FCO need bigger footprint in the Sahel-Sahara

21 March 2014

There is a stark mismatch between the UK Government’s vision of economic, political and security engagement in Africa’s Western Sahel-Sahara region and the very light diplomatic footprint it actually has on the ground, says the Foreign Affairs Committee in a report published today.

The Committee is concerned at the degree to which the UK and its Western partners appear to have been caught out by recent crises in Mali, Libya, the Central African Republic and elsewhere.

The Committee says that a new frontline of violent extremism has opened up in Africa’s Western Sahel-Sahara region. Jihadists have put down roots in remote and marginalised areas, capitalising on economic misery, weak state security and popular anger with corrupt governing elites. Concerted international action is needed to address the root causes of instability and prevent the contagion of extremism from spreading further.

Views from the Chair

Committee Chairman Sir Richard Ottaway says

“The Western Sahel is a deeply troubled region. Economic activity is often desperately low, organised crime is rife, and armed gangs of militants seem able to move almost unchecked across porous national borders.

Meanwhile, the region’s population continues to grow more rapidly than anywhere else in the world. Understandably, more and more young people are beginning to leave in search of a better life, but often with tragic consequences. A minority are drawn into radicalism or religious extremism. My committee’s message is that demography needs more attention as a foreign policy issue rather than solely an international development issue.

The UK was right to offer its practical support for the French-led military intervention in Mali. The intervention routed jihadists in the north of the country and helped Mali embark on a path back to stability. However, a powerful threat from extremism remains throughout the region with no sign yet that African countries would be able to deal with future crises on their own. The UK should be looking to help build indigenous security capacity - the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan provides an opportunity to increase the number of British military training missions in the region.

The Committee calls for the UK to raise its diplomatic profile in the region and to press for international agreement of a common security and stability policy for the Western Sahel, with the UK, US and France sharing joint responsibility for ensuring its implementation. Continuing rapid population growth in the Western Sahel against a backdrop of very low economic activity is a serious concern: the evidence shows that it is the young, angry and jobless who are disproportionately at risk of being lured into criminality or religious extremism. There is also growing evidence of young people in the region going to increasingly desperate lengths to escape poverty in the region, with Europe the preferred port of call. The Committee expresses concern that the EU does not yet have a clear policy on how it proposes to deal with this trend.

These findings come at the conclusion of a year-long inquiry, in which Committee members travelled to countries in North and West Africa to hear for themselves about the threat extremist groups pose. In Nigeria, the Committee heard from people affected by the Boko Haram movement, which has killed thousands of ordinary Nigerians in a long-running campaign of terror. The Committee acknowledges that the UK Government faces a dilemma in determining how much to assist the Nigerian military to defeat Boko Haram, in view of well-documented concerns about its human rights record, but calls on it to do as much as it can that is consistent with the UK’s human rights values.
Committee Chairman Sir Richard Ottaway says, “Economic development is key to resolving instability in the Western Sahel, but more needs to be done to monitor aid programmes and make sure they are on track. Mali looks like an instance of the UK and its Western partners taking their eye off the ball, and inadvertently allowing aid programmes to contribute to a culture of irresponsible and corrupt governance.

Overall, our committee has uncovered a worrying pattern of unsightedness on the part of the UK and others in relation to events in and around the Western Sahel region. A common thread appears to be a weakness of analysis in relation to crises that straddle both North and West Africa. The Sahara may be a departmental barrier within the Foreign Office but it is not one for terrorists. The UK’s diplomatic presence in the whole area is extremely small relative to other parts of the world. We would urge the UK Government to look at expanding its presence and depth of knowledge in relation to the whole region, in view of the foreign policy challenges that lie ahead.”

Further information


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