Throughout the Maghreb and Sahel regions of Africa, many communities are struggling under the strain of new patterns of violence that emerged after the Arab Spring as well as episodic cycles of violence that have resurfaced every few years for several decades. The following piece offers key takeaways from a series of recent events—a forum on Insecurity and Militancy in the Sahel and West Africa and a conference on Militancy and Conflict in the Sahel and Maghreb—hosted by the Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network in collaboration with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization.

Though the region’s conflicts vary from country to country, community to community—and how they might be resolved depends greatly on this local context—this piece will be limited to a few, relatively pervasive, common threads. The new patterns of conflict, such as the violence perpetrated by radical Islamist militants, and the pre-existing cycles of violence in the Sahel and Maghreb region appear distinct, but may stem from largely similar causes and historical trends. Long-standing but previously low-level grievances among groups within communities have been brought to their breaking points and expressed through increasingly violent methods as this tension increases. Moreover, the ease with which conflict has moved throughout these regions has connected previously isolated regions to one another through these emerging and shifting patterns of violence.

Conflict over land use and natural resources—including water and grazing areas—has been exacerbated of late due to climate change, population growth, and increased displacement and migration. Amplifying these issues, many of these conflicts occur in regions that have been historically neglected by state governments, either predominantly rural areas or towns far from the locus of power embodied in each capital city. Simply responding to this type of conflict with increased military force and securitization of the state will do little to address any of these underlying causes.

As such, extremist groups have been able to co-opt many grievances against the state or among various groups within a community for their own purposes. Rather than discussing issues of political representation or land and resource usage, they represent these grievances through religious or ethnic rhetoric. Alongside other tactics, this discursive manipulation heightens the stakes of a conflict by expressing it through religious, ethnic, or cultural identities—rather than the underlying issues—leaving significantly less space for reconciliation and mutual understanding.

National governments, too, may benefit from linking local grievances and rebellion to regional or international terrorism. They are more likely to receive foreign funds to boost their military capacity as part of the global “War on Terror” and less likely to be punished within the international community for harsher security measures and near-constant “states of emergency” within their countries, which may entail human rights violations and restrictions on civil liberties.

The role of national governments and their military and police forces in preventing and resolving conflicts has been complicated by their legacy of neglect and/or predatory behavior towards many of the communities that have been most affected by the outbreaks of violence. As Anouar Boukhars (2011, 36) has argued, “In Morocco, extreme poverty, made worse by decades of state neglect, increased dissatisfaction with the government and provided an opening for extremists.”

This concept of state neglect, or the appearance of “ungoverned spaces” throughout the region, has led extremist, non-state armed groups to capitalize on pre-existing distrust of national governments by communities within many of these spaces. Scholars have noted similar patterns of this throughout Libya, Mali, and Nigeria. Given the lack of a strong government presence throughout many of these areas, these groups are able to control vast swaths of rural regions while leaving governments in control of various urban centers. This has led to the “nimble” nature of extremist groups, which are able to retreat and re-arm beyond the government’s reach, lending them longevity in the fight against government forces, even with the government’s often far-superior military capacity.

Consequently, an exclusively military fight against these groups—such as Boko Haram, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as it has moved into Libya, and others—is ultimately an unsustainable project if not accompanied by other reforms. For example, Boko Haram has been pushed out of many areas of Nigeria by the efforts of its national military and its civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), effectively local vigilante self-defense groups. However, civil servants and state services have not returned (if they were ever there) to many of these areas over which the government has regained control, providing little incentive for displaced persons to return to their homes and establishing an environment of minimal economic and social security for residents.

As Eric Schmitt of the New York Times has emphasized, military force might kill terrorists, but terrorism itself will not be extinguished without a holistic, non-military response. With regard to international intervention and policy towards the region, this might look like greater diplomatic engagement or funding for programs beyond the customary security sector, such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure provision. Solutions presented by national governments might equally focus on delegating more funds to state and local governments or increasing and equalizing their provision of these services throughout all regions of a country.

Foreign and national governments alike often cite local corruption as a cause for avoiding the devolution and delegation of resources and decisions about their use. While these may not be entirely baseless claims, they are tied to more complex local factors and not necessarily sufficient rationale for abstaining altogether from non-military engagement.

Even with some attrition due to corruption, given the vast sums spent on current military operations, a turn towards this approach may present an overall savings in the long-term. Regardless, without investment in more effective and inclusive governance, civil institutions, and infrastructure, prolonged conflict seems inevitable. This will not only lead to continued military expenses and economic damage to the region, but also the protraction of the irreparable trauma and loss of life faced by its people due to the conflicts.

Foreign aid, in support of both military and non-military ends, should thus be tied to accountability for its use, as well as various measures of local development, particularly in rural areas, and justice. National governments must do more to understand local concepts of security for communities within their countries—what does security look like, who is providing it, and whom is being served by it? Only by first identifying these factors can governments move towards a more inclusive and holistic understanding of security, and in turn, ensure the security and well-being of their people.