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The Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC’s) African Peacebuilding Network (APN), in collaboration with the African Leadership Center (ALC) of Kings College London, and Wilton Park held a two-day virtual conference on “Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sahel and North Africa.” The conference was the latest in the “Peacebuilding in Africa” series launched in 2015 aimed towards “moving peacebuilding beyond state and elite-centered approaches to encompass the wider communities involved in conflict, including, youth and women’s networks on the continent.” The event explored the connections between peacebuilding and the “historical and extensive socio-cultural, economic, and strategic connections between North Africa and the Sahel (NASAH). Participants included high-level practitioners, scholars, activists, and staff and fellows of the SSRC and ALC.

The virtual conference commenced with an introduction and welcome remarks by Robert Grant, program director at Wilton Park, followed by a town hall discussion on “Conflict and Peacebuilding in North Africa and the Sahel.” The panel of speakers included the keynote speaker, Abdoulaye Bathily, visiting professor at the African Leadership Center (ALC), and panelists Radwa Saad, a researcher and PhD candidate at Cornell University, and Mohammed Gain of the African Institute for Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation (AIPECT). The panel was moderated by Funmi Olonisakin, Vice President (International) of Kings College, London. The keynote speaker focused on the challenging and ever more complex dimensions of conflict and instability in the Sahel and North Africa, including the interconnections between the various flashpoints of conflict. This included how the unfinished business of decolonization in Western Sahara has strained relations between Morocco and Algeria, and practically crippled the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU). The presenter also provided critical insights into the role of various actors, including transnational criminal networks, in the conflicts in Libya, Mali, the Lake Chad region, Chad, and Sudan and the impact of extremist groups on instability and disorder in neighboring regions. He also shed light on the role of irredentist movements, communal uprisings, governance deficits, climate change, and geopolitical rivalries between international actors—France, the EU, Russia, China, Gulf states, Israel, Turkey, etc.—in posing complex challenges to peacebuilding in the region. He was critical of the militarization of the region by state actors and international parties while noting that peacebuilders were becoming part of the conflict. Drawing attention to the limitations of Peace Support Operations and the loss of credibility of the UN and ECOWAS, he made a case for reviewing traditional approaches to peacebuilding and reorganizing the democratic system to address complex challenges.

In her presentation, Radwa Saad analyzed the role of the youth in conflict and peace in North Africa and the Sahel. She cautioned against the romanticization of youth as agents of change or disruptive actors and called attention to the structural constraints in the region, particularly the trend towards the depoliticization and pacification of politics. Other issues addressed included how the youth were changing the narratives of peace through non-violent protest, transcending sectarian divisions, and struggling for democracy and social justice. Citing examples from Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, Radwa explained how youth and women are engaging the state, learning from each other, and building connections across borders. Noting that North Africa is the least integrated region in Africa, she was of the view that youth were well poised to seize the many opportunities being thrown up by developments at the societal level across both regions.

In his presentation, Mohammed Gain of AIPECT spoke to the disconnections of Maghreb-Sahel relations, the implications of migration flows for relations between North Africa and Southern Europe, rivalries between external powers, including France, residual identity discontent linked to historical grievances, perceived injustices and inter-communal conflict, the rise of the Islamic State in the Maghreb, and the securitization of the region at the expense of local concerns. Mohammed noted how hegemonic security visions were dominated by the global war on extremist groups, access to the region’s vast natural resources, climate change vulnerability, and the divergence between the pursuit of global strategies and local concerns of people living in North and West Africa. In his view, the crux of the security challenge in North Africa and the Sahel lay in the crisis of governance facing states and the need to change the global narrative of the two regions. He also identified the deadlock in Morocco-Algeria tensions over Western Sahara as a major factor in the instability in the Maghreb, which is further worsened by the EU’s patronizing attitude to the region with the effect of undermining peace and integration.

The discussions that followed emphasized the need to humanize peacebuilding and security. Contributors also argued that the state is losing trust in the peripheries, in a context where Africa is continuously being viewed as a source of economic opportunities, markets, raw materials, and competition between established and emerging global powers. There was an emerging consensus that military options cannot solve the security problems facing the region and that civil society, including the youth, need to be at the forefront of conflict transformation and building a new African security paradigm centered on the people.

The second day featured a town hall discussion (closed session) on conflict and peacebuilding in North Africa and the Sahel, which afforded presenters the opportunity to fully explore the ramifications of existing frameworks for networks and dialogues at the center of peacebuilding and the possibilities for reorganizing them along more inclusive and cooperative lines. The session commenced with opening remarks by Robert Grant and Cyril Obi, program director of SSRC’s APN. Their remarks were followed by a session on the “Role of states and cross-border networks in conflict and peacebuilding,” followed by breakout sessions on, “Fostering transregional links and cooperation.” These were organized along the lines of the following questions: How can states across the regions strengthen their cooperation to successfully adjust to the challenges posed by the impacts of climate change? In what ways are youth innovatively shaping peacebuilding efforts in both regions? What opportunities are being created and how can such opportunities be consolidated? What factors have inhabited a cohesive trans-regional organizational approach to peacebuilding, and what can be done to address them? What is the role of civil society actors and what strategies are likely to connect them to ongoing regional approaches to peacebuilding in a more participatory and comprehensive manner?

The speakers at the first session were Salem Mezhoud, Associate Senior Fellow at ALC, Kings College London, Njoya Tikum of the UNDP, Osai Ojigbo of Amnesty International Nigeria and Eka Ikpe of ALC Kings College London. The first presentation focused on the role of transnational actors and networks in conflict and peacebuilding in the region, including countries such as Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Russia, the Arab Gulf States, Israel, and private military actors, including Russia’s Wagner group. Other developments identified as critical to the peace and security trends in both regions were the failings of diplomacy in a region marked by the paradox of plenty (rich in minerals, but immersed in high levels of poverty), the high levels of militarism in Algeria, and the failure of the Tunisian revolution. Other points touched on the struggles of youth in Algeria and Tunisia in their demand for a total overhaul of the political system, and the potential advantages of closer North Africa–West Africa (NAWA) regional cooperation. The emerging peace and security challenges in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic were explored, including the transnational nature of the challenges in the Sahel and how they were complicating the efficacy of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and Regional Economic Communities (RECs) due to the inability to address conflicts in the Sahelian countries. The second presentation also interrogated the assumptions underpinning the Sahel and North Africa nexus, noting that most Sahelians see threats as emanating from Libya, rendering assumptions of shared interests and connections with North Africa problematic. Echoing the point made by earlier presentations about the delegitimization of ECOWAS, the distrust of states by citizens was reaffirmed and a case was made for regional networking led by citizens of the region. Another presentation interrogated the effectiveness of AU and ECOWAS sanctions on military governments in Africa, noting that such interventions had failed to end human rights violations. It also spoke to the disruptive aspects of climate fragility, farmer-herder conflicts, external extractive actors, and the struggles over national resources. While noting that it was not possible to have peace without justice, questions were raised about the place of women, ties between people across borders, and opportunities being explored by youth who are refusing “to do things the old way.” In concluding the presentation, there was a call for the identification of alternative conveners for peace in the region and the building of trust and inclusiveness in governance systems. The discussions that followed focused on the breakdown of trust and legitimacy and how states across both regions can strengthen cooperation and respond to emerging challenges.

Feedback from the thematic breakout sessions focused on the role of local and international conflict and peace actors, conflict prevention, the potential of the Sahel as a source of alternative and renewable energy, addressing the nexus between the environment and climate security, strategies for strengthening democratic governance, and the rise of youth movements as the next generation of peacebuilders in the region. Also noted was the problem of harmonization of policies leading to the total neglect of certain aspects of regions, weaknesses of states and RECS in relation to peacebuilding, and the need for civil society to play a key role in community building, capacity building, and communications. The closing and wrap-up session provided a succinct summary of the discussions over the two days, pointing to the epistemic issues underpinning the geography of Africa and the borders versus integration debate, particularly in relation to issues such as racism and xenophobia. The overview also underscored the importance of critiquing formalistic structures, including the heterogeneity of external actors, emphasizing the point of documenting and marketing successes, while recognizing the significant role of civil society and its potential to do more. Other issues highlighted included the possibilities of innovative responses to climate change as well as how regional projects such as AfCTA could contribute towards building inclusive and sustainable peace and development through transregional cooperation in Africa.