The ITSS Africa team interviews Michele Tallarini, a researcher at the University of Bergamo, analysing Sahel’s and North Africa’s radicalization and extremism dynamics. Through his direct experience in the field, Michele Tallarini offers an insight into the main reasons that lead local people to radicalization in the area and concrete strategies to help local communities to be more resilient to the issue.
Progettomondo is an international non-governmental organization founded in 1966 to promote sustainable development, human rights, and a new form of justice and conscious migration in Latin America and Africa. In Italy and Europe, the NGO promotes global education and the encounter between different cultures. Marianna Mormile is the country director for the Sahel Region and in this podcast, she discusses the role of Italy’s ONGs in the Sahel region, and the situation in this conflict area.
Interviewing Team: Michele Tallarini and Alessandra Gramolini
English Translation of the Interview:
MICHELE: Good day everyone, and welcome back to the ITSS Verona Youtube Channel. We are Alessandra and Michele from the Africa Team. Today we will talk about the situation in the Sahel. For this episode, we are delighted to host Marianna Mormile from Progettomondo, an NGO from Verona which operates in Africa and Latin America. Marianna works as country director for the Sahel, and she lives in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. We would like to start by expressing our gratitude to our guest for accepting our invitation and for sharing her high-level experience and knowledge with us.
MARIANNA: Thanks Alessandra and Michele for this opportunity. Sharing your opinion and experience is always important and often there is no time to do so, so thanks again for the opportunity.
MICHELE: Thank you again. We would like to start with a first general question: what is your point of view as an Italian who lives and works in Burkina Faso regarding the situation in this region? What are, in your opinion, the main problems affecting this area which is one of the most complicated in the world?
MARIANNA: I have a vision of the area's problems through the projects that we implement with Progettomondo, and through direct contact with communities, state actors, and other non-governmental organizations. As regards our interventions, I can tell you that certainly the news arriving in Italy are few but they allow us to give timely information on what are in a certain way stable situations of the presence of terrorist armed groups that organize attacks on populations and local authorities; hence a situation that is quite difficult from a security point of view.
At the beginning, it was an issue of claims and attacks against the central power and therefore with attacks focused more on law enforcement agencies and state actors, such as mayors or other institutional objectives. In this context, the religious component seems to be more of a vehicle than a real justification. In fact, there are villages that are intimidated and subject to certain rules for women and men, forcing the population otherwise to abandon the area, but this seems more like a strategy to recover resources and therefore forage, pushing these flows of displaced persons.
There is therefore certainly a humanitarian crisis, both in Burkina and in Niger (which are the two countries that Progettomondo follows), albeit in a different way due to the different backgrounds of the two countries. At the moment Burkina is at the peak of its crisis, with a high presence of displaced people and the risk of an imminent food crisis. In fact, last year it did not rain and therefore we are waiting for the consequences that will come. International organizations are trying to understand how to frame the interventions in order to respond to this food crisis that is expected very soon. So in conclusion, the main issues are those relating to safety, which sees no improvement, and a food crisis that goes on for periods but which is configured as constant and which could have a peak this year.
ALE: Thank you very much, Marianna. Going back to what you said about Burkina Faso, which is currently reaching the highest level of crisis, do you think the recent coup d’etat will be a turning point on the political agenda as regards the fight against terrorism?
MARIANNA: It must be said that the communiqué of the coup leaders, who are now in power, and who are trying to establish a transitional government, contained a point concerning the fight against terrorism. It says there would be improvements and a specific interest in making Burkina out of this problem of security and instability. To date, however, there is no real improvement, even if it is necessary to specify that the coup happened only 2 months ago.
The situation has not changed to date despite the coup leaders coming from the military world, and in theory they should have the right skills in the security field or in any case have a particular focus on this issue. In the press release, there is also a specific point concerning greater attention to the families of fallen soldiers: this certainly denotes an attitude of greater attention. However, even if the problem has been formally addressed, no real and concrete improvements are seen. In truth, this is not a result that can only be achieved by operating in Burkina and only by operating from a military point of view: it would in fact be necessary to do a wide-ranging work that includes several factors.
MICHELE: You talked about a moment of great crisis for Burkina and how these problems must be addressed in a global way and from different points of view. In this sense, what is the role of the Italian NGOs operating in the Sahel and in particular in Burkina and Niger? And are there any substantial differences in approach in the intervention strategies of the agencies of the various countries?
MARIANNA: It must be emphasized that the intervention in the Sahel is constantly changing. NGOs like us are trying to have a continuous analysis not only of the needs of the territory but also of the strategies to respond to these needs trying to enhance their expertise, and to form gradually. This is because there are various emergencies affecting the communities we work with and it is, therefore, necessary to continually re-calibrate interventions to respond to new needs. For this reason, I would point out, as a common strategy of NGOs, the continuous analysis of the needs of the territories: for example in one of our projects in the north of Burkina, on the border with Mali, we have recently completely redesigned the intervention strategy as regards nutrition and health. Indeed, in few years the situation has changed a lot and therefore the project, as it was originally conceived, risked no longer being operational in all areas.
There is therefore a desire to integrate a humanitarian component more and more: Italian NGOs, and in particular Progettomondo, are helping the populations of some areas to stabilize, thus making the support offered effective and continuous. We see that in Burkina, and recently also in some areas of Niger, the need to find a balance between the two interventions is becoming crucial. Therefore the donors are pushing us in more multi-sectoral interventions, but in reality, it is necessary that we also work on the ground, completing each other and trying to have more elements in such a way as to operate on different levels.
There is certainly a commitment from Italian NGOs to be able to continue to make their contribution in regions in which the situation is changing rapidly. In Niger, Italian cooperation has historically supported the agricultural sector; in Burkina, in addition to the agricultural sector, there is a strong aid in the healthcare sector, with interventions, for example, against malnutrition. Here there are also NGOs from other countries: some have had the most humanitarian fiber even in unsuspected times, due to purely periodic food crises. It must be said that Progettomondo and other Italian NGOs have a more proximity approach, working directly on the field, with direct assistance to the communities. This approach also helps to connect and to support the technical services and the local authorities, thus intervening both in the community and at the institutional level. Another type of approach can be the “substitution,”, mainly for emergencies, in which we intervene to replace the State, but always only until it organizes itself to be able to overcome these difficulties.
ALE: Following this last sentence, according to your experience and your work in the NGO and seeing the work of other NGOs, can international cooperation be able to help make these countries independent of foreign influence?
MARIANNA: Answering this question is very difficult. I can only say that we, as Progettomondo, do not work in geopolitics so we do not have an institutional position, we work following the principle of neutrality, not favoring any kind of deployment but only for the overall improvement of the situation in these territories. We do not enter the political sphere, it must be said that in our work we have to deal with other States' choices in foreign policy. For example, Sahel is a region in which there are constant migratory flows, and in the 2015 Valletta summit, it was made explicit the principle of externalization of borders, i.e. blocking migratory flows at borders really far away from those of the European Union.
Having said that, surely in the Sahel we can recognize France, China, Russia, and Turkey among the countries that have the most influence. Burkina was a former French colony, and therefore they are closely linked to France, which does not renounce to emphasize this link on every occasion. There is also an open debate on the ECOWAS situation and the new currency: the CFA franc is directly correlated to France. Now the idea is to replace it with the ECO, but we do not know yet how things are going to change in reality. Perhaps in Mali after the CEDEAO sanctions, there will be the possibility to replace the CFA franc with the ECO, but in reality, it is still very complicated. So I don't know what kind of answer to give in this regard, certainly in some countries of this region foreign influence is very rooted and very often it is not contested, in some cases, it is even accepted.
ALE: You have been very kind, Michele and I would like to thank you again for your time and for sharing your perspective on the field. It was a pleasure for us to have you as a guest of our video podcast series. Thanks for watching, and stay tuned for all other ITSS initiatives here on youtube and on our official website. Have a nice day
Soumaila Diawara was born in Bamako (Mali). After his graduation in Legal Sciences with a specialization in International Private Law, he started his career in politics, taking part of the "Solidarité Africaine pour la Démocratie et l'Indépendance" (SADI), in which he soon became the leader of the youth movement. In 2012, he was forced to leave Mali as he was accused, along with others, of an attack against the President of the Legislative Assembly. He arrived in Italy in 2014, where he obtained international protection. Today he is still a political refugee. He is, also, the author of two poetry collections: “La nostra civiltà” and “Sogni di un uomo”.
What are the main reasons that push Malians to leave within the migratory flows?
First of all, farmers and fishers find it very difficult to cultivate and fish due to the severe drought and the lowering of the desert. This is also due to pollution and the impossibility for farmers to graze animals quietly.
Moreover, due to the war situation in northern Mali, the only alternative that many people have , is to leave. Infact, terrorists invaded about 60% of the territory after the fall of the Gaddafi regime; an area three times the size of Italy has been occupied, over 35% of the Malian population.
This situation has resulted in the closure of schools and hospitals for over eight years. Parents are afraid that their children will end up in the hands of terrorists, so they decide to let them go. When you see a parent saying that he prefers his child to die in the sea rather than end up in the hands of terrorists, that means there is no hope left. Or even 13-14-year-old girls, forced by terrorists to marry them, I don't call it marriage; I call it rape.
Another reason why Malians are forced to migrate concerns the chaotic management of the Malian state, which does not give anyone the freedom of expression; otherwise, they are persecuted. Fortunately, those who manage to escape run away.
There are also many areas where a person can die of malaria, not having 10 euros for treatment, or cannot afford drinking water or two meals a day. People go away to survive.
What role does the Malian state play within these migratory flows regarding Mali as a country of departure and as a transit state? How and to what extent does the political instability in Mali affect the choice to travel?
This instability has a great responsibility in causing the choice of people to leave. The absence of the Malian State has existed for more than thirty years. The State tends not to consider citizens, the conditions in which they live, and their daily life. So when the State fails, people leave to look for a better future. I believe the absence of the State is also a desired condition when it is convenient for the State to maintain a population in poverty and ignorance. Because, when you are hungry, the first thing you think about is finding something to eat, you don't think about politics. Especially when you live in a country where 60% of the population does not have the opportunity to go to school since the State itself does not guarantee access to public schools and healthcare.
More and more policies are created not to give people the opportunity to approach politics and power. Therefore I have always maintained that it is essential when funds are earmarked for the African continent to verify where this money goes. In particular, if they are intended for the people who need them, to build schools or hospitals, to give alternatives, or create projects that can be sustainable and create jobs. Unfortunately, there are many times when this money does not reach people and strangely ends up in Western banks. I have always supported it because I believe it is not just a Malian problem but an international problem.
Nobody likes to die, and therefore, people, having no means to counter corrupt governments, leave. I have always argued that the problem of Africa is not just due to the “white man,” but I believe it is due to a system that exploits Africa. And it is the same system that the West controls. Therefore we are an exploited mass, which has the same common goal, even if the exploitation takes place in different ways.
What reasons have contributed to developing and consolidating the migration corridors of the Sahel?
The first reason is that the Sahel is very close to Europe and other countries such as Algeria and Libya, which border the Mediterranean; Spain is also a stone's throw from Morocco. This means that the movements go through the Sahel, even if the people who pass through it also come from other areas of Africa, such as central Africa, which is very far from the Sahelian region.
The geopolitical situation of the region, particularly of Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, characterized by ten-year instability at both the political and security levels, has led to the concentration of migration corridors in this area. I also believe that this is partly due to the negligence and unwillingness to resolve this situation. These problems cannot be diminished and traced back to the military solution alone, as has been done up to now.
Abdelmalek Sayad, in his writing “La Double Absence. Des illusions de l'émigré aux souffrances de l'immigré,” stated that those who migrate live the condition of one who is no longer part of the starting context and is not even part of the arrival context. He, therefore, experiences a double absence in which he feels neither the culture of arrival nor that of the context of origin is his own. Do you share this statement?
Yes, many people face this situation, which is often also due to the behavior of many individuals within today's society. I have always said that I would have preferred to talk about another culture, different and complementary, but I find myself defending rights more often than not, which I find out of place in this century. From the moment people with a different culture arrive, human curiosity pushes them to go and know this new reality of which they know nothing. But if some people in the country of arrival make those people feel inadequate or not accepted, the only alternative is to cling to their old culture. This causes a mental closure, which does not lead to the opening to the new society of arrival.
I have always believed that it is right to understand that when people with a different culture arrive, one should only open the door and welcome them into society. But when we fail to overcome this wall of fear, a division is created in a useless community. I have always argued that cultures are different but complementary, and learning other things does not change you but instead helps you have more baggage and see the world more broadly. I am always willing to listen to others and learn about other cultures because I know that the world is not limited to Mali or Africa. Still, there is another world outside: although cultural, religious, sexual orientation differences, etc., it is possible to live together peacefully, teaching each other our cultures.