In the Sahel region of West Africa, the security situation is deteriorating due to climate change, geopolitical insecurity and an increasing proliferation of weapons. Local conflicts concerning the management of natural resources such as grazing land, river water, and land use, as well as the protection of threatened and important ecosystems, have a further geostrategic dimension in the border regions of Niger: the fight against international terrorism. Against this background, more than 150 representatives of technical or local administrations, academia, the judiciary, and the security forces met with actors from civil society, politics, and administrative and traditional authorities. The participants came from 13 countries for the conference under the auspices of the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP: Haute Autorité à la Consolidation de la Paix) in Niamey - jointly organized by the Civil Peace Service (ZFD) and the Frexus Project of the GIZ in Niger.
At the opening of the event, the Ambassador of the European Union in Niger, Denisa-Elena Ionete, the German Ambassador Hermann Nicolai, and the President of the HACP, General Mahamadou Abou Tarka, addressed the guests. The three days were filled with lively discussions and controversial exchanges of views. The first day was devoted to "Land management, agro-pastoral conflicts and developments on land use issues in West Africa". The second day was dedicated to the "Challenges and perspectives in relation to conflicts within and on the margins of West African nature reserves". The conference concluded on the third day with the theme "Radicalisation and violent extremism: the governance of natural resources in a context of deteriorating security".
In the mornings of the three days, the majority of speakers were academics* and development project managers, who were intensively discussed by the participants. In the afternoon, various thematic groups were formed in which the participants* worked out proposals on how to meet the challenges of the countries concerned in the tense situation.
Increasing pressure on land management and natural resources
Land management and the administration of natural resources are under increasing pressure due to the higher demand and lower yield of arable and grazing land, which is also reflected in the increased conflict potential of producers in the various sectors of the economy. Due to a large overlap between ethnic groups and the way in which they earn their living, interethnic tensions also increase in parallel, which often lead to stigmatisation of entire population groups. Against this background, the conference called for an intensification of the search for innovative solutions in which the various sectors of the economy can complement each other. In order to meet the challenges, the state must place even greater emphasis on the management of natural resources, create a good database, promote cooperation at all levels of government in order to implement existing laws locally and create a climate of trust between the actors involved. In water management, the tension between commercialisation and public access to water still poses particular challenges.
Fundamental challenges concerning protected areas
Two fundamental challenges were discussed in dealing with protected areas. On the one hand, the protected biosphere stimulates desires, as surrounding farmers are no longer able to cultivate their land sufficiently and passing herders have ever greater problems finding food and water for their herds in the vicinity of the parks; a circumstance which increasingly challenges the acceptance of the protected parks by the local inhabitants. On the other hand, due to the low population density and the inaccessible terrain, the parks offer ideal protection for armed groups who find sources of financing for their activities through poaching and kidnapping of tourists. In this field of action, the conference recommends developing local solutions where the legitimate aspirations of local residents are heard and where "animals are not better protected than people," as one participant put it. In this way, the local population could also be persuaded to share information on illegal activities in the parks in order to tackle the second problem.
The role of the state in resource conflicts in West Africa
The lecture by Boubacar Ba, who analysed the economic interests under ecological changes and the resulting political disputes, attracted great attention. He was able to impressively demonstrate that in the Macina region in the Niger inland delta of Mali, which he examined, different armed groups compete with each other and that the state has given up its presence. Due to polarizations of the different (partly ethnic) communities, the external actors supplied with weapons from Libya are used to shift the balance of power in local conflicts. For example, a dialogue on the ground can only be effective if one deals with the socio-historical background on the ground and lets the question of ideology recede into the background. Further contributions come to similar conclusions: the religious motivation to join groups like Boko Haram or the Islamic State of West Africa is very low. Rather, opportunistic considerations are decisive - also because the state in the border regions is often not successful enough in offering young people economic perspectives. In addition, stigmatization and a sense of collective punishment lead into the arms of Islamist-motivated violent actors. The state had to restore its monopoly on the use of force, but could not rely solely on a military response. Rather, the conference recommends, the state should concentrate more on promoting a peaceful resolution of local resource conflicts in order to deprive external violent actors of the breeding ground for new recruits. It is important to train the national security forces in dealing with sensitive local situations. With reference to religion, it was discussed whether the state should make efforts to convey Islam's message of peace more strongly. This question arose against the background of a lecture that presented religion as a resource for young people, allowing them to dream a future that they can no longer find in the state. Can the state convey other values that allow young people a positive view of the future?
Scientific research and local level solutions are needed
In general, the conference highlighted the need for further research and cooperation with local universities. Also, despite a cross-regional strategy, finding solutions at local level was considered important. Further results will be compiled by an expert group into a publication, which will be supported by the HACP, as General Tarka confirmed in his closing remarks. Andreas König, Country Director of GIZ Niger, thanked all participants in his closing speech for their fantastic contributions and the impressive participation and joy of discussion. He congratulated the participants* for their constructive energy, their work, and the immense expertise mobilized to formulate concrete recommendations on extremely complex issues. Finally, he stressed that non-violent conflict resolution is a key element of the GIZ strategy in the Sahel and throughout West Africa.
Summarizing video of the conference
Prevention and Management of Conflicts linked to the Governance of Natural Resources in West Africa: Opportunities and Challenges