On top of facing a long-standing security crisis, the Sahel region is now facing the additional challenge of the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). This health crisis, which is to be understood from a triple point of view, economic, social and political, unveils the governance-related areas of shortcomings. It also recalls the challenges for the Sahelian states and their international partners, already involved in the region.
Already in turbulence due to the intensification of attacks attributed to terrorist groups and the resurgence of local conflicts, particularly in Burkina, Mali, and Niger, the countries of the Sahel will also have to face the global health crisis. Since mid-March 2020, this crisis relating to the new coronavirus has been added up to an already worrying security, economic and humanitarian situation. According to statistics from the United Nations (UN), the number of fatalities in the different violent incidents in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger rose from 770 in 2016 to 4,000 in 2019. Against this background, the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic will put even more pressure on the already fragile States.
The vulnerability of its health systems places Africa at the heart of concerns regarding the Covid-19. However, given the evolution of the disease, it is unlikely that the continent will suffer from a health disaster as is the case in Europe, Asia and the United States. On April 28, 2020, sub-Saharan Africa officially registered 19,819 cases, i.e. less than 1% of the global rate. The current mortality rate in Africa is 4.4%, although it seems higher in Burkina and Mali. Thus, in the Sahel, the risk is mainly humanitarian, social, economic and political. Three cases deserve special attention from the Sahelian States and their partners.
First, the pandemic highlights the malfunctioning in governance and particularly the management of the health issue with inadequate health policies in most states. Like the security crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic reminds us that assisting fragile countries like Mali to restore their authority can hardly have a stabilizing effect if those states remain unable to meet the basic needs of their communities. Whether the crises are related to security, political or health in the Sahel, they gain momentum because of shortfalls in governance. The challenge is therefore to be able to empower states in the face of shocks that occur rather than replacing them or restore models of governance that have gradually contributed to the emergence of crises.
In the specific Malian context, marked by an on-going security crisis in which the country and its international partners are struggling to find lasting solutions, the health crisis is likely to divert international engagement from its initial mandate. With the absence or weak presence of the State in certain locations, those actors would confront an additional challenge for which authorities were not prepared.
Second, on the humanitarian level, the health crisis will exacerbate an already alarming humanitarian situation. Insecurity in the region has multiple humanitarian consequences. In addition to hundreds of closed schools and health centres, the Sahel region is in the grip of a deep food crisis. According to experts from the UN World Food Program, nearly 4.8 million people in the central Sahel will likely be victims of food insecurity during the hunger season (June through August 2020). In Mali, even if the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) already devotes a great deal of energy to protecting itself, it manages, thanks to its intervention force, to ensure certain actions including the facilitation of humanitarian assistance in some hard-to-reach places.
Finally, this health crisis offers an opportunity to include the actions of partners in a coordinated approach, based on complementarity. Faced with the multiple risks that will be felt at a specific level depending on the country, the measures already adopted by the states constitute a step in the right direction, but they are not sufficient. It is, therefore imperative to respond to the impact of the health crisis in the immediate future and in the long term. Efforts must be continued to help states move towards the renewal of governance models.
Baba Dakono, Lawyer, is Executive Secretary of the Amadou Hampaté BA Citizen Observatory on Governance and Security and researcher at the Sahel team of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) regional office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, both based in Bamako.