Terrorism risk in African region similar to Iraq and Syria, conference hears

UN secretary general urges more support for Sahel countries dealing with jihadi groups

United Nations secretary general António Guterres has called for more support for Sahel states fighting terrorism, saying the African region is on the “front line” and needs help.

“The trauma from terrorism causes lasting damage to individuals, families and communities,” Mr Guterres said, while speaking at the opening of a counterterrorism conference in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, on Wednesday.

He told reporters that jihadi groups were particularly gaining ground 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.”


Mr Guterres also asked the international community to aid the G5 Sahel Joint Force – a military effort involving Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania, which was established in 2014.

Women’s voices must be central in any response, Mr Guterres added. “Common to each of these groups, regardless of their ideology, is the subjugation of women’s and girls’ rights.

African Union Commission chairman, Moussa Faki Mahamat, accused the international community of “procrastinating”, saying the situation in the Sahel is a “phenomenon that has the same characteristics” as what happened in Iraq and Syria.

On Wednesday, the European Union pledged to give €138 million more to support the G5 Sahel Joint Force, following a meeting between EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini and the foreign ministers of the five countries involved. Previous EU support came to €115.6 million.

Groups active in the Sahel – which is also a major drugs-running and human-trafficking route towards Europe – include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, according to the International Crisis Group.

”You have multiple layers of tensions in the region, including longer-standing tension between ethnic groups in Mali, which are contributing to the violence,” said Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, in a phone interview with the Irish Times. “You have weak governments and the jihadis are quite effective at cutting off government services, schooling, etc, in the areas they take over. So I think that what we’ve seen for a long time . . . is jihadi groups taking advantage of long-standing grievances, weaknesses in government services, to recruit supporters.”


Mr Gowan said in relation to the G5 Sahel, the regional counterterrorist mission, there are also concerns around the human rights record of some of its soldiers. In Burkina Faso, for example, human rights groups have collected reports of extra-judicial executions by soldiers involved in counterterrorism.

“There’s a risk that the response becomes extremely military and you end up focusing on UN forces and regional forces trying to break jihadi groups, whereas a lot of the real work that needs to be done is more political,” Mr Gowan said. “It’s more about trying to mediate local settlements between the various groups that are fighting, trying to sort out some of the economic grievances that are there, trying to find local political solutions that address some of the underlying problems that jihadis can exploit.”

Mr Gowan also said climate change was playing a role in fuelling terrorism.

“There’s a strong feeling that across the Sahel [that] environmental degradation is worsening a lot of these conflicts, including long-standing tensions between farming communities and nomadic communities fighting over limited resources. It’s definitely a factor but I’m always wary of just phrasing this as climate change wars, because you also have very long-standing communal differences, weak governance in some areas and also the widespread presence of organised crime groups, trafficking etc, so those are all factors that are feeding into this.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa