EU) should develop further its instruments to ensure that its policies, programming and interventions in the Sahel are conflict-sensitive and based on robust conflict analysis, and that they are able to respond to rapid changes. This should include, inter alia:
- Ensuring that its actions seeking to address peace and conflict dynamics (including its support to national security forces) are informed by meaningful consultations with civil society and populations, especially diverse women and young people, and other marginalised and vulnerable groups. This is necessary to capture differences across countries, areas and communities, including with respect to (formal and informal) institutions and power structures, social dynamics, patterns of exclusion, and root causes and drivers of conflict. This should be done at the local and national levels and through regional forums, and particularly as part of EU conflict analysis processes.
- Developing and strengthening EU mechanisms to receive feedback from civil society and broader populations about its actions and the EU-supported actions of state authorities. This is necessary to ensure effectiveness and to avoid doing harm.
2. The EU should support relationships between states and their populations that are based on the fair, effective and equitable delivery of public services and on protection – not on repression and violence. In particular, the EU should further support the role of local authorities in delivering public services and developing infrastructure. This should include, inter alia:
- Strengthening the ability and capacities of state institutions to deliver public services throughout their territories to the benefit of populations in a fair and equitable manner, notably by helping state institutions to ‘return’ to areas where they are currently unable to deliver services. This should be done, inter alia, through technical expertise and by promoting adequate dialogue and consultations with civil society and diverse members of the population, including diverse women and young people, and other marginalised and vulnerable groups. This is necessary to ensure that authorities have an accurate picture of the needs of all social groups, and that they commit to responding to these needs in a non-discriminatory manner and not only to those of the most dominant groups. Particular emphasis should be placed on support local authorities.
- Placing particular emphasis on understanding, promoting and supporting people’s access to justice, making sure that justice institutions are effective and non-discriminatory. When people have limited access to official judicial institutions, they tend to rely on justice delivered by traditional, customary and/or religious authorities or by armed groups. However, official judicial institutions are often seen as preferable when they deliver justice adequately, particularly by women and marginalised groups (traditional/customary justice institutions are usually dominated by, and favour, men).
3. The EU should continue to help strengthen governance structures at national and local levels. In its support, the EU should prioritise inclusivity and responsiveness to all people’s needs, and contribute to building trust between authorities and different population groups. This should include, inter alia:
- Helping to address the root causes of mistrust between communities and state authorities, including unequal access to (and distribution of) public services (including access to justice), exclusion from governance structures, predatory and discriminatory state behaviour, physical and economic insecurity, etc.
- Helping to make state institutions more inclusive, participatory, and responsive to people’s needs, including but not limited to their security needs. For example, the EU should support the reform of legal frameworks relating to states of emergency, the degree of centralisation, the use of violence by national security forces, the recognition and protection of human rights, access to land and natural resources, and the defence of gender equality. It should also promote and support people’s access to legal and administrative documents, including digitally.
- Supporting local initiatives similar to consultative security committees (‘comités consultatifs de sécurité’, CCS) in Mali, which have had a positive impact in helping local authorities and civil society actors (including, when relevant, actors from local surveillance committees) sit together and reflect on challenges and how to address them. These committees can help identify needs, concerns and possible responses relating to a range of security issues without having to go through processes at the national level. They can also help connect local initiatives and national frameworks.
4. The EU should expand its support to peacebuilding and conflict prevention, particularly dialogue and mediation efforts and mechanisms at the local, national and regional levels. This support needs to be long-term and to involve a focus on cross-border dynamics. This should include, inter alia:
- Helping to map and supporting existing mechanisms for conflict prevention, management and resolution, particularly those for dialogue and mediation. The EU should help ensure that these mechanisms are inclusive and efficient, and help avoid duplication, including by coordinating with other international actors. It should also support national state institutions that can help coordinate, connect and/or provide support to such mechanisms.
- Supporting community-based approaches to dialogue and mediation. This should involve providing support to civil society actors to expand and to institutionalise existing initiatives, including those relating to local, intercommunity dialogue committees for the peaceful resolution of conflict (over access to land, to natural resources, etc.), and to the establishment of monitoring committees (‘comités de suivi’) to ensure that agreements are implemented and sustainable.
In particular, the EU should support and help monitor local peace agreements, which can be threatened by third parties (particularly non-state armed groups). It should support the meaningful participation of diverse actors from local communities in these agreements, as agreements should not be imposed on local communities from above (including by national actors who may be perceived as favouring certain communities over others). This is necessary to contribute to the sustainability of agreements, and to ensure that they adequately address local needs, that they are not disconnected from local realities, and that they do not have counter-productive effects for the safety of communities (e.g. agreements that fail to address how a third party contributes to violent conflict in the area may lead the communities who were made to sign the agreement to be targeted by the armed group).
- Supporting the establishment of transboundary commissions to help respond to some of the risks or tensions relating to the movement of communities across borders (e.g. the movement of herder communities for transhumance), and to facilitate the delivery of public services to communities that move across borders.
5. The EU should enhance its support to national security forces (‘forces de défence et de sécurité’) in a way that strengthens their ability to protect and to address threats to the safety of populations, that ensures their compliance with human rights standards and international humanitarian law (IHL), and that helps build trust between communities and security forces. This should include, inter alia:
- Ensuring that its security interventions are part of broader political strategies (which also include a range of civilian means) that aim at addressing the root causes and consequences of conflict, and at contributing to the human security of populations. The EU should also promote the importance of ensuring that state-centric security and stability is not prioritised over the delivery by state authorities of public services and infrastructure to populations, and the protection of civilians.
- Encouraging national security forces to maintain a presence in areas where they have intervened against armed groups to ensure the safety of populations and to ensure that these interventions are associated with maintaining or re-instating a state presence, including for the delivery of public services. When security forces leave areas after interventions, armed groups often return, and they will frequently commit violence against local populations in retaliation. National security forces should also engage with local communities to facilitate the return of state representatives.In Mali, the Pôles Sécurisés de Développement et de Gouvernance (PSDG) have been successful in helping improve security situations and in providing an enabling environment for the resumption of the delivery of public services and for the development of economic activity. However, their geographic scope remains limited.
6. The EU should place the protection of civilians at the heart of all of its support to national security forces. This should include, inter alia:
- Ensuring that its security interventions and the interventions of the national security forces it supports do not cause harm to civilians, either directly (with civilians targeted or harmed as collateral damage) or indirectly (armed groups targeting civilians as retaliation after an intervention). The EU and national security forces should work with local leaders and civil society to prevent this, including by supporting mechanisms and national strategies for dialogue between national security forces and populations on the protection of civilians.
- Providing operational training to national security forces on the protection of civilians and expanding trainings on human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), including trainings on gender issues (notably on gender-based violence in conflict and how to respond to it), making sure that the national security forces the EU supports develop their ability to distinguish civilians from combatant and comply with human rights standards and IHL.
- Supporting transparent accountability mechanisms, through the justice system, for perpetrators of violence against civilians, including from within national security forces.
7. The EU should hold partner governments accountable to their commitments, strengthen its monitoring of how its financial and material support is used, and help partner governments enact legal reforms and address corruption. This should include, inter alia:
- Ensuring that it holds governments accountable when they are not delivering public services fairly, whether they are democratically-elected or not. The EU should continue to use and develop further concrete indicators relating to the delivery of public services, in order to monitor and evaluate how populations benefit from services, and to detect and help address gaps and failures more effectively.
In particular, the EU should take greater steps to ensure that its financial support does not contribute to mismanagement and corruption, including by ensuring that accountability and transparency mechanisms are in place with respect to how its support is used at the national level. This should include ensuring that relevant public documents are easily accessible by populations.
8. The EU should increase and strengthen its support to civil society actors, particularly local civil society actors, and the roles that they can play in preventing conflict and building peace, including through financial, diplomatic, material and technical support. This should include, inter alia:
- Prioritising the provision of support to local civil society actors, including informal and grassroots organisations. This should be done with particular attention to supporting youth and women’s organisations. The EU should recognise and address the fact that its funding modalities may inadvertently discriminate against such organisations (e.g. due to bureaucratic constraints and selection criteria that can be difficult to meet for small, informal organisations).
- Defending, in the EU’s political dialogue with partner governments, the ability for civil society organisations (particularly humanitarian organisations) to access communities throughout their territories and to engage with all conflict actors, including non-state armed groups.
9. The EU should enhance how it communicates about its efforts to address conflict dynamics in the region. This should include, inter alia:
- Engaging to a greater extent with populations, including communicating better to them (a) how it is taking their concerns into account in its actions, (b) where its support is going, and which actions are happening as a result of its support, and (c) the difference between what it is doing and what individual EU Member States are doing.
- Strengthening how it addresses mis/disinformation about its actions, particularly on social media, and avoiding the creation of expectations that it cannot meet. The EU should express that it is engaging in the region to help partner governments and populations address the challenges they are facing, and not that it will solve the challenges itself. It should also communicate that it recognises how multi-faceted and complex the crisis in the Sahel is.
These recommendations and others are explored in more detail in the report from the meeting, which is available here in English and available here in French.
 The Civil Society Dialogue Network (CSDN) is a mechanism for dialogue between civil society and EU policy-makers on issues related to peace and conflict. It is co-financed by the European Union (Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace and managed by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), a civil society network, in co-operation with the European Commission (EC) and the European External Action Service (EEAS). The fourth phase of the CSDN will last from 2020 to 2023. For more information, please visit the EPLO website.
Lorenzo Angelini is the Policy Officer responsible for coordinating EPLO’s work relating to peace, development and security, the climate crisis, and EU-Africa relations.