New African Magazine Interview with Dr. Bakary Sambe: “The G5 Sahel can be a useful tool if…” Spécial

In this excerpt of an interview accorded to the New African Magazine (May-June-July), which offers a space for debates and exchanges by the continent’s leading researchers and experts regarding international and African affairs, Dr. Bakary Sambe explained the importance of going beyond military solutions and insisting on a change in paradigm when countering violent extremism. Deploring the continued confusion amongst the countries of the Sahel in regards to public security policy as well as the differences between countering violent extremism and counter-terrorism, the Director of the Timbuktu Institute called for a more holistic approach to the Sahel crisis which necessitates inclusive strategies that address the “root of the problem” instead of being preoccupied with the “symptoms”. He also advocated for the empowerment of women and young people, rather than placing them within the confines of victimhood.


Counter-radicalization methods risk being ineffective; how should one effectively combat such a profound issue?


Our states are offered two choices: prevent violent extremism immediately by investing in education and social justice and addressing the structural frustrations that fuel jihadism, or waiting for an attack to come to fruition and -to no one’s benefit- intervene militarily for an undetermined amount of time, inefficiently, and with great risk of recreating the phenomena which we seek to combat. Europe and Africa have a common destiny. We are one, vulnerable, international community. We are equally at risk in Gao and the Burkinabe Oudalan as we are in Paris or London. It’s for this reason that inclusive strategies must be jointly constructed for a holistic approach to the phenomenon of extremism, as opposed to the cyclical military strategies that have shown their limits in Afghanistan, Mali, and the Lake Chad Basin.


In the Sahel, the military approach seems to far outweigh the common sense option- that of treating the problem. Finding answers to the poverty, precariousness and injustice which strike the populations of the Sahel for example. Why is that?


As long as the arrogance of injustice continues, the ignorance of those who feel victimized will continue to fuel violent rhetoric- to paraphrase an important religious leader in the Sahel. I’ve said before that a kalachnikov never vanquished an ideology. It is true that a military response is necessary to contain the threat in certain circumstances, but it will never make it disappear. It even poses the risk of being counterproductive. Recent studies in Mali highlight the poor perception of MINUSMA and Barkhane in the general population and also the political class. President Buhari promised an end to Boko Haram in December 2016, and has been resigned to negotiating with the extremist group. The socioeconomic conditions of marginalization and pauperization in Northern Nigeria are still intact. The root of the problem lies with inconsistencies in policies developed by our countries, or by the international community who neglects the necessary anthropological aspects and self criticism after a 40 year absence in the region which benefitted the peddlers of illusions and Salafism. It’s less about a lack of power than it is about a lack of will or prospective vision. Terrorism enacted an era of action under pressure, without taking into account the visions of partners in the global South.  In terms of the Sahel question, there is an enormous gap between the international approach and local perceptions. It’s time for a coordination of actions taken by Western powers and local initiatives, to avoid future conflicts of perception in the region.



Between fieldwork and conceptualization, you are trying to specify the “correct ways” in which to approach this subject, which is critical to stability in the Sahel…


The essence of terrorism is to be a long chain whose individual links may not be punishable by the law. Generally, we react only at the end of this chain, too late and inefficiently. Our state’s legislate retroactively and under pressure of an ongoing threat. In exchanges between State authorities, counter-terrorism is often conflated with a viable strategy to prevent violent extremism though the two are not the same. Faced with a complex phenomenon that does not even have a consensual definition, States remain complacent in their security based reaction and neglect the importance of equitable development and social justice. The G5 Sahel can be a useful tool if it is accorded more than military based content, and if it increases its presence in development and resilience. There must be a shift in paradigm and approach. It’s no coincidence that the United Nations strategy was reviewed in the articulation and identification of its priority axes, including inclusive and equitable growth, access to basic social services, climate and energy, and empowerment of women. What gives me the most hope amongst these initiatives is the will to involve women in countering violent extremism and to reduce their vulnerability, which will most likely happen through their economic empowerment.


Dr. Bakary Sambe is the Director of the Timbuktu Institute (Dakar), coordinator of the Observatory on radicalization and religious conflict in Africa, and political science professor with the Center for religious studies at the University of Gaston Berger of Saint Louis (Senegal). He accompanied the CellRad eatableishment within the G5 Sahel, and is currently implementing national strategies to counter violent extremism as part of the USAID Partner Projects for Peace (P4P) in West Africa.