Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo has warned that a rampant rebellion in West Africa’s Sahel is threatening to engulf the entire region.
Akufo-Addo was speaking on Tuesday at a meeting of West African leaders and European ministers in Ghana’s capital Accra to discuss regional solutions to the conflict in Mali.
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The meeting took place on the heels of multiple withdrawals by foreign troops – France and Denmark – from Mali, where armed groups have seized vast swaths of territory. They have cited the military government’s dalliances with Russian mercenaries as a reason for ending military cooperation with Mali.
“Today, the terrorist groups, emboldened by their success in the regions, are seeking new grounds,” Akufo-Addo said on the second day of the Accra Initiative security conference.
“The worsening situation … threatens to engulf the entire West Africa region,” he said.
Attacks have increased during the past decade despite efforts to fight non-state actors. The violence has killed thousands of people and displaced more than 2.7 million across the Sahel, according to the UN.
Mali, where a continuing conflict took root in 2012, has been at odds with regional governments, Western powers, and a United Nations peacekeeping mission since a military government, which seized power in August 2020, failed to hold promised elections.
Collaboration with Russia and alleged army abuses exacerbated tensions. Ivory Coast is also withdrawing its troops as Mali keeps 46 of its soldiers detained, claiming the Ivorians are mercenaries.
There are concerns military withdrawals from Mali will create a security vacuum in an area where groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have already expanded into Mali’s neighbours and coastal states south of the Sahel.
Burkina Faso, for example, has become a new hotspot in the conflict.
On Tuesday, 10 soldiers were killed when armed men attacked an army position in western Chad.
Meanwhile, coastal states such as Benin and Togo have seen rising attacks in recent years, prompting discussions about Western help to stem the rebellion’s southward spread.
“The risk of contagion into the coastal states is not a risk any more, it’s a reality,” said European Council President Charles Michel.
“We all need to identify the best way to have an impact on the ground,” he said, adding that EU support to the region included “lethal hardware for defensive purposes”.
Conflict and climate shocks have also created a food crisis in the region.
More than 30 million people in Sahel will require lifesaving assistance and protection in 2022, almost two million more than the previous year, the UN said in June.