Some 800 analysts and officials are attending the Dakar Forum in an attempt to better respond to attacks by armed groups, including the Islamic State in West Africa, better known as Boko Haram.
The Islamist insurgency “knows no boundaries”, Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, the African Union (AU) special envoy in the fight against terrorism, told the conference, which opened on Monday as Chad declared a state of emergency in the Lake Chad region after a series of suicide bombings that are being blamed on Islamist insurgents.
The state of emergency grants new powers to Chadian security forces, leading some experts to ask questions about rights abuses and their potential impact –questions often raised by rights advocates about north-east Nigeria.
“I think the governments of Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria are really very conscious of this,” said Toby Lanzer, a UN Assistant Secretary-General and Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, who is attending the Dakar Forum.
“I had a really fascinating exchange yesterday with the National Security Advisor of Nigeria whose words were rather poignant. He spoke of the importance for the Nigerian government of reaching out and understanding the concerns of the population, addressing issues of inequality and marginalisation.”
Military issues are nonetheless on many participants’ minds some of whom were no doubt buoyed to hear that Vice-Admiral Michael Franken, the US Africa Command's Deputy for Military Operations, had told Reuters regional efforts could lead to a "significant degradation" in Boko Haram activities within six months.
The African Union is itself in the process of setting up an African Standby Force and one of its five regional brigades is set to be based in West Africa -- a welcome development in the eyes of Thomas Mandrup, an associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College who is also attending the Dakar Forum.
“It’s a great idea if the political will is there,” he said in a phone interview. “Of course its Achilles’ heel is the lack of trust among African states and lack of resources.”
In West Africa regional forces like Ecomog have played a useful role in wartorn countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia. But AU deployments have so far been “totally dependent” on foreign funding, primarily from the European Union and the United States, Mandrup explained.
The AU says members states will fund 25 per cent of the future Africa Standby Force's (AFS) one-billion-dolar budget in the name of “African solutions to African problems”.
“Why should South Africa, for instance, be more responsible for what happens in Mali than France or Spain?” Mandrup asked rhetorically. “What we are dealing with in Africa are international security problems in a globalised world. We need an international response to this and not leave it up to the Africans to do the dirty work.”
There is a growing awareness that military responses to security crises cannot be at the expense of what the UN calls a “rights-based approach”.
“There’s an acute sensitivity to the fact that this is less about winning a war than winning a peace,” Lanzer said in a phone interview from Dakar. “The authorities concerned are very conscious of the fact that upholding and reinforcing people’s human rights is the order of the day.”
Laurent Bigot, a former French diplomat, told the Dakar Forum that “a new model of governance that does not create the frustration that fuels these armed groups” is needed. In his words, “Terrorism is not a cause, it is a consequence.”
Boko Haram’s six-year-old uprising has left an estimated 20,000 people dead, according to Amnesty International. This year members of the group have stepped up their attacks across the Lake Chad region where the borders of Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet.
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011