YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A recent pledge of $1 billion by a regional body to tackle the growing jihadist problem in Africa’s Sahel region “will not be enough to stop the crisis,” according to a leading Catholic aid agency.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pledged the money during a summit in Burkina Faso on Sep. 15. The pledge from the 15-nation bloc will be funded from 2020 to 2024.
The arid Sahel region – located at the borderland between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – has been plagued by attacks from various Islamist groups, including some aligned with Al Qaeda and Islamic State. Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have been particularly affected.
The money will boost the capacity of the G5 Sahel, a joint taskforce set up in 2014 to counter terrorism in the region.
Jennifer Overton, the regional director for Catholic Relief Services, said she fears it won’t be enough.
“The funding pledge from West African nations will not be enough to stop the crisis in the Sahel,” she told Crux.
“Thousands of people have been killed, and tens of thousands have been displaced. As unprecedented violence and insecurity is growing in the region, national governments will need to balance their military investments with attention to humanitarian aid and development work in their countries,” Overton said.
According to the president of the ECOWAS Commission, Jean-Claude Brou, over 2,200 terrorist attacks have taken place across the Sahel in the last four years, resulting in the deaths of 11,500 people. Thousands more have been wounded and millions of others displaced.
“If the trend towards violence continues, massive numbers of civilian lives will be in harm’s way and it could set back critical development goals in the region,” Overton told Crux.
“Humanitarian programs can provide lifesaving assistance to those most vulnerable while also working to stop any future violence,” she said.
Catholic Relief Services is the international development agency of the U.S. bishops, and it has launched an emergency response in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
It is providing clean water and sanitation services, food, shelter and household items for more than 22,000 displaced families. The agency is also continuing its long-term development work in the region, including healthcare, education, and agricultural and peacebuilding projects.
However, security remains an issue.
The G5 Sahel force is backed by France and draws troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but it has been largely ineffective as a result of the lack of funds, training and equipment.
CRS says it is “responding to widespread displacement across the Sahel as a result of growing violence in the region.”
The agency said in 2018 alone, more than 320,000 people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger were forced to leave their homes.
“The increase of violent attacks has been devastating to so many families,” Overton said. “People are struggling not only to keep their families safe and together, but also to meet basic needs like food and shelter.”
CRS lays the blame of the spreading violence on chronic poverty, governance challenges, and food insecurity, as well as youth unemployment, the impact of climate change and limited access to basic services like healthcare and education.
“The challenges facing the Sahel go beyond any one border. It will be essential to continue to address peace and security, resilience and development from a regional perspective and more needs to be done,” said Overton.
“Very simply, unless this trend is reversed, we risk losing so many development gains over the last decade. The window to prevent this backsliding is rapidly closing and demands urgent attention from the international community,” she said.
UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has expressed concern that the jihadist violence could spread south and west to affect coastal countries in West Africa.
“It started in Mali, it went to Burkina Faso, Niger and now, when we speak with the presidents of Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Ivory Coast, they say that terrorism is coming to their borders,” Guterres said recently at a regional counter-terrorism conference in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
“I totally believe we are not winning the war against terrorism in the Sahel and that the operation should be strengthened,” he said.
Overton said time is running out.
“Action is needed now to stem the tide of this violence and save lives,” she told Crux.
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