“Today there is a danger on Sahelian living together”

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Young women fleeing jihadist violence in Dablo department, Burkina Faso, in March 2019.
Young women fleeing jihadist violence in the department of Dablo, Burkina Faso, in March 2019. Luc Gnago / REUTERS

On the European continent as in the states of the Sahel strip, the fight against terrorism leads to a limitation of individual freedoms. Of course, we are not starting from the same point, but the parallel challenges Seydou Ouédraogo, teacher-researcher at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso. This reaction that France experienced in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan, in Paris, he observes it at work, in a different way, in the African countries affected by the jihadist attacks, or which are likely to be in the zone of extension of the threat.

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However, in the eyes of this economist by training, at the head of the think tank Free Afrik, on the contrary, civil societies should continue to advance and still win many battles against inequality for terrorism, which also feeds social injustices, may recede. Sahelian civil societies suffer from finding themselves in this impasse while, during the past decades, they have advanced their country.

On the occasion of the Dynamiques, an event organized in Ouagadougou on February 14 by the association Res Publica (including The World Africa is a partner), the researcher wished to emphasize the necessary awakening of the African people to counter terrorism.

The Sahel is bad. Not a week without the attack on a village or a military base covering the news in the area. What are Sahelian civil societies doing in this context?

Since the Mali crisis in 2013, and even since the crisis in Libya of Muammar Gaddafi, two years ago, the Sahel countries have faced the major challenge of terrorism, which has led to great insecurity and even threatens states of dislocation . The existence of the Sahelian states is, as never before, called into question, even though the civil societies of these countries have for centuries produced great humanism. This living together, which they had been able to produce, is today seriously undermined.

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When the States are in very great difficulty, the political parties remain tied to an electoral agenda and the civil societies are faced with the major challenge of developing their agenda of struggle in a context restricted by the search for the peace-development couple.

It is indeed very difficult to fight for a change, whatever it is, in a context of war …

Yes, that’s what we’re seeing today. In the North as in the South, terrorism produces the destruction of individual freedoms. And this pattern becomes even more complicated when we understand that the non-development that is the source of injustice is precisely one of the engines of terrorism.

Are the challenges facing civil society the same in the North and in the South?

Let us never forget that the first anti-colonial struggles took shape in the metropolis. North and South, South and North are linked…

But for the time being, there is a danger to the Sahelian living together which, more than ever, has the right to live up to history. However, we observe that civil society has an overly urban base in this area which prevents the demands of the farmer or peasant from finding an echo in the public arena. The drama of the campaigns is not remembered enough. We ignore our demands for a real agricultural policy, access to land for those who cultivate it, and respect for traditional pastoral areas.

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This non-urban component of civil society has the right to speak out. And for that, we must build a more social, more inclusive society, capable of making heard a voice which is not only that of the urban elites.

Should the problems of the Sahel zone cross borders and be brought to the regional level?

Mali is affected, but also Niger and Burkina. This shows that we have a duty to build a dynamic which goes beyond the borders of countries, which underlines the main lines of regional problems.

And the role of development aid in all of this?

There, my line is very clear: the external financing of civil societies necessarily creates an asymmetry, an imbalance. I consider that endogenous financing is more demanding and therefore should be favored.

Whatever their funding, West African civil societies have fought many battles in recent decades …

To fully understand the role of civil societies here, one must go through a historical analysis of their emergence. For the past three decades, we have been tied to a struggle agenda. I do not leave the struggles for decolonization, even if, of course, they remain founding. But at the end of the 1980s, a phase of struggle took shape around democracy, making it possible to reach, in several countries, an opening up of the political game on multiparty politics.

Are you clarifying this step for us?

Seen from France, one has the impression that the speech of La Baule by François Mitterrand [20 juin 1990] opened up the possibilities by linking public aid to a “Democratization” by a passage to “Multiparty”. But in my opinion, the opening was made by us.

Let’s look at the number of activists who have died for a little democracy, whether in Mali, Benin or, here, Burkina, to name a few. It was not easy to move towards a national conference in Benin. However, it was a moment of renewal of political life. Because this is where we decided to rewrite the constitutional contract and open up to a multi-party system.

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It was also in this context that we were able to fight for the establishment of an autonomous electoral commission and independent institutions. These points were indeed obtained by the combat of the West African civil societies or of the Sahel zone.

But in the 2000s, we went to another fight, right?

Yes. New expectations have arisen. The multiplication of demonstrations of discontent against the expensive life, because of the rise in the price of the basic products in the sub-region, highlights a new agenda for a civil society which wants to give its claims an economic content. This request should be linked to the reform of the mining code in Burkina, for example. But also with the demonstrations against the high price of bread or electricity today in Senegal. We can see that there is a succession of two generations of struggles which ultimately come together.

In what is there a junction?

Quite simply because today, there can be no respect for individual freedoms without a minimum of economic development and we must have gone through the first step to carry the fight towards greater economic equity. This is what we see in West Africa today with movements that show that we have to make ends meet.

In Guinea, we can also observe how the demonstrations against the increase in the price of electricity collide or for better access to health with the contestation of a third term of President Alpha Condé. In Senegal, where the civil rights movement is more advanced, there is a struggle for greater economic freedom.

As for the example of Benin, it shows us that nothing is ever definitively acquired. Benin remains the country that opened the ballet of national conferences, but it is also the country where, today, the country’s first fortune is also that which occupies the highest office. And we see how the junction of the economic and the political hinders the advancement of civil society.

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