‘Peace Be Upon You’: People, Peace and Prosperity in the Sahel

Ian MatthewsNews

By Mabingue Ngom, UNFPA Regional Director for West and Central Africa (WCARO)

“Do you have peace?” “Peace be upon you!” 

These are two customary expressions which are indispensable when people of the Sahel, from Praia to Djibouti, meet, whatever language they speak.

Peace is a major aspiration in the Sahel; perhaps more than ever now that it seems to be abandoning large parts of the Sahel where violence caused almost 4,000 deaths in 2019, figures not seen in other parts of the world. But what does peace mean in the Sahel? What does peace refer to?

In a Sahel region threatened by terrorism, peace refers, first and foremost, to an end to kidnappings, ambushes, armed attacks, suicide attacks and other acts that undermine human security. In such a context, peace consists of putting an end to the proliferation of weapons – of all weapons – conventional and non-conventional. From the lightest to the heaviest weapons, from tear gas grenades to drones, to anti-personnel mines and the inescapable and ubiquitous machine guns. It is undoubtedly from this literal, elementary conception of peace that the slogan “silencing the guns”, adopted in 2003 as an objective by the African Union, derives. 

Irrespective of whether one finds this minimalist conception of peace unrealistic a posteriori, the position of Africa’s decision-making organization reveals that, beyond ideological differences, the continent’s leaders no longer distinguish between just and unjust wars, as had been the case in the era of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). With the independence of the former colonies in 1975, the liberation of Nelson Mandela and his comrades in 1990 and the lifting of the ban on the African National Congress (ANC), marking the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, war lost its historical legitimacy and those who waged it lost their aura. That is why none of the wars that have broken out in Africa since 1990 have received the blessing of the OAU or its successor, the AU. Africans unanimously consider wars to be the mother of all scourges and want the entire continent to be rid of them. 

Symposium: Demography, Peace, Security in the Sahel

As part of its efforts to address the issues raised in this article, UNFPA WCARO and the Government of Niger have organized a high-level virtual symposium on ‘Demography, Peace and Security in the Sahel” to be held on Wednesday, 2 December. The symposium will help shape a new narrative on the Sahel region, while engaging in high-level policy dialogue and advocacy on the links between demography, peace and security. Prominent figures from African governments, the private sector, researchers, United Nations agencies, multilateral and bilateral organizations, civil society groups, and development partners will come together to explore data-driven and evidence-based interventions leading to a more effective and sustainable response to the crisis in the region. For more information, visit the event website or contact Rebecca Fishman at rfishman@gbchealth.org.

In the light of the thousands of deaths caused by weapons these days in a Sahel region already scarred by harsh climatic events, who could fail to appreciate the AU’s ambition to see weapons silenced forever? Who would not welcome seeing the swords returned to the sheaths from which they should never have been removed? Who would not be pleased to see the budgetary resources devoted to the fight against terrorism mobilized to combat the real enemies of peace – ignorance, disease, hunger, poverty and exclusion – and promote just and inclusive development? Who could turn down the idea of a long overdue peace dividend which would also work in tandem with a demographic dividend finally being harnessed? Who would not be happy to see brothers who are enemies today opting not to fight each other and spill blood for the control of portions of territory, but to join forces to build areas of peace together and “with their hands together come to plug the pierced jar”, as King Ghezo invited them to do? 

Undoubtedly, no one in their right mind can deny the pleasure of seeing wars cease, for peace is priceless, while war has a cost. The UN, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, would be the first to be pleased about this, as its mission is to promote development, maintain peace and, through the Security Council, prevent wars. 

Peace is a social goal because man can only be realized in the community. The Manden Charter, called Kurukan Fugan in Bambana, which African historians consider to be the first constitution in the Sahelian region, since it dates from the 13th century, is instructive in this respect. Peace is enshrined as a human right in the Charter because, in the philosophy of its creators, human societies become worthy of the name only when, in the words of Ernest Renan, “the common desire to live together” crystallizes into peace. 

Peace is then assimilated into a state of total well-being – physical, moral, psychological and spiritual – which can be achieved only by freeing oneself from everything that prevents human beings from achieving their full potential; namely, the violation of citizens’ economic and social rights, fear, inequality, deprivation, exclusion, racism and sexism. This peace is therefore not given; it is won, but is done so by means of a dynamic that is the antithesis of the logic of the zero-sum game. 

Contrary to the Latin adage si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”), forgetting that “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword”, true peace is built with the weapons of peace; conciliatory dialogue, patient listening, empathy, respect for otherness. Peace thrives only where it is laid as a foundation for living together and as a purpose towards which efforts are directed. 

Communities formed on these bedrocks are then robust because their members recognize that they are all of equal dignity and share a common imagination in which the other is another self to whom one is bound by common values, starting with a tyrannical love for peace. In this chosen community, what unites is not skin color, gender, age and the other usual markers, but something intangible; a faith that dismantles social distances. In the spirit of the Kurukan Fugan, peace cannot accommodate exclusiveness and inequality, for whoever constructs peace as a cardinal virtue must accept that “all life is life” and, as such, deserves respect. 

Peace is the prerequisite for prosperity: violence has played such a large role in history that Friedrich Engels considered it to be the midwife of history. We see this again with the conquests behind the foundation of great empires in Africa and elsewhere. However, the era when wars, rezzous, plunder and the slave trade, trans-Saharan and transatlantic, made nations prosper is over. Even if the GDP that counts weapons of mass destruction and other products of the industry of death as wealth is slow to capture the change of epoch, the fact is that where weapons rumble, prosperity recedes, because the aphorism that “money doesn’t like noise” is universal. Even when it wants to drape itself in the cloak of honor by declaring itself to be merely “commercial”, or by favoring “surgical strikes”, war is impoverishing in more ways than one. 

  • First of all, in a situation of war, the order of priorities is marked by what G. Berger called a “retrospective stubbornness” that prevents us from seeing that the world has changed and that, instead of firepower, it is rather financial, scientific, technical, cultural and institutional capital that provides a decisive strategic advantage both economically and geopolitically. 
  • Secondly, decisions taken under the pretext of retrospective stubbornness have the effect of mortgaging the future; in an era when the GAFAs (large internet technology companies) have dethroned industry tycoons at the top of the stock market capitalization charts, it is the future that is in danger every time that, in order to bail out defense budgets, the meager budgets for education, research, and employment are being drastically cut. Eventually, this will prove fatal to these sectors which are highly strategic in the long term.
  • On the other hand, the status of women is regressing: it is in war zones that the greatest number of women die in childbirth. They lose their lives while giving birth because the few health centers that exist have been emptied of their midwives and monitors, who are usually so devoted to the cause of improving family well-being. Unable to attend the health centers that have become ghostly, or to go to markets that have become minefields, women find themselves confined in little more than closed spaces where obscurantism maintained by an outdated patriarchal order reigns. Given the role of women in the biological and social reproduction of societies, it can be stated bluntly that it is the future that is mortgaged every time they are silenced by the din of weapons. 
  • In addition, the condition of youth is also worsening: in conflict zones, children, especially child soldiers, are in a very physically and psychologically vulnerable state. The same is true of young people who, even more so than children, constitute the preferred recruitment pool for political-mafia groups, who find in them cannon fodder that is generally paid for at a low price. For those young people who resist the siren call of jihadists and their summary judgments and executions, migration – legal or not, organized or not – is the only way to salvation. “The time of youth” is then lengthened because, unable to find a decent job, unable to find or build their own independent housing, unable to marry because of their inability to pay the dowry, young people remain confined to the status of social children for much longer than in peaceful societies.

These four features that are inextricably linked to armed conflicts in the Sahel are all mortgages to lasting peace. No one should claim this right, still less the right to insult the future by nipping in the bud, ab ovo, the lives of young people, women and children, because these groups embody, like petals, the promise of a better world. 

This struggle for peace in the Sahel must be shouldered firstly by Sahelians but they must also be supported by the international community in a partnership approach. The Sahelians have the difficult task of creating the conditions so that violence is no longer the preferred means of resolving the conflicts inherent to life in society; it is up to them to devise and establish systems of governance that guarantee justice and equity, and to know how to “recognize the dignity of the slave and celebrate the intelligence of man”, to quote Serigne Moussa Ka. It is gratifying to note that many Sahelian leaders are working on this today, although their efforts need to be stepped up. 

The Sahelian partner countries have the task of deploying the instruments of increased – but above all, renewed and innovative – economic, scientific and technical cooperation. It must be accepted, from the outset, that the partnership approach requires a long-term commitment, something along the lines of the 1976 “generation contract” of the Sahel Club in relation to the fight against the effects of drought. However, the best way to serve the future is to give “all to the present”, according to Albert Camus. It is without delay, hic et nunc (“here and now”), that we must commit ourselves, because in the Sahel the clock is ticking.

The clock is ticking because we know that those people for whom millions of jobs need to be created by 2030 have already been born. The clock is ticking because with each passing day ecosystems are degraded further, and peasants, fishermen and pastoralists are literally eating their environmental capital. It is because of the systemic nature of these risks and their negative impact on peace that this struggle must be a global one; because by fighting for peace in the Sahel, ultimately, we are fighting for the planet.

Peace, prosperity, people, partnership, planet: nowhere have the 5 Ps that underpin the 2030 Agenda been as relevant as in the Sahel, nor have they ever been more topical than today. May the international community, which has recently celebrated the International Day of Peace, make this conviction a reason to redouble its efforts to ensure that the weapons of discord disappear forever and that what prevails are the ideals of peace carried by peoples united in the search for shared prosperity on a planet that we have no choice but to inhabit together out of respect for ourselves and for our children, to whom we must bequeath a world which peace will have definitively, resolutely, made its home. No more words; action, so that the hope of a Sahelian renaissance may live on.

Mabingue Ngom is Regional Director for UNFPA WCARO. He provides leadership and strategic direction for the 23 countries covered by the Regional Office. Mr. Ngom joined UNFPA in 2008 as Director of Program Division. He previously worked for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria as the portfolio manager for Africa, then as Team Leader for West and Central Africa in Geneva. He also held the position of Program Advisor at the International Planned Parenthood Federation in Nairobi. Previously, he was involved in the development of his country, where he held various management positions, including Advisor of the Minister of Economy and Finance in Senegal. He holds a master’s in Development and Economic Analysis from the University of Dakar and in Public Policy from American University.

Ian Matthews‘Peace Be Upon You’: People, Peace and Prosperity in the Sahel