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I made it to the final of the 4 panels that SAIS’ “Governance and Security in the Sahelian States: From Crisis to Sustainable Recovery” Conference convened over the past two days (disclaimer – I left at the tail end of the Q&A).

The panel had a strong DC flavor, as it included Jennifer Cooke of CSIS, the Ambassador of Niger, Maman Sidikou, and John Paden, a professor at George Mason.  The lone foreign interloper was Hugh Roberts, a professor at Tufts who was also a regional interloper as he is a North African (Algeria) specialist.

Jennifer Cooke got things started, laying the groundwork for the panel’s strong emphasis on the need to complement security efforts with development and aid.  Given CSIS’ prominent role in shaping political discourse, I found Cooke’s assessment and prescription to be refreshing.  She repeatedly emphasized the need for a long-term focus on the region.

She praised the US government for its commitment to restoring a legitimate government in Mali, but stated that this is a long-term project and indicated that July deadline for elections was probably not realistic.  Cooke also spoke of the need to go beyond establishing the veneer of a democratic process – a veneer that was strikingly revealed by Malian’s apathetic response to the coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré, a move that she said indicated his lack of credibility.  She also tied governance in with security sector reform, indicating that military training is useless if there is no strong government.

Despite her emphasis on the need to push development in the Sahel and the view that arming US drones in the region would be ‘catastrophic’ and ‘terribly ill-advised’, she did seem to suggest that one of the reasons for the US military’s apparent lack of success with its counter-terrorism military trainings was that they did not receive enough funding and were diluted by a focus on several states.

Cooke was followed by Niger’s Ambassador to the US, Maman Sidikou, who was very impressive.  He began his talk by admitting upfront that states that cannot deliver basic services will be fragile (and I certainly experienced my lack of basic services while living in Niger).

While I don’t believe any off the comments were of the record, the Ambassador was impressively direct in his remarks.  He indicated that while Qaddafi was a nuisance who needed to be removed, the chaos in Libya had a very negative impact on Niger.  He spoke of 250,000 Nigeriens fleeing Libya and the impact that this has had on Niger’s economy.  He also referenced a problem of drug traffickers in Niger, something I had not heard much on previously (although Mali is a notable exception, I typically hear of drug traffickers using countries on the coast of west Africa).

Sidikou praised Niger’s army (not surprising given that its current President owes his position to the country’s democratically reminded military which has removed several authoritarian leaders) and mentioned that it had soldiers being trained in China.  The Ambassador appears to be quite studious, he cited the work of several academics and suggested that Niger would indeed be focusing on development efforts to complement security initiatives.  In another refreshingly direct comment, he singled out Nigeria, urging it to take on a greater leadership role in the region (Alegeria was also referenced).

John Paden a northern Nigeria specialist at George Mason followed.  He emphasized the fragility of Nigerian national unity, particularly in light of the 100th anniversary of Nigeria’s amalgamation in 1914.  He spoke very harshly about President Goodluck Jonathan and lamented the reduction of NGOs in northern Nigeria.

In contrast to Sidikou’s comments, Paden indicated that Nigeria was the only west African country interested in regional institutions.  His comments on development were more limited than the previous 2 speakers, but he did highlight the need for college graduates with marketable skills and urged an emphasis on teacher training colleges.

While he lamented the polarizing role of ethnicity in Nigeria, he did sound a positive note, stating that it appears that the dominant role of the People’s Democratic Party (which is supported by many former senior military figures and has governed the country since 1999) appears to be slowly eroding.

Hugh Roberts concluded the festivities with an overview of Algeria’s policy in the Sahel.  He pointed out that the outcomes in both Libya and Mali were not what Algeria wanted and represent two significant foreign policy failures for the Algerian state in a very short period of time.

While Paden was critical of Goodluck Jonathan, Roberts was nearly scathing in his comments of the Bouteflika administration, stating that the country was ruled by a ‘post-nationalist self-serving oligarchy’.  In an interesting turn of phrase, Roberts stated that Algeria considers the Sahel to be a ‘strategic hinterland.’  He added that Algeria has an independent security strategy that western powers are currently trying to subsume to their own interests.  His take seemed to be that Algeria’s main resistance to these attempts by the West were a fear that this action would weaken the authoritative Algerian government domestically, emboldening political opponents.

Robert’s most intriguing bombshell was an allegation/suspicion that Algerian intelligence has infiltrated Islamist groups working in the Sahel (he compared it to the role of Pakistan in supporting the Taliban).  He stated that it seemed particularly plausible that Algeria had a role in the emergence of Ansar Al-Din.  This is particularly interesting as Ansar Al-Din is led by a Tuareg, Iyad Ag Ghaly, and Roberts indicated that Algeria feared any Tuareg moves toward sovereignty in Mali or Niger that might encourage separatism by Algerian Tuaregs.

Roberts also suggested that Islamic militants in the Sahel by and large represented more of a security threat than a political threat; he stated that AQIM had limited contact with Al-Qaeda proper and that it’s

All in all, it was a very compelling panel that I am sure capped a compelling conference.  In regards to this particular panel, while I appreciated the focus on development, I would have liked to hear something explicitly on gender and women’s rights, which I saw as an immense obstacle during my two years living in the Sahel.  After all, it was efforts to pass gender equity legislation that first mobilized Islamic groups against President Toure and it is the role of women that represents a great chasm between the Sahel and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.