2018/05/15 – In the middle of the night a group of Islamist extremists attacked the small town of Banamba, Mali, looting the town bank and freeing prisoners. It was not only money the town lost that November night 2016. The attack closed the town’s only bank, severing an economic lifeline between Banamba and the rest of the Malian economy, leaving local businesses and already vulnerable groups to face an even less certain future.
While regional governments attempt to prevent attacks like the Banamba episode and create stability through military operations, this should only be a stopgap measure. Building up economic resilience and assisting the development of communities like Banamba is the only solution that will provide permanent stability and a through it reduced conflict.
The West African geopolitical region of the Sahel, comprised of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, is a focal point in the fight against terrorism. Mali, Niger, and Chad are among the largest countries in Africa, but also among the most sparsely populated. This allows Islamist extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State to use the region’s remote deserts as a base for operations and to build financial reserves through the trafficking of guns, people, and drugs into Europe and across Africa.
Since Banamba, extremist attacks have increased throughout the region. More recently, on March 2, gunmen attacked the French Embassy and Burkinabe military headquarters in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, killing 16 and wounding 80 others.
Military intervention secures territory, but the international community must place serious focus on market development and regional trade. Security is not just a question of combating extremist groups but reducing marginalization and increasing economic opportunity in rural areas. Starting with local economic development and expanding regional trade networks to integrate communities into the broader economy and creates alternatives to radicalization and criminal activity.
The climate and geography of the Sahel relegates regional communities to relative isolation. Chronic drought and food insecurity plague the region, which is already one of the poorest in the world. Immense distances between regional towns and capitals, combined with the lack of infrastructure, makes it difficult for governments to deploy resources to rural areas. As a result, foreign investment, lucrative jobs, and government spending are concentrated in the capitals while subsistence living dominates rural economies where Islamist extremist groups are strongest.
The bright spot for the region is the leadership of the G5 Sahel—the first partnership between the governments of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger to advance regional security and development. The G5 Sahel acknowledges the importance of incorporating remote communities into the broader economy in its strategy. However, the current focus on impressive targets and infrastructure projects does little to advance this goal. In February, the G5 Sahel received the €8 billion ($9.8 billion) over five years from the EU, which will be used to create a million jobs for young people, connect over a million households to renewable energy, and link the five capitals via an intra-regional railroad and airline.
These are important investments, but they do not guarantee economically resilient communities. Unless development investments are supporting existing markets and trade, the economy will stall when funding is no longer available.
Regional economic development is not a problem exclusively for individual states to address, but for the G5 Sahel as a cohesive actor. There is an opportunity to change livelihoods and build a truly regional economy across the five G5 Sahel countries, but unless it is based on developing local economies and markets, sustainability will be difficult. Like the G5 Sahel’s approach to security, development requires regional coordination and a well-defined strategy for success.