February 28, 2024

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez laments Sahel region in central Africa not making ‘front page news’ even with 2.4 million people displaced and more than 30 million in need of ‘life-saving’ humanitarian assistance

Senator Bob Menendez
Senator Bob Menendez

The chairperson of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Bob Menendez, is upset that while the Sahel region in central Africa may not often ‘make front page news’, about 2.4 million people have been displaced there, and more than 30 million others are in need of humanitarian assistance this year alone.

“While the region may not often make front page news, millions of people continue to face threats from militaries that are supposed to protect them, ethnically-based militias and dire food insecurity,” Senator Menendez said this week during a Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing on the Sahel region that heard testimonies from representatives from the U.S. Department of Defense, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. “These threats have displaced 2.4 million people in the central Sahel by this May, and more than 30 million people in the Sahel will need life-saving assistance and protection this year, nearly two million more than last year.”

Menendez lamented that the militaries in the region trained by the United States have also contributed in destabilizing the Sahel, a wide swath that lies between the southern Sahara desert and the savanna lands to the south, undertaking coups in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and attempting another one in Niger. The Sahel region is home to some of the poorest countries in the world, which are also facing instability and coups.

The senior senator from New Jersey, who has been in the Senate since he was first appointed by Governor Jon Gorzine in 2006, accused the military in Mali of committing ‘gross human rights abuses’ with little to no accountability. Making matters worse, he said, Russia has established a foothold in Mali with the Wagner Group, leading to more human rights violations and extrajudicial killings of civilians. The situation is not much different in Chad where civilians face similar abuses, he said.

Chidi Blyden, the United States Defense Department’s deputy assistant secretary for African affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations committee that a partnership between African nations and nation partners is needed to address problems besetting the continent. That partnership would have to include three key agencies in the United States – the Department of Defense, the State Department and USAID.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden and Minister of State and Head of the Security House of the President of the Republic of Angola Francisco Pereira Furtado conclude talks at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., April 8, 2022. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

“In the Sahel these three priorities intersect in a manner that requires not only an integrated approach, but a whole-of-government approach,” Blyden said. “Over the past six months, we’ve seen that the intersection of these three challenges in the Sahel has resulted in military coups and constitutional political transitions, democratic backsliding in West Africa, the inherent spread of VEOs and an exponential increase in their attacks.”

The U.S. National Defense Strategy outlines three security priorities in Africa: countering violent extremist organizations; strengthening allies and partners to support mutual security objectives; and addressing targeted strategic competition concerns that present a military risk to the United States, noted Defense News.

“These challenges transcend national borders and therefore require a coordinated regional approach,” she said. “As such, it would behoove us to address them together with our African partners,” she added, noting that Russia’s Wagner Group of mercenaries is active in the region.

According to Blyden, extremist groups are exploiting power vacuums, instability, local tensions and weak government institutions and governing practices, and are trafficking in drugs, weapons and people to fund their operations.

“These groups jeopardize stability, democracy and peace, which further provides opportunities for extremism to proliferate, creating a vicious feedback loop that is fueled by a lack of good governance and human rights accountability,” Blyden said. “When governments struggle to maintain security, deliver essential services, uphold humanitarian principles, or even provide economic opportunities and conflict environments, conditions are ripe for VEOs to exploit and appeal to vulnerable and unprotected marginalized populations.”

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs Chidi Blyden greets Angolan Ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Joaquim do Espirito Santo, as he arrives with Angolan Minister of State and Chief of Security Affairs Office to the President of the Republic Gen. Francisco Pereira Furtado for talks atthe Pentagon, Washington, D.C., April 8, 2022. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Defense News quoted Blyden as saying that there are more than a dozen active Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates/cells in Africa stretching “from the Sahel to the Lake Chad Basin, from Somalia to [the Democratic Republic of the Congo].”

These groups present a danger to other nations in Africa including those of West Africa. “DOD is working closely with state in USAID to develop programs for coastal West African countries as part of the Global Fragility Act, … and the U.S. strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability,” she said.

But any solution in the region needs to be an African solution. “We need to integrate our entire approach in the Sahel with our African partners, or we risk undermining our own efforts, and providing additional opportunities for VEOs and strategic competitors to gain access and influence,” she said.

Niger, Chad, Mauritania and others are important nations to work with. The coup in Chad makes that effort moot, but the ruling group in the country has promised to return to civilian rule, she noted.

“We are encouraging our European allies and African partners operating in the Sahel to adopt a similar approach to … the Sahel strategy, one that seeks solutions that are integrated whole-of-government and African-led,” she said. “We assess that unilateral military action is insufficient to address the scope of threats we face on the continent. And although the continent is awash with new initiatives, it would truly benefit from management of the international community to support our partners and their locally supported efforts.”

The role of the U.S. is to enable African partners to be successful in creating and maintaining their own security. The nations need to “own” their security, she said. “The best way to help them own their own security is to allow them to lead shaping our support to their efforts,” she said.

Africa is also a scene of strategic competition. Russia and China see the strategic potential on the continent. China devotes money and time to cultivate African nations. “As part of its engagement, Russia and the PRC routinely provide training and defense articles to African nations,” Blyden said. “While our African partners have stated repeatedly that they prefer our training and defense articles, they turn to our competitors when we are not responsive to their requests. We must work to be more responsive and more present if we are to succeed in this arena.”

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