Interview with Gilles Yabi of Think Tank Wathi
Alain Boinet: Hello Gilles, could you introduce yourself and the Wathi Think Tank of which you are the founder?
Gilles Yabi: Hello and thank you for the invitation. I run Wathi, a West African citizen Think Tank, which provides part of the African continent (the 15 countries of the Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – and the neighboring countries that link it to the other regions of the continent) with a platform for collective reflection on the challenges of the present and the future.
Wathi was born of the conviction that all societies need a critical mass of men and women who, beyond their own areas of expertise and activity, are interested in issues of general interest. Since its creation in 2014 (the website was opened to the public in September 2015), Wathi has been a rather atypical think tank, due to its civic commitment and the fact that it does not specialize in any particular theme or themes, on economic, security, educational, health or political issues for example. We believe that our societies need to be informed about all these issues at the same time. They are all linked, and the future of our region will depend on both the commitment and the level of knowledge embedded in each and every one of us. This is Wathi’s mission.
Where did the idea for Wathi come from? The main motivation is to make a specific and useful contribution to all the efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for improving collective well-being in my part of the world. When you’re from the African continent and move to another part of the world to study, you quickly come up against a series of questions about how others perceive the continent, about understanding the political, geopolitical and economic dynamics that shape the world, and about the particular responsibility you have when you’re actually part of the minority that is lucky enough to be able to travel, learn and observe different regions of the world. This forces us to make a contribution beyond our own personal and professional fulfillment.
I’m an economist by training, and I worked for 7 years in two spells for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a global conflict analysis organization. I specialized in conflicts and political and security crises in West Africa. The idea for Wathi was not born out of my experience at Crisis Group, but it was strongly informed by that experience, which in particular reinforced my conviction that all regions of the African continent needed spaces for the production and dissemination of knowledge, and a platform for public debate.
Alain Boinet: In the Sahel region, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are facing a general and lasting deterioration in security. In your opinion, what are the “macro” reasons for this deterioration in three nearby countries? Could it be spreading? Do you think that what’s happening in the Sahel is the expression of a global process or a unique specific situation?
Gilles Yabi: That’s obviously a difficult question. We need to situate the security crisis in the Sahel over time, and resist the temptation to look only at recent events and focus only on the geopolitical dimensions (which are real and to which I’ll return). I believe that in situations of this type, there is always a combination of factors that explain the deterioration of the security situation. What has happened is a meeting between countries with structural fragilities rooted in their history (particularly since their creation as independent states within their current borders) and globalization in all its aspects: both as a source of opportunities and as a source of major threats. Globalization means the rapid circulation of ideas, ideologies, legal and illegal goods, including weapons, means of violence and financial resources. It is an encounter between states and societies engaged in a delicate process of construction, and external factors that have highlighted their vulnerability. This combination of external and internal factors can be seen in every country, and countries such as Mali and Niger have experienced armed rebellions and military coups d’état for decades. In the case of Mali, the first Tuareg rebellion in the north of the country began in 1963, just three years after independence. It’s important to remember that when the current crisis began in Mali in 2012, it didn’t start with groups claiming to be armed jihadists, but with the MNLA, the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad, which instead claimed independence for northern Mali. The MNLA’s political agenda includes long-standing demands, and the movement’s elites are sometimes direct descendants of the Tuareg leaders of previous rebellions. We need to remember history, these few decades post-independence, so as not to focus solely on more recent events, which are important but only add to problems that have long been unresolved.
Alain Boinet: These crises, in these three countries and beyond, reflect a deterioration in their relationship with France. How did this come about?
Gilles Yabi: There are historical elements to this question, as well as more recent ones, which depend on the actions of the current leaders of France and these countries. We can’t ignore colonization, the conditions of decolonization and the political, military and economic influence that France maintained in most of its former colonies in West and Central Africa after their respective independence. Obviously, there are enormous variations in the relations France has maintained with the various countries in the region, but it’s clear that this is not “old history”, a colonial and post-colonial past that no longer matters and has ceased to have an impact. It’s perfectly normal for there to have been a desire to change relations with France, when it’s felt that they have remained marked by the colonial imprint and a disproportionate post-colonial influence. This is a first element that is general and linked to historical relations of domination. The second factor is specific to the Sahel countries. The deterioration of the security situation, particularly in Mali, was the gateway to a new, strong French influence in one of the countries where there was no military presence. Historically, France had wanted to maintain military positions in a country like Mali, but this had been rejected by the Malian authorities at the time. It should also be remembered that, since independence, Mali had maintained strong relations with the Soviet Union, particularly in terms of military cooperation, and had never been one of France’s close allies in the region. Starting with the Malian crisis in 2012, a request for French intervention was made by the transitional government in Mali installed after a coup d’état.
France then stepped in, initially welcomed by the Malian people. Part of the territory was in fact in the hands of rebel groups. If the security situation had improved in ten years thanks to the French military presence and the political influence that goes with it, I think we’d be in a very different situation today. France intervened militarily and exerted a very significant influence on the process that was to resolve the crisis in Mali. The initial military results were satisfactory, putting an end to the armed groups’ control of the north of the country. We remember François Hollande’s almost triumphant visit. But then security deteriorated rapidly in central Mali, and gradually in the regions bordering Burkina Faso, Niger and Côte d’Ivoire. Ten years on, the assessment of international security interventions, led by France as a major player, is not a positive one, even if there is of course a great deal of internal responsibility as well. From that point onwards, there was a turnaround in political opinion in Mali, and in the political and military players, who had themselves changed after two successive coups d’état. A radical change in the situation and in the perception of France’s role took place in Mali. This will have an impact on public opinion in Niger and Burkina Faso too, where France has deployed Operation Barkhane after Operation Serval, which was a one-off military success in Mali.
Alain Boinet: In Burkina Faso today, around 40% of the territory is outside state control. Towns like Djibo and others are encircled by armed groups practicing a strategy of asphyxiation. Is France responsible for the deterioration of this situation? Recently, the ruling power has formed an alliance with Russia in a number of areas: security, culture, humanitarian aid and even nuclear power. How can we understand this reversal of alliances? What could all this lead to? With armed groups controlling 40% of the country, what is the way out of this situation?
Gilles Yabi: It’s important not to look at individual countries in isolation to understand what’s going on in the region. Burkina Faso’s main problem, at least at the start of the security deterioration, was that there were armed groups close to its territory, on the Malian side. When we analyze the deterioration of the security situation in these countries, there are factors of fragility that can be found in many Sahelian and coastal countries. This does not lead to armed violence and a humanitarian crisis if there are no other elements to explode the situation, in particular by providing significant means of violence. Proximity to irregular armed groups that can move from one national territory to another is an essential factor. It should not be forgotten that Burkina Faso is a country that has experienced a great deal of political instability and coups d’état in its history, but never armed conflict pitting one part of the population against another or against the State. The deterioration in the security situation has been very brutal, and was initially closely linked to the situation in neighboring Mali. If there had been no armed groups in Mali and no geographical expansion of these groups into Niger and Burkina Faso, I don’t think we would have seen such an expansion of armed violence. That’s not to say that internal fragility factors weren’t important in Burkina Faso and didn’t play a role. Blaise Compaoré, who had been in power for almost 30 years, was overthrown by a popular uprising in 2014, and this led to the disorganization of the defense and security sector, which had long been focused on protecting the regime rather than securing the territory and borders. Burkina Faso was disorganized, divided and in the early stages of political transition, and was easily destabilized by the push of armed groups based in Mali, with connections to local players in the north and east of Burkina Faso who had their own reasons for challenging the central state. I repeat: we must not isolate what is happening in one country from what is happening in neighbouring countries, nor must we overlook internal factors of vulnerability, in particular the feelings of political, economic, social and cultural marginalization of populations living in rural areas that have benefited little from state action for decades.
The takeover of parts of the country by armed groups took place under an elected civilian political authority, which, although it might appear to have democratic legitimacy, was unable to respond to the security situation. It was both the pretext and one of the fundamental reasons for the first coup d’état in Burkina Faso. It’s easy to see how the security situation creates political instability and, in the case of Burkina Faso, brings a military regime to power. This regime believes it is there to confront these challenges and to provide an effective security response. In the wake of the second coup d’état, the message from Captain Ibrahim Traoré’s regime is clear: the priority is the fight against terrorism, and state resources will be devoted to this as a matter of priority. The question is whether this strategy will produce results. I’m not among those who believe that these states don’t need to strengthen their armies and their security systems more generally. I do think that states need to have capabilities that provide some deterrent to irregular armed groups, whoever they may be. The fact that there has been an increase in manpower and arms purchases is not a problem in principle. The question is whether there is a strategy beyond military action against armed groups. And an offensive military approach that does not distinguish between terrorist elements and the civilian populations of the regions where the groups operate poses a serious problem, because it is neither effective nor respectful of human rights, and it creates the conditions for a lasting and profound weakening of a country like Burkina Faso. I am therefore cautious and very reserved about the choices made by the current authorities in Burkina Faso, all the more so as those who express doubts and criticisms are quickly considered traitors to their country. In Burkina Faso as elsewhere, I believe that we must not shy away from open collective reflection to find the best approaches to gradually emerge from a deep-rooted security, political, social and even moral crisis. The military response is part of this, but it cannot be “the solution”.
Alain Boinet: As far as Mali is concerned, the current government has asked for the French Barkane force to leave, followed by the United Nations mission, which is no mean feat. It has just retaken the town of Kidal, which had been out of its control for ten years, with the help of the Russian group Wagner. Is this an isolated coup or a reversal of trend? Colonel Assimi Goïta has said “our mission is not over”, and from his point of view it’s a victory to have taken Kidal, but what happens next? Do the Algiers agreements still exist?
Gilles Yabi: Even in Mali, everyone’s wondering what the aftermath of the recapture of Kidal will be like. There have been a lot of announcements from the Malian government, which says it has thought about the aftermath. There’s talk of the deployment of police officers and state security representatives, but not only that, to encourage a return to normality for the population. For the moment, we’re still involved in military action, and it would be astonishing if there were no reaction from the armed groups, who have not been neutralized despite occasional battles with Malian forces. We’re in an area very close to the border with Algeria, and these groups know these territories well, so they could hold out for a while and come back later. This is the most likely scenario, perhaps not of a reconquest against the Malian army, but of a harassment of its positions. The question of Kidal also takes us back to the beginning of the crisis in Mali and relations with France.
This question arose very quickly during the reconquest of the three main towns: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal. There was a major misunderstanding between France and the Malian authorities, because Kidal remained under the control of the armed groups, then the United Nations, but the Malian authorities were denied access to it by French decision, which was never understood by the authorities and public opinion in Mali. It is for these reasons that in the relationship with France, there are clear indications of initial misunderstandings as to the objectives of both parties. Today, Kidal is a symbolic prize for the Malian government, and raises the question of the political dimension. The Malian army’s military reinforcement, backed by Russian forces, enabled it to retake Kidal. We can criticize the use of mercenary-like foreign fighters, but we cannot criticize the fact that the Malian state wants to regain control of its entire territory. But the authorities in Bamako must show that they are concerned with bringing lasting peace to the region, while respecting all the cultural identities represented there.
Alain Boinet: After the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, if we take the case of the Islamic Support Group for Muslims and the Islamic State in the Sahara, how can we understand the appeal that these groups can have for those who join them, despite the losses they have suffered? What motivates these young people to risk their lives?
Gilles Yabi: The recruitment of combatants by armed groups is an important subject, but one that is not always addressed from the perspective of people in rural areas. We often forget to ask ourselves what we would do if armed groups were to arrive one day in our village or town, making it clear that they would not hesitate to use their weapons to inflict death. When there are no state security forces in the locality concerned to protect the population by opposing the armed groups, the options are very limited. They can try to flee at their peril. Or they can stay and adapt to the new situation, bowing to the conditions imposed by the armed groups, who become the de facto authorities. Before embarking on complex analyses of the reasons why young and not-so-young people join jihadist or other armed groups, I think we need to start by imagining the concrete situation in which populations who used to live more or less peacefully from farming, herding and small-scale commercial activities find themselves, with a very limited state presence and virtually non-existent access to public services, including the provision of security. It’s all too easy to see people as accomplices of armed groups, when in fact they are forced to come to terms with the reality they face, and to deal with these groups by integrating themselves into their economic and logistical systems.
Other factors behind the recruitment of armed groups in the Sahel have been clearly highlighted by some very interesting field studies. The Institute for Security Studies, for example, has interviewed many former fighters who have been arrested and detained in prisons in Sahelian countries. Listening to their accounts enables us to understand the diversity of reasons why these young people end up in these groups. In particular, there are protection reasons. People join armed groups not out of ideological conviction, but because they find that membership and access to weapons and training in their use are a means of protecting themselves, their families and their property, which is particularly true for herders who are victims of cattle rustling by bandits. Armed groups know how to act as protectors of marginalized communities threatened by other communities or by local representatives of the state, who are often also accused of predation. Research also confirms that the very precarious economic conditions in rural areas in these regions make young people available for recruitment by groups that offer them an occupation, a job, money, motorcycles, the possibility of having a social status, of giving meaning to their lives by being part of a group that claims to propose a radical break with the existing social and political order. In local contexts where there have been too few signs of benevolent action by central states for decades, where children who have become young adults have benefited from few or no years of education and social supervision giving them prospects of a better life than that of their parents, where populations have essentially always fended for themselves, it’s not very surprising that armed groups don’t have much trouble recruiting.
Alain Boinet: Some observers speak of the spread of these armed groups to countries in the Gulf of Guinea region. Do you think there is a real dynamic of further spread?
Gilles Yabi: The concern is legitimate. Factually, there is already a deterioration in security in the northern coastal countries of the Gulf of Guinea, which justifies this concern. A few years ago, there were no terrorist attacks in Côte d’Ivoire, Togo, Ghana or Benin. Over the past 2-3 years, more so in Côte d’Ivoire, there have been attacks in northern Benin and Togo. These facts testify to an increase in the activities of these groups in these countries. Yes, this may continue. The countries concerned and international players have already realized that we need to strengthen the resilience of these countries to the expansion of attacks by armed groups. This ties in with my previous point: as soon as irregular armed groups (jihadist or otherwise) are close to a territory, there is a danger of expansion. And that’s what’s happening. However, the socio-economic and religious configuration, the relative strength of political institutions and the degree of state presence are important factors that vary from one country to another. I think that, generally speaking, the countries of the Gulf of Guinea are less exposed than those of the Sahel. This is simply due to the size of their territory. The State’s ability to monitor events on Togolese or Beninese territory is stronger than Mali’s or Niger’s ability to control or be present on their respective territories. Another important factor is economic capacity. Côte d’Ivoire has suffered terrorist attacks in Grand-Bassam, by the sea and far from the Sahel, as well as in the north of its territory, but it has been able to deploy more well-equipped and trained security forces and initiate socio-economic development programs in the country’s northern regions. All this has a bearing on the ability of the Gulf of Guinea countries to cope with the expansion of armed groups on their borders.
Alain Boinet: There’s been a succession of coups d’état in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as in Chad… We’re in a period of transition. Are we going to return, as promised, to elections and democratic governance? Or are we heading for endless periods of transition, justified by the security situation?
Gilles Yabi: It will be difficult for the current military-civilian transitional governments to maintain themselves for many years without elections. There will certainly be an extension of the transition periods initially announced – we’re already in that situation. But none of the current leaders in the Sahel is declaring that there will be no elections, or proposing a complete change in the form of government and the abandonment of elections. All are talking about a new democratic constitution. In Mali, a new constitution has already been put to referendum and adopted, with democratic principles and values. In Burkina Faso, even if the current leader is more explicit in his choice to consider security as the priority well before the organization of elections, the project is also to have a new constitution. In Niger, the situation is still very uncertain, as there is as yet no transition mechanism accepted by the regional organization. The situations are different, but nowhere is there any articulate discourse questioning the choice of a democratic regime with elections. Does the end of this transition mean that we will achieve democratic civil governance? Obviously, that’s another question, but we have to remember that the conditions for coups d’état were created by political and economic governance under civilian powers.We can’t pretend that the formally democratic regimes we have in these countries are producing results that correspond to what we expect from democratic regimes.
Alain Boinet: According to statistics, in 2022 there will be 1 billion 427 million inhabitants in Africa, and 2 billion 485 million are expected in 2050. In less than 28 years, the continent will gain a billion inhabitants. If we take Niger as an example, its population will rise from 26 million to 67, Mali’s from 22 to 47, and the same increase will also be seen in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana… This is a veritable demographic revolution, the likes of which humanity has never experienced anywhere else in such proportions and over such a short period of time. It’s a colossal challenge, but are most countries in a position to prepare for the shock? More schools, more structures, more jobs are needed every year… How is the issue being addressed? Is it part of the public debate, or are immediate problems taking over?
Gilles Yabi: The demographic question is central, and increasingly present in public debate. Are today’s leaders taking the full measure of the implications of the pace of population growth and the changes it must bring about in public policies and investments? I don’t really think so. The main reason is the short-termism induced by the political system organized around elections. This is not specific to the context of African countries, but the consequences are more serious in Africa given the scale of the challenges, which call for medium- and long-term commitments and efforts. Politicians at the highest level – and their entourages – are obsessed with staying in power, and therefore with the forthcoming elections. There is no obvious political interest in focusing on demographic issues and the necessary adjustments in terms of resource allocation. As a citizens’ think tank, we’re trying to put these issues on the table to force political players and our societies as a whole to think about what needs to be done now to have concrete, noteworthy results in ten, twenty and thirty years’ time, and not just before the next election. At Wathi, we believe that we need to innovate in institutional terms, and design institutions specifically dedicated to long-term priorities alongside the traditional political institutions resulting from elections at various levels.
It’s also important to bear in mind that Africa’s demographic growth represents a historic turning point for the continent. Over the coming decades, Africa will play an increasingly important role on the world stage. And this is a positive turning point for a continent that has been dominated, marginalized and – it has to be said – particularly exploited – for two centuries. The youthfulness of the continent’s population, compared to the aging trend almost everywhere else, means that the majority of the world’s workforce growth over the next few decades will come from the continent. In fact, the African continent is set to become the main driver of value creation. We must therefore look beyond the immensity of the challenges resulting from youth and demographic growth in African countries, without losing sight of the differences within the continent itself. The characteristics of the African population are also a powerful factor of dynamism and creativity for the entire planet. Of course, we must not overlook the effects of climate change and all the threats facing the African continent. We should be able to avoid any simplistic vision that would see African demographics either as a threat of major catastrophe for the continent and the planet, or as a guarantee of a radiant future for African populations.
Alain Boinet: Your comments echo those of Jean-Michel Sévérino, former Director of the Agence Française de Développement. In a recent interview, he points out that population growth is an undeniable growth factor in the long term, but a problem in the short term, especially in the post-Covid context, with the impact of the war in Ukraine and the financial shock of rising interest rates. He says that Africa’s growth depends on the creation of new businesses, citing examples such as Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire, which have growth rates of 7 to 8%. That’s what’s needed, he says. In fact, he has set up a company to invest in and support SMEs in Africa, believing that this is a major factor in the solution to many of the problems we discussed earlier. What do you think about this?
Gilles Yabi: I agree with him. I studied development economics, and during those years I had the opportunity to listen to Jean-Michel Sévérino on several occasions. He already had a nuanced and realistic vision of African trajectories, quite different from that of many players in the French development world. I’m also familiar with Sévérino’s work, as he went on to create the Investisseurs et Partenaires fund, which supports the growth of numerous companies on the continent. As part of the many discussions we organize at Wathi, we recently hosted the founder of Jokkolabs, one of the pioneers of social entrepreneurship, which promotes the spirit of cooperation in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, during Global Entrepreneurship Week. Business creation is a fundamental axis of economic growth in African countries, but beyond growth, it is an engine of economic, social and even political transformation.
I don’t think we only need economic growth, in the sense of what is traditionally measured in economics. Now that we are aware of the effects of intensive human economic activity on the state of the planet, our primary objective should not be to maximize short-term economic growth, but rather to improve the living conditions of current and future populations, while taking into account the preservation of our planet and showing greater respect for the fabulous nature that is the source of all our activity.
Support for business creation and development is important, but a fundamental constraint is the availability of well-trained human resources, and this brings us to the question of education and training systems. There’s a need to maintain a focus on issues that are not just short-term. At Wathi, we see education in the broadest sense of the term as a priority among priorities. We’ll be devoting a lot of discussion to it in 2024.
Alain Boinet: How would you like to conclude these projections?
Gilles Yabi: I’d like to reiterate the importance of serious, moderate, constructive public debate on the many issues of general interest, in Africa as elsewhere in the world. No one has the superior intelligence to find the most appropriate solutions and approaches in today’s complex, interconnected world. In my part of the world, West Africa in particular, we cannot afford to give in to the temptation of resignation in the face of worrying security and political developments. We must not forget that we are not alone in facing difficult situations, violence, war, poverty, rising inequality and signs of crumbling social bonds. It is perhaps from Africa that a different vision of the economy and social progress can emerge. Against a backdrop of increasing conflict and trivialized violence, it is extremely important to remain confident in the future and in our collective ability to shape it.
Alain Boinet: Thank you Gilles for a great overview, which ends on a positive note that we share!
Founder and President of the think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (WATHI) Former Director of the International Crisis Group’s West Africa Project.
Gilles Olakounlé Yabi is the founder and president of the think tank citoyen de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (WATHI). Gilles Yabi worked as Senior Political Analyst and then Director of the West Africa Office of the International Crisis Group, an international non-governmental organization dedicated to the prevention and resolution of armed conflict. He led and coordinated Crisis Group’s research, recommendations, advocacy and communications in the region, with a particular focus on Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria and Mali. Holder of a PhD in development economics from the University of Clermont-Ferrand (France), Gilles has also worked as a journalist for the weekly Jeune Afrique. Dr. Yabi is the author of several publications on African political and economic issues. He hosts the weekly column “Ça fait débat avec WATHI” on Radio France Internationale (RFI). Gilles Yabi is also a non-resident researcher with the Africa Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank based in Washington DC, USA.
Find Gilles Yabi on:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gilles-yabi-588b871/
- Websites: www.wathi.org and https://afriquedelouest-politique.org/
- Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/@wathithinktank1506/videos
- Chronicle “Ça fait débat” with WATHI on RFI: https://www.rfi.fr/fr/podcasts/%C3%A7a-fait-d%C3%A9bat-wathi/