Why try to reinvent the wheel in conflict zones, taking the viewpoint that these areas are frozen in time, when these communities can innovate and find solutions for themselves? Researcher Bakary Sambé (Timbuktu Institute) discusses this issue.

A French soldier from the Barkhane counterterrorism operation in the Sahel talks with a merchant in the town of Gossi (central Mali) on March 25, 2019. Photo by Daphné BENOIT / AFP
A French soldier from the Barkhane counterterrorism operation in the Sahel talks with a merchant in the town of Gossi (central Mali) on March 25, 2019. Photo by Daphné BENOIT / AFP

“A single finger cannot pick up a stone,” is a wise African proverb which, in its own way, emphasizes the need for a collaborative approach to solidarity and international cooperation, based on respect and dignity. To make the transition to a common world, it is essential to establish a view of it that, if not common, is the least divisive possible.

In recent years, however, attempts at international cooperation have been hindered by conflicts of perception between top-down approaches and the understanding—or misunderstanding—of local communities with regard to actions being carried out by operators in the field. Ideally, those currently referred to as “beneficiaries” would become “co-operants”. Until now, the general perception of a “co-operant” has been as a provider of solutions often predetermined abroad. In order for the collaborative creation of solutions to provide an antidote to this destructive misconception of the true spirit of solidarity, this role must evolve into that of a creative partner.

This paper aims to show how preconceived solutions which do not take into account either local realities or the creativity of beneficiary communities, fail to capitalize on the extensive opportunities for shared success, as well as for securing the buy-in of the beneficiaries of cooperation policies.


Taking into account the creativity of populations in the Sahel

In terms of the Sahel crisis, the disparity between international initiatives and local perceptions of them has sometimes been seriously damaging to the very spirit of cooperation. This misunderstanding is caused by a failure to break with existing paradigms, which is essential to cope with developments in this rapidly changing region. This break could be initiated by promoting endogenous strategies and the capacity of local populations to innovate, even in the midst of a crisis, in addition to engaging in effective and meaningful social communication with these communities.

Major international partners in the Sahel continue to pay the price for this lack of communication, which sometimes leads to significant losses, both financially as well as in terms of human life. This has had a negative impact on their image and even their strategic interests.

France has been fully involved in the crisis since Operation Serval (2013), and then through the Barkhane operation (launched in 2014), as part of its security cooperation initiative with the countries of the Sahel. However, it has not succeeded in making the reasons for its intervention better understood as yet. Local populations, particularly border communities, do not always understand why they are forced to endure draconian security measures which govern their daily lives, while at the same time feeling that they are living in insecurity on a daily basis.



In the same way that this cooperative effort has lacked collaboration between civilians and the military, some European Union projects that were either not—or not fully—explained to the people of the Diffa region (Niger) are now referred to as “dust projects” by these communities. This is because the only thing that these people see, in simple terms, is the incessant passage of 4X4s, whose mission is unknown to them, despite it being essential for water supply and food security.


Confronted to conflicts, communities reinvent social bonds

Why try to reinvent the wheel in conflict zones, taking the viewpoint that these areas are frozen in time, when these communities can innovate and find solutions for themselves? For example, this is the case in the “three borders” zone (on the outskirts of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso), where cross-border consultation frameworks have been created with the aim of managing community conflicts. It is sometimes forgotten when engaging in conflict mediation and stabilization programs, that local people have their own traditional methods that have meaning for them. These range from the “joking kinship” concept to the reestablishment of pacts between communities to promote dialog and conflict resolution, which sometimes offer solutions which go beyond “imported” institutional frameworks on their own.

In promoting such practices, would it not be preferable to put a local stamp on cooperation efforts in areas where communities often feel disconnected from the policies implemented by government officials, and to become more immersed in the realities of life for these people? Independently, communities living in the province of Kossi (Burkina Faso) and in the Tominian circle (Mali) have developed extensive knowledge of all the issues involved in integrating cross-border initiatives aimed at transforming these areas of conflict into places where inter-community dialog initiatives can be established, by focusing on resources (grazing land, bourgou flood plain regeneration).


In the Sahel: valuing endogenous resources

These initiatives, which enable recurring conflicts between herders and farmers to be anticipated, have mobilized neighboring populations across national borders (only taken into account in cooperation projects), from as far away as the Bankass and Sourou circles in Burkina Faso.  Therefore, this project led by local populations is based on the sharing of resources (human and cultural) in order to resolve common problems and mediate through, for example, the intermediary of “blacksmiths” who, culturally, are the only community members allowed to intervene between the Mossi and Peul populations.

This community-based method of governance is based on ancestral alliances between castes and helps to prevent conflict between populations who identify more with this process than with other institutional approaches implemented as part of traditional stabilization programs. Similar initiatives have been adopted by communities in the cross-border areas of Burkina Faso and Mali in order to resolve conflicts caused by resource management (grazing lands, drilling, etc.) which are sometimes instigated by terrorist groups.

However, in management of cross-border areas, the State may mistakenly see this opportunity for social interaction and discussion as a threat, and decide to put a stop to it, or, unfortunately, to hamper its progress.


The underexploited leverage of culture

Thus far, the power of culture and its resources has not been integrated into so-called stabilization policies, and nor has the positive impact of cultural initiatives that have meaning for local people.

Because of this bias, we are unable to exploit the full potential of participation in events such as the music festival of Gorom-Gorom, an urban commune in Burkina Faso (Oudalan province), which also includes villages in Mali and Niger. This festival brings together people in this commune which has suffered a great deal due to terrorist attacks and inter-community conflicts.

For its promoters, this cultural event is organized as a preventive measure to defuse community tensions, as a Burkinabe participant recently interviewed by us explains: it serves as “a channel for raising awareness about coexistence, social cohesion and the peaceful cohabitation of populations while promoting the culture of the Liptako-Gourma people.”

These activities are also supported by the use of joint peace convoys in this region which lies at a crossroads between Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali. However, these efforts may be thwarted at any time by the draconian security measures imposed either by States or by international forces deployed in the Sahel, operating in the name of security, without taking into account other peacebuilding and peacekeeping mechanisms.


Women’s initiatives against conflicts: from “victims” to arbiters of peace

Women are generally seen as “mere victims of conflict” insofar as their status as arbiters of peace and essential pillars of strength in the community is largely ignored. Thus, women farmers’ organizations are working in the Lake Chad basin to mitigate the impact of food crises in areas affected by Boko Haram incursions.

To address the almost structural problem of women’s access to arable land, an initiative launched by women’s organizations in the Bol region (Lake Chad province) has improved the chances of survival of these communities, following a series of terrorist attacks that had a serious impact on food production, leading to high rates of malnutrition and an exodus of the population.

Improving the resilience of these populations in the face of insecurity also helps to prevent the recruitment of young people into the ranks of Boko Haram, who often join this group to earn money and thus to provide their families with financial support. Although such initiatives are not included in the macro-economic data used to guide development interventions and policies, they are particularly appropriate in the Lake Chad Province, a landlocked region isolated from the country’s major economic centers, which has been a focal point for numerous Boko Haram incursions and the development of the criminal economy.


Supporting the role of women in preventing extremism in the Sahel

Women are on the front line of many of the conflicts and crises which affect the countries of the region, in their capacity as providers of solutions and strategies to improve resilience in the face of multifaceted issues ranging from violent extremism to inter-community conflicts.

According to feedback collected on the ground and reported at a regional consultation workshop on community resilience in the G5 Sahel countries in May 2019 (not yet published), the Lake region, in particular, is characterized by high levels of poverty which mainly affect women.

That is why women’s organizations, such as the League of Women Preachers, have opted for an early intervention strategy to ensure that girls are able to stay in school. The League’s dual objective is to overcome the lack of education that is conducive to indoctrination, and prevent the further social marginalization of these communities with no qualifications.

These women travel through the villages and islands of the Lake Province, challenging the doctrines of the theological debate instead of being subjected to it, and deconstructing the propaganda and ideology of Boko Haram. Having in-depth knowledge of the cultural norms and with access to all communities, they are able to develop materials in both Kanembou and Arabic which offer a counterargument.

Further support should be given to this role of women in preventing extremism:  women have been at the forefront in the fight against religious fundamentalism, which already posed a threat to their rights before it became a common security issue due to terrorist attacks.


Griots and “neighborhood aunts” as effective intermediaries

Institutional accounts and mission reports neglect to mention all of these everyday stories involving “anonymous” actors. However, these actions complement public policies implemented by the State, which need to place more emphasis on social issues. As part of this essential work on improving communication, which should not be limited to traditional media channels alone, community intermediaries (griots, traditional communicators, religious leaders and “neighborhood aunts”) have an important role to play in encouraging buy-in or the full involvement of populations.



The initiatives described above are based on practices with strong social significance, in keeping with the cultural frame of reference of the beneficiary communities. Conversely, excluding approaches which promote the use of anthropological resources by taking into account the perspectives and understanding of the various stakeholders interacted with when implementing cooperation projects, means that operators risk missing out on these effective tools for leverage in the field.

This failure to listen to communities and stakeholders on the ground, in line with a top-down approach, partly explains the ineffectiveness of certain “in vitro” cooperation policies. It could be argued that this is how all the seeds of conflicting perceptions are sown, distorting the true spirit of both security and humanitarian cooperation.


Targeting the determinants of crises to end conflicts

Nonetheless, some recent initiatives are putting more focus on the involvement of communities and local populations, as well as the effective application of these leveraging tools. For example, the Resilience Project for Cultural and Social Cohesion in Mauritania (CORIM) has effectively enlisted the help of religious leaders and local civil society in preventing violent radicalization, after having strengthened their capacities to do so.

Another example is the Fondation “Hirondelle”, which has fully understood the importance of the role of women in peace-building and has succeeded, through the media and with the support of the Association of African Women Communication Professionals (APAC Niger), in mobilizing communities to become fully-fledged actors in the peacebuilding process.

As part of a holistic and inclusive approach, initiatives should take greater account of the need to target the determinants of crises. Strengthening strategic partnerships, through greater involvement of both local actors and other stakeholders, could also pave the way for the collaborative creation of strategies in order to significantly resolve these conflicts of perception.


The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.

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