Belgium fully committed to efforts in the Sahel region

INTERVIEW - Belgium wants to become more involved in the Sahel, a region that is facing countless challenges. Bart De Groof, the recently appointed Special Envoy for the Sahel Region, must steer everything in the right direction. We put a few questions to him.

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Goats at waterhole

A well to water the cattle in Tibiri (Niger) (project Enabel)​. © Enabel

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Bart De Groof

Bart De Groof

Is this the first time that Belgium has appointed a Special Envoy for the Sahel Region? Why was this needed?

It is indeed the first time that our country has appointed a Special Envoy for the Sahel Region, it is a similar role to our Special Envoy for the Great Lakes (DR Congo and neighbouring countries), a post that has existed for some time now. By creating a special role for the Sahel, we are signalling how much of a priority the region is for our country.

In terms of protocol, a Special Envoy has more scope and weight in international forums and meetings where the Sahel is discussed. After all, the Sahel has become a major geo-strategic focus for many countries.

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Map of the Sahel region

© Shutterstock

What will your duties be?

My duties are divided into three clusters.

(1) Firstly, our department maintains formal and informal contacts with all Belgian players in the Sahel issue, both in-house (various directorate-generals and the cabinets) and externally (Defence, Police, Enabel, Justice, etc.). Each month, a formal coordination meeting is held at Foreign Affairs, at the instigation of the Africa Department and the geographical board of the Directorate-General for Development Cooperation. In line with the government agreement, several departments have made the Sahel a priority and, in the spirit of the 'global approach', we are trying to coordinate our actions in the region as much as possible.

The favoured partners of the Africa Department are our positions on the ground. As we wanted to put the Sahel higher on our agenda, we have greatly expanded and upgraded our diplomatic presence in the region in recent years. Today, we have a dense, high-quality network, both in the Sahel itself (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso) and in the surrounding countries that are increasingly having to contend with the spillover effects of the problems in the Sahel, namely Benin, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and so on.

We are continuing to work on an integrated Belgian Sahel strategy together with all these partners. At the start of this year, Belgium had already presented a political memorandum to underpin the Sahel policy. The reworked public version will also involve civil society players. We are also working on our communication strategy for this.

(2) A second specific objective of our service is to emphasise the regional dimension. Many challenges in the Sahel are almost by definition cross-border. Our development cooperation, for example, also focuses on global problems such as climate change and desertification, in addition to the traditional country-based approach. Belgium will help to build the 'Great Green Wall' to halt desertification. Poverty, socio-economic inequality and corruption are also regional concerns, and insecurity and terrorism know no borders either.

(3) Thirdly, the Sahel is high on the agenda of various organisations, both in Africa (the G5 Sahel, the regional organisation for West Africa Ecowas, the African Union) and internationally. These include not only the UN and the EU, but also specific working groups such as the Coalition for the Sahel, the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel and the Sahel Alliance. The Sahel envoys from different countries meet regularly, and I represent Belgium at these meetings.

Why is the Sahel so important for Belgium?

Firstly, the Sahel is currently the new frontier in the fight against international terrorism. The terrorist groups in the region are threatening the local population and destabilising all of West Africa.

In addition, our development cooperation traditionally focuses on the most fragile countries. The Sahel is home to many contemporary global problems that require a coherent approach: poverty, ecological disasters, the health crisis, the migration issue, etc. 

As it is a priority area for Belgium, we are integrating our approach along three axes: politics, security and the rule of law, and development and humanitarian aid.

Last but not least, we have considerable experience in Africa, both diplomatically and in the areas of defence and development cooperation, and our expertise is valued by our allies. Therefore we want to continue to play our part to address the challenges in the region.

What are the greatest challenges facing the Sahel region?

An immediate concern was how, after the chaos following the Arab Spring in 2011, the Sahel threatened to become a new safe haven for international terrorism. Both Al Qaeda and Islamic State offshoots have emerged in the region, grafting on to pre-existing fault lines and conflicts.

In 2013, these groups threatened to capture cities and even attack Mali's capital. This was followed by the intervention of France, which was able to push back the rebels and jihadists in a typical war scenario.

Since then, we have been in a complex situation of asymmetric warfare. Some radical groups such as Boko Haram are extremely violent and operate with a crime-based reign of terror, with killings, kidnappings and extortion. Several military missions such as the French-led Operation Barkhane, the G5 Sahel's joint force on terrorism and the expanded UN stabilisation force MINUSMA are fighting it.

The underlying causes of the crisis in the Sahel are many and varied: the demographic pressure on scarce resources, extreme poverty and hunger, desertification, the destruction of nature and climate change, the conflicts between sedentary and nomadic communities, ethnic conflicts, drug trafficking, national uprisings, corruption, and the absence of a state that properly fulfils the social contract with its citizens.

As a result, the Sahel countries score particularly badly on just about all development indices. Fourteen million people are on the brink of starvation, while two million children are malnourished, and over five million people are refugees. Migration is mainly internal and regional, but criminal networks also engage in human trafficking. Desperation sometimes drives people to undertake the perilous journey through the Sahara and then across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.

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6 police officers

On Enabel's initiative, the Belgian Federal Police is assisting Burkina Faso's police and security forces to improve security and restore trust with the population. © Enabel/Xzotic

What is Belgium already doing in the Sahel?

We are already very active. We have a long tradition of cooperation, especially in development cooperation and also in defence. In addition to expanding our network of posts, we are also involved in various military missions in the region: at the UN level (the MINUSMA mission in Mali), at the European level (the EUTM mission in Mali), and bilaterally (in Niger) and within coalitions such as Barkhane and Takuba.

Experts from the Belgian departments involved are working on the reform of the internal security apparatus and justice within the framework of EUCAP Niger and EUCAP Sahel, both EU civilian missions. As part of this, we are paying particular attention to respect for human rights by the armed forces and the fight against impunity. The internal security services must serve the people, not terrorise them.

We'll have even more to show for our work in development cooperation where possible. Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have long been partner countries for our development cooperation, and in the period 2017-2019, we spent almost 150 million euros on official development aid in the Sahel. The Belgian development agency Enabel carries out projects in many parts of the Sahel, on behalf of our country but also for third parties such as the EU, and Enabel has now become the largest development agency in Mauritania. What's more, there are numerous Belgian humanitarian NGOs active in the region such as the Belgian Red Cross, Action Damien and Oxfam Belgium.

Diplomatically, both bilaterally and within the EU context, we maintain political dialogue with attention to our principles: democracy, good governance, the rule of law and human rights.

Is our country liked in the region?

It is not always possible to ascertain how a country is viewed specifically, but in general we assume that Belgium as a French-speaking country (but not former colonist France) is appreciated in the region. We often say that Belgium has no hidden agenda. If desired, Belgium can always be called upon by parties to act as an honest broker.

The aim is to achieve better coordination between development cooperation, diplomacy and defence in the Sahel.

Even the police and judiciary would do their part. How will such a 'global approach' or 'comprehensive approach' be taken in practice? And why is that necessary?

In one sentence: multidimensional problems require a multidimensional approach. The many challenges in the Sahel are so intertwined that it is difficult to isolate them and consider them from just one perspective. Security, development and good governance are achieved as much as possible through a combination of military means, humanitarian interventions and diplomatic dialogue. We realise that everything is connected and the complexity of the Sahel therefore lends itself to our '3D+' approach: Defence, Development, Diplomacy + Rule of Law.

To support these, we meet monthly with all the parties involved to try to reach a consensus. In doing this, we pay attention to the security situation (which, after all, determines the other factors), the political situation, our development cooperation, and the regional, European and UN perspectives.

A specific example is how we are conceptualising and developing a 3D project in Torodi (Niger). The aim is to help the state of Niger to develop its services to the population in a safe environment.

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Group of women in steppe area

Women learn to cultivate their land in a different way to increase their yield (Mali) (project Enabel). © Kristof Vadino/Enabel

As a small country, Belgium has rather limited resources to make a difference in the Sahel.

In what way does Belgium join forces with international initiatives or those of other countries? Are synergies being sought with those initiatives?

Our multilateral and European reflex means that we fully subscribe to the EU's actions in the Sahel. The EU has also adopted a global approach in the region and has a Special Representative for the Sahel, currently Ms Emanuela Del Re. In April 2021, the EU published its integrated strategy for the Sahel. Belgium actively participated in the negotiations and we are pleased that the paradigms that are important to us (good governance, political dimension, human rights) also feature in the EU strategy. This means there is a strong synergy with this European Strategy for the Sahel.

What is Belgium's objective in the Sahel?

In the long run, we aim to achieve a secure and stable Sahel region where sustainable development is possible and the fundamental rights and needs of the population are taken care of by the local states. To this end, the 'nexus', in other words coherence, of security, development and the rule of law must be expanded.

In international forums, we are looking at how the military surge against jihadists can be complemented by a civil and political surge that emphasises good governance and returning the state to the service of its people. We need to deliver consistent messages on this in the region and in cooperation with all actors.

Since our rather chaotic exodus from Afghanistan, comparisons are often being made with the Sahel. To what extent is the situation in the Sahel different from that in Afghanistan?

The prevailing attitude lately is to draw comparisons between the exit from Afghanistan and the challenges in the Sahel, and it's tempting to do so. This fact shows that we are apprehensive about a similar situation and outcome. On the other hand, omnis comparatio claudicat, as the Romans already knew, something that can be translated nicely into English as 'every comparison is to some extent flawed'.

Apart from the similarities and differences, which may or may not be true, we can see how different parties involved perceive and use the Afghan case: the Jihadi celebrate the Taliban's victory as their own, while the local governments use a discourse of 'abandonment' by the Western partners because France organises its military efforts in the region differently (but it is not withdrawing from the Sahel).

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Two women with group of goats

Women receive a goat and two goats to gradually replenish the village's livestock, which had been decimated by misfortune (Niger) (project Enabel). © Enabel

Critics also argue that it is pernicious to work too closely with corrupt regimes that enjoy little support among their populations. It is also necessary to take account of 'the intricate network of local organisations and local political dynamics'.

How will Belgium act in the Sahel?

Democratic legitimacy in many Sahel countries is under debate. We need to strike a balance between open lines of communication and clear messages. It is a question of maintaining political dialogue with the Sahel countries, while at the same time sticking to our principles of democracy, the rule of law and human rights (mutual accountability).

That's why it's important to back local regional organisations that are speaking out. For example, Ecowas has condemned coups in both Mali and Guinea and maintains a strict discourse against the junta in Bamako, while the African Union has clearly expressed 'its serious concern about the creation of the Transitional Military Council' in Chad. The EU and Belgium echo the calls led by African organisations for a return to democracy.

It's useful to take the local perspective into account. The Sahel countries are generally centrally governed, the majority of our official dialogue partners live in the cities and are often educated within a Western mindset, meaning there is a gulf between them and the periphery where the biggest problems of poverty and violence occur. The perspective of the vast majority of the population is not necessarily the same there: their basic concerns are safety, survival, and taking care of the family.

You notice that countries are increasingly taking account of local and non-state actors, on the one hand because of the sometimes dubious democratic credentials of the regimes, and on the other hand because of the positive concern to listen more to civil society. The Africa-France summit in Montpellier on 8 October 2021 was an example of this. President Macron invited African civil society to the summit, but not African heads of state. Thanks to our long-term presence as a development partner in the Sahel – we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our bilateral cooperation in Niger – we have been able to build up a fairly dense network and we have good access to this local level.

How long will you be the Special Envoy? What do you wish to achieve?

An appointment in Brussels is normally for three years, which gives you time to build up your network sufficiently to offer added value.

The renewed public Sahel strategy is a key deliverable. It is also important to build on our country's excellent reputation and expertise in Africa in respect of the Sahel.

In the end, of course, you always hope to be able to do your bit in improving the situation on the ground. It can be about the key principles (respect for democracy and human rights) but sometimes also about tangible projects that make life in one village a bit more comfortable.