The Sahel-Transatlantic Dialogues: Opening Remarks

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on October 16, 2023. Watch the full video here.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Good morning and welcome to the Fourth Annual Sahel Transatlantic Dialogues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. We are honored and delighted to host this important event. In the Western world, foreign policy these days is about great-power competition. We approach the competition as a new development with all that it entails. In Africa, however, foreign policy is about choices and options. The Africans have been dealing with great-power competition in different waves and forms for 500 years. Today, they welcome the emerging multipolar world because it is about choices and options.

I am Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, senior fellow and director of the Africa Program. The shifts in the new, emerging order calls for the redefinition of the nature of relations between the Global Nand Africa. The old ways, whereby the word “partnership” sounds more like a slogan will no longer work. And nowhere is this adjustment more pressing than in the greater Sahel, a wide swath of land that stretches from Mauritania and Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Sudan and Eritrea on the Red Sea. Recent development in the greater Sahel, from coup d’état, military and constitutional, to violent extremism, to war, and drought underscore this point.

We need a new approach. We need creativity. We need to acknowledge and address the new dynamics and realities on the ground, and not just wish them away with communiques, ultimatums, and sanctions. Democracy and good governance will remain abstract concepts in Africa if we do not invest in them, as we have done in other parts of the world. Our security, humanitarian, and development assistance funding to the greater Sahel does not add up to a story with a peaceful and stable ending. Let’s do the numbers.

The United States directly $3.3 billion in security aid to the Sahel in the past two decades, $150 million in humanitarian assistance in March 2023, and 235 million (dollars) in development aid in 2022. Between 2015 and 2019, the European Union invested over $80 million in the Sahel through the Instrument for Stability and Peace Program. And in 2022, EU humanitarian assistance stood at $250 million. In the six years between 2014 and 2020, the EU allocated to the Sahel $2.8 billion through the European Development Fund. In comparison, between January 2022 and July 2023, the U.S. and the EU allocated over $70 billion and $138 billion, respectively, in military, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

The Sahel and Africa at large must become a top priority. Not for the resources, not for the survival of fortress Europe, not for terrorism, but for the common prosperity and human security of Africans and Westerners. The debacles in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, where France, the former colonial power, is in open conflict with the de-facto leaders of this country and now seeks to punish through their – to punish them through their population by canceling scholarships and student visas, or the United States struggling to call a coup a coup in Niger, for obvious reasons, speaks to the need for change. A coup is a coup. And we should be pragmatic in our approach.

The over-militarization of EU migration policy, such as for all intents and purposes Frontex has moved Europe continental border from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahel. In the ECOWAS space, which promotes the free movement of persons and goods, this approach undermines cooperation and breeds resentment and anger. Meanwhile, ECOWAS and the African Union have fallen short of their mandate and popular expectations. Their approach to the rising coups, imposing trade and other sanctions that hurt civilians, and issuing ultimatums they cannot enforce, and to the various crisis in the greater Sahel is, at best, incoherent and counterproductive. The military remain – the military leaders remain in place and the war in Sudan rages on. To be sure, we cannot afford to let the Sahel sink further into instability. These are great challenges that require courage and adequate solutions.

And we have invited the right people to help us navigate these obstacles. It is my honor to welcome and introduce our distinguished speakers for this first portion of our discussion. They will speak in the order of introduction. First, I’d like to welcome Ambassador Santiago Cabanas, Spanish ambassador to the U.S., and ask him to provide his remarks after this introduction. Before Ambassador Cabanas was posted in Washington D.C., he served in the same capacity in Algeria. Previously held top-ranking positions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Spain, including director of ministers, the minister’s cabinet, and director general for foreign policy. Ambassador Cabanas has also been director general for consular affairs and director general for cultural and scientific relations.

He will then be followed by His Excellency Stavros Lambrinidis, ambassador of the EU to the United States. Ambassador Lambrinidis has been ambassador of the African Union to the U.S. since March 1st, 2019. He has served as the EU special representative for human rights, and he has also served as foreign affairs minister of Greece. He was twice elected as a member of the European Parliament with the Greek Social Democratic Party.

He will be followed online by His Excellency Hamadi Meimou, who’s the high representative of the Coalition for the Sahel, who is served as minister of foreign affairs of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, and commissioner for human rights, and also a member of the national assembly. He was ambassador to several countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Finally, not least, is Ambassador Molly Phee, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Ambassador Phee was sworn in as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs on September 20th – September 30th, excuse me – 2021. She has served as the deputy special representative for Afghanistan reconstruction – reconciliation, excuse me. And was ambassador to South Sudan. She previously served as deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and as chief of the staff – chief of staff of the Office of the Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan.

Without further ado, Ambassador Cabanas. (Applause.)

Ambassador Santiago Cabanas: Good morning to all of you. And thank you very much, Mvemba, director of the Africa Program here at CSIS. Thank you to you and to all your team for making this possible, for organizing this dialogue, this Fourth Annual Sahel Summit. Always glad to be here at CSIS. Please send my regards also to Dr. Hamre. We’re always so pleased to be at this house. Thank you also to the EU delegation, Ambassador Lambrinidis, and to the State Department, Ambassador Phee, for all the cooperation we’re having in all issues related to the Sahel.

And my recognition to Mr. Hamadi Meimou, the new coordinator for the Coalition for the Sahel. We really appreciate his participation at this event. And finally, my gratitude to Ambassador at Large for the Sahel, Antonio Sanchez-Benedito. Especially relevant during this semester of our presidency of the Council of the EU, and to the team that has come from Madrid for this event and for our bilateral working group on the Sahel. And let me thank my colleague, José Thovar, who has worked really tirelessly to make this happen.

Before referring to the Sahel, I would like to just make a quick mention, as you have, to the African continent. With 2.5 billion inhabitants in 2015, that is 25 percent of the world’s population in just 30 years, but only 2 percent of the world’s GDP today, it is essential to strengthen our partnership with Africa. At this time of global crisis and uncertainty, the continent clearly expresses its legitimate desire to participate on an equal footing in global decision making, given that those decisions have a great effect on the continent itself. And the latest milestone has been the African Union obtaining a seat at the G-20. Also, the accession of Ethiopia and Egypt to the BRICS group at the recent Johannesburg summit is a sign of the growing interest of the African countries to be present in global coordination frameworks.

For Spain, the closest European country to Africa, the future of the continent is, of course, a priority issue. The fact that these multiple crisis that you have referred to, Mvemba, security, food, climate, and demographic are affecting the stability and sustainable development of many parts of Africa, is a matter of obvious concern for us. But at the same time, we firmly believe in the great potential of the continent. Africa has youth, entrepreneurs, men and woman, resources, and vitality. In regions like the Sahel, these crises are becoming more acute, perpetuating a cycle of violence, coup, vulnerability. and poverty for broad layers of the local populations.

But apart from all these challenges, it’s also important to refer to a geopolitical context that is marked by the presence of other actors, such as Russia and the Wagner Group mercenaries, as well as a growing anti-Western narrative that is strengthened by the active disinformation efforts by other actors. For my country, the stability and development of the Sahel is a strategic priority. We just have to look at the map to see how close and interconnected we are.

We are logically concerned about the possible constitution of a wide zone of destabilization in the whole area. And in addition, Spain suffers from the consequences of institutional fragility in the region, with the irregular arrival of African citizens searching for a better life and coming from areas with a great nutritional vulnerability – a vulnerability that is also related to the Russian invasion and attack on Ukraine.

During our presidency of the Council of the EU this semester, we will continue to strengthen the Spanish and EU commitment in the region with an integrated approach that combines security cooperation, development cooperation, humanitarian aid, and good governance cooperation. As we will be able no doubt to see in the discussions today, the challenges in the region’s requires to maintain a close cooperation between all the actors who are interested in maintaining stability and finding, as you have mentioned, a new approach. We will only be able to do so if we work together. And the exchange of opinions with a partner like the United States, whose presence in the region is so notable, cannot but result in a better collaboration in the fight against all these challenges – in facing these challenges.

In Spain, the ambassador, dear assistant secretary, you can be sure that you have a close partner, one that is truly interested in contributing to the stability of the region within, as I have mentioned, really strategic. Surely, our ambassador-at-large for the Sahel, Ambassador Sanchez-Benedito, will offer a more complete and elaborate perspective. But before we started, I just wanted to offer a glimpse of the significance that both the continent and, more specifically, the Sahel, this region, have for the world, for Europe, for the European Union as a whole, and for my country. Thank you very much. (Applause.) Thank you.

Mr. Dizolele: Ambassador Lambrinidis. Thank you, sir.

Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis: As Ambassador Cabanas mentioned, the European Union’s focus on Africa, and in the Sahel in particular, is one of simply undeniable strategic importance and significance. You cannot defy gravity. You cannot defy the centuries of history – bad history, good history. You cannot deny the fact that the challenges of the future immediate upon us in so many ways can affect our relationship in tremendously positive ways, and also potential negative ones. And this is why indeed, and I’m very glad that you mentioned this the beginning of your introduction, the European Union’s interest in terms of concrete contributions – not simply nice words, not simply proclamations – concrete contributions has been so remarkable, only strong and leading.

And in the presence of Assistant Secretary Phee, let me just say as well that we have never lost sight of the fact that it is an imperative, an obligation for us, Americans and Europeans, to be working together as partners with our partners in Africa. It is a collective capacity to be able to be effective in that collaboration that, in our view, is going to make a difference. So here we are today at CSIS again. This is the fourth iteration of this summit, getting together, having discussions.

I remember in the previous ones, and maybe – (inaudible) – and thank you for having put this together for the EU delegation as well. Maybe the previous one, we were discussing about the reasons that Europe is engaged, the hope that we see, the tremendous potential, as Santiago mentioned, in Africa as well. And we have been contributing. And the past couple of years, one has to look at the trajectory, and is not that great. So of course, we need to be sitting down and thinking, what’s going wrong, because the potential is so remarkable. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. The number of people, young people in Africa, bringing hope and just a dynamism for development and the security, and leapfrogging ahead in so many things from, you know, the AI and the tech of the future, you know, to green sustainable growth, I mean, that’s huge.

And yet, coup, coup, coup. You know, the Russians coming in doing what they do best, which is not to build anything, but just to make sure that can, you know, bring anything down that is about to be built potentially by other people. Have we made mistakes? Absolutely. But, you know what, I’m sick – a little bit sick and tired of sitting back and, you know, flagellating myself. Oh, it’s terrible, terrible, terrible things we did, terrible. It just didn’t make any sense. Let’s move ahead. I very much appreciated, you were absolutely right in describing some of the real challenges in this, and describing also negative trajectory. So this is why I’m particularly grateful to CSIS today, because I hope – I really do. I don’t have any magical answers. That are of a real honest to God good discussion here, we’ll be able to get some. We have like 500 people participating in this virtually. I don’t know what kind of capacity or chance they will have for injecting questions or ideas in this.

But Ursula von der Leyen said that we need to inject, as Europeans, as much commitment to Africa as we are injecting in Ukraine. We need to make sure that we follow the reality of a continent and a partnership that can be world transforming, if it is done well. Exactly in the way that Ukraine could be world transforming – not for Europe, not for Ukraine itself, for the rest of the globe, if it succeeds against this terrible aggression. I would not be putting it in terms of, oh, you’re giving, you know, one pea to us, five peas there, 10 peas there. Why? That’s not right. That’s not the – that’s not the way to analyze this.

I mean, the significance politically and strategically is absolutely – and I agree with you –absolutely clear. But the connection’s also clear. I am deeply concerned when there are governments anywhere in the world who think that might is right, that they can actually use military force to take over a decision of a people to rule by one or the other person. That is exactly the same when it happens in Greece back in the ’60s when a military dictatorship took over, or in Portugal or in Spain, for that matter, or when it happens in Africa, or what happens when a neocolonialist called Russia decides to wipe off the map and other country.

If we don’t manage as Americans and Africans together, and Europeans together, to understand the complexities of this world together – if we don’t build a partnership that is based on the true belief that we actually are equal partners that have to align to defend fundamental values and needs that we believe in. Such as the fact that the U.N. Charter matters, such as the fact that climate change is happening and we have to work together to make sure that we address it and we fight it. Unless we do this, I’m afraid we’re going to be back every year discussing how we gave more billions here and there. Some people did better. More crisis broke out. And here we are, trying to compare miseries and figure out who’s doing what for whom.

We have to do something all together. I can tell you that the EU is very focused on a new strategy in Africa. We are looking at our investment. The Global Gateway, as some of you may have heard, was a huge investment instrument. We have committed 250 billion (dollars) to Africa alone in investments next year, sustainable ones for sustainable development to really make a difference. We hope we can. And we also are looking at the positive narrative for Africa. It cannot be always that we get together talk about how to put out the crises. You know, we are going to do this together with African partners. And I hope we succeed, because if we don’t it’s bad for us. It’s terrible for Africa. It’s bad for the United States. It’s bad, frankly, for the world. And I don’t think that we have the luxury to allow this to happen.

So thank you very much and I really look forward to getting some wisdom out of this discussion today. (Applause.)

Mr. Dizolele: Thank you, Ambassador Lambrinidis.

We’re supposed to be joined by Ambassador Hamadi Meimou out of Mauritania. Ambassador Hamadi Meimou, the floor is yours.

Ambassador Hamadi Meimou: OK, thank you, president. Distinguished guests, as Director and Senior Fellow Mr. Dizolele said in his kind words of introduction, I am Hamadi Meimou, high representative of the Coalition for the Sahel. I have had the honor in the previous year to serve my country as foreign affairs minister, member of the national assembly, and ambassador, among other roles. I want to thank the Center of Strategic and International Studies for giving me time to say a few words.

It has been almost a month since I took office. I have already exchanged with some of you and with partners in Nouakchott, Dakar, Washington, and the United Nations. This conversation helped me to – or helped me shape the key idea that I would like to share today. This idea, my bottom line, is the international community must remain engaged in the Sahel. Let me explain.

My first argument is that proceeding the international footprint in the Sahel right now would amount to recognizing a form of victory for those leaders and their cooperative partners that want to reach international partnership. On the contrary, international partner must support even more the countries in the Sahel that are still committed to cooperating with the international community. Wherever possible, we should continue to invest in the different sectors and institutions where you have made a difference in development and security.

These include, of course, the – (inaudible) – despite its situation. I must also go out to the – and final thing of humanitarian needs, that is more dangerous than ever. For instance, my country’s second-biggest city is now Mberra, the refugees camp. It has due to the recent violence surge in northern Mali.

My second argument is that by staying engaged, we are helping to shape a better future, including the return to democracy and conditions for security and development. Indeed, the current context is not eternal. External and internal constraints will get us back to a normal situation in the not-too-distant future.

I would also stress that staying engaged in the Sahel and reinforcing your support is the best way to help those countries. I hope – (inaudible) – will stimulate the panel debate. I wish you very full discussion, and look forward to meeting many of you in person in the incoming weeks and months. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

Mr. Dizolele: Thank you, Ambassador Meimou.

Now we have the honor to hear from Ambassador Phee.

Ambassador Molly Phee: Good morning and good afternoon to those of you who are abroad. I want to thank Mvemba and CSIS for welcoming me here today. And it’s wonderful to be with our EU partners. And it’s so important that we continue our coordination not only in Africa, but across the world. So I’m glad to have this chance to discuss with you.

Those were really thoughtful comments made by the ambassadors. So let me see if I can add something that moves the conversation forward and addresses some of the issues you raised, Mvemba. First, I would like to say that I think it’s very important for all of us globally to recognize that democracy, as a system of governance, is under challenge. So it’s clearly under challenge in the Sahel, but it’s under challenge elsewhere. And so the ways to solve that challenge are very difficult and very complicated, but require a lot of attention from all of us.

And as our friends from the EU have described, they view Sahel and the challenge there is a direct strategic threat to the security of Europe. For the United States, it’s not only that our friends in Europe are threatened by instability in the Sahel, but it’s first and foremost for the people of the Sahel as well as our partners in coastal West Africa. It would not be good for any of us if any of the major leaders in West Africa, such as Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Senegal, also fell vulnerable to these challenges. So that’s why I think we really need to work hard together to see if we can find a better path forward in the Sahel.

I thought it might be helpful, Mvemba, if I just run through quickly, some of the – why we think this is happening, and then what we might want to do about it. So the why is clearly in a certain sense, structural. There is, of course, the history and the geography, which make a really big difference in what’s possible. And I don’t know if everyone acknowledges how difficult it is to govern in these spaces with state boundaries that may not reflect ethnic or other realities of the people and the communities, the history of colonialism, the kind of state structures with a focus on the capital rather than decentralization, and, of course, the increasing threat, the environmental threat, of climate change. So we’re talking about a part of the world which faces real structural challenges.

Secondly, we’ve all seen that, since the 1960s and the decolonization movement in Africa, this part of Africa has been very vulnerable to coups before. And we find once you’ve experienced a coup, sort of, if you will, the glass has been broken, and that vulnerability continues to be a problem. Third, and related to my first point, is poor governance. So it appears that the governance systems are not delivering for the people of the Sahel, and that has contributed to the decision to seize power. There’s been a problem in particular with services being provided to folks in those countries.

Fourth, there is the immense security pressure and challenge that these governments and populations are facing. Many of our African friends date that to the intervention in Libya, which resulted in the movement of arms and fighters into the Sahel and created a lot of destabilization. So that pressure continues. And it’s very hard to govern when you’re facing that kind of security threat. I think a fifth problem is disinformation, which is exploited by Russia in particular. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that much of this is happening in Francophone Africa. And I believe it is very evident that Russia is exploiting the complicated colonial history to advance its own disruptive agenda.

Sixth, I think we should think about why these are coups and not rebellions. Coup suggests to me that there is a component of seizure of power by one faction of an elite to capture the state resources. So there’s a very unsavory aspect of this among some. And then I think, as I said, the pattern of coups breaks the glass in terms of that behavior, but I also think we now see that there’s been some sort of psychological barrier among the different military leaders, many of whom know each other and are looking to one another, if you will, as peers.

So those are some of the factors I think that we have to consider as we develop a better and innovative response to this challenge. So, again, we help first and foremost, the people of the Sahel who are suffering from terrorist attacks, from poor economic growth, poor governance, lack of access to basic services, and education, and health, and really not having the opportunities that democracy ideally brings to populations in terms of peace and prosperity.

So then we turn to the even harder question, which is what to do about this. I think a lot has been written about the importance of anti-coup norms. And, Mvemba, I would correct you slightly. We weren’t confused about what happened in Niger, for example, but we were trying to be respectful and deferential to our partners, our ECOWAS partners, in West Africa who were working very hard to see if it was possible to reverse this action, to restore the democratically elected president, President Bazoum, to power. And so we were being respectful – being respectful of that effort.

The second – the second factor in terms of anti-coup norms is what sort of pressure can be brought to bear. And again, for the United States, we have substantial – I’m using Niger as a concrete example here to discuss this – we have substantial economic, development, and security assistance in Niger. So we’re faced with a quandary. We can, as we have, suspend all this assistance, but we acknowledge that it does have an impact on the population. So sometimes it doesn’t have an impact where we want it to have, on those who’ve seized power irregularly and illegally, but it ends up having an impact on the people who, again, are in a worse situation.

To turn to Mali for a moment, I think it’s clear to any objective observer that the decision to ask the French to leave, to invite the Wagner Group in, and to delay, and delay, and delay any progress on a democratic transition has not improved the situation in Mali. In fact, the number of security incidents has surged. The number of civilian casualties has surged. And the economic activity of the country has been deeply suppressed. So in a sense, the choices that are made by coup leaders have not only an effect on them, but an effect on the people.

So the way we react is complicated. We do want to be able to invest our resources in a system that can use them appropriately, without corruption, with regard to development for the population. But sometimes they really have a hardship effect. Let me give you one example. In December of last year, when we hosted the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit, the Millennium Challenge Corporation announced a very important program between Nigeria and Benin. It was a program to improve the roads and improve the port in Cotonou. Approximately 40 percent of the container traffic in Cotonou reaches Niger. We’ve had to suspend that program in reaction to the events in Niamey. And that’s really regrettable for the peoples of the region. And we would like to be in a position where we can be playing a positive and an affirmative role.

And that gets me to my second point in terms of how we can approach this, which we talk a lot, all of us, about how to help the people. And I think there is genuinely an effort underway in this city, through the help of many smart and thoughtful people. Our Congress passed a law which developed a new policy called – I always get it wrong because it’s such a difficult phrase to say – the Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability. But I might have said it backwards. It might be to Promote Stability and Prevent Conflict. And here, I might pause to say it’s a great idea with a terrible name. So if someone has a better name, they should suggest that to me.

But the idea is to look back at the 20 years the United States had been involved in the counterterrorism movement in in the Middle East and South Asia and parts of Africa, and sort of figuring out what right and what went wrong. And you talked about numbers at the start, Mvemba. Where, of course, the numbers for security assistance were much higher than non-security assistance. So the idea of this strategy is to invest more in people, invest more in governance, invest more in economic development.

I really firmly believe from all of my experience as a diplomat that that is the appropriate approach and will yield better results. But it’s hard to do in places like the Sahel, for example, where the security situation is difficult. It’s hard for people to get out and about and assist others and work with others. And it takes time. So I think we have to be realistic. People want instant answers. It’s going to take some time.

And a third element, I believe, for what the U.S. and the EU should do together is to work – continue to work with our partners in Africa, including the regional economic commissions, alliances such as the Sahel Coalition, the African Union, of course, to help them succeed and help them lead for the continent. Going back to that idea I mentioned of anti-coup norms.

So those are just some thoughts this morning. I hope that’s helpful and thank you for allowing me to be part of this conversation. Thank you. (Applause.)

Mr. Dizolele: Thank you very much to our panelists, our speakers, the distinguished group that we have here. I think this has framed the rest of our discussion for today. We’ve heard a spectrum of perspectives, and I think that what we mean, the Sahel is a big place, a lot of issues. All the three ambassadors have addressed them from their perspectives. I’d like to thank you for joining us for this first portion of our meetings and, again, invite you to give a round of applause to our distinguished speakers. (Applause.) Thank you very much. This concludes our panel. (Applause.)