A Wise Man for Sahel

10/09/2012 10:02 am ET | Updated Dec 09, 2012

Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has appointed the former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi as his special envoy to the Sahel region, a large zone between the Sahara desert and the Sudanian savanna which covers parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan and Eritrea.

The UN chief has opted for a wise man, a subtle negotiator, a consensus builder who led the European Union Commission from 1999 to 2004, a globally respected personality with a unique expertise on Africa and a bold vision of integration for what can be the continent of the future.

Perfectly at ease in Beijing, Washington, D.C., Moscow, Cairo, Pretoria or Addis Ababa, the European statesman will need a cohesive international community to stop the destabilization of the Sahelian space, but, in the aftermath of the Libyan conflict, at the time of the Syrian tragedy, facing the uncertainties of the Iranian nuclear program, Sahel could sadly become another divisive factor among the world powers too often paralyzed by mutual suspicions and reciprocal mistrust.

When Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League joint special envoy to Syria, announced that he would leave his post in August, he also revealed the level of disunity of the UN Security Council on some of the world's most pressing problems.

Mali, at war with itself, will be the focus of Prodi's complex mission. A country of 1.2 million square kilometers with a population of around 15 million inhabitants and a GDP per capita of less than 700 U.S. dollars, it is one of the world's poorest countries -- ranked 162nd by the International Monetary Fund in 2011.

Since no reasonable leader can accept the making of a "sub-Saharan Afghanistan," determined actions will have to be taken to stop Azawad -- a state which declared secession from Mali -- to be transformed into a safe haven for al Qaeda and to become a direct threat to Algeria's stability and Europe's security.

The al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Islamist group Ansar Dine led by Iyad Ag Ghaly have taken position in Azawad and, despite different backgrounds and objectives, they not only menace Bamako but also Mauritania, Niger, Chad and Libya while receiving funding, some argue, from Qatar.

For historical reasons -- Mali known then as French Sudan was a part of the French West Africa -- but also because of the number of Malians living in France -- more than 80,000 persons -- Paris, as President François Hollande explained last month to the U.N. General Assembly, considers the Malian crisis as one of its top external priorities but the French diplomacy can only support decisions which would have been formulated first by African leaders.

In this context, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), chaired by the President of Côte d'Ivoire Alassane Ouattara, is preparing an operation to help Malian troops reconquer the north -- the cities of Timbuktu and Gao -- and Mali's interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, has asked the Security Council to authorize the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.

At least four conditions are necessary for this plan to succeed: first, it will have to be under the leadership of the ECOWAS; second, it needs to be backed by the African Union and its new leader Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma but also by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation -- Mali is a founding member of the OIC; third, it needs to address in an inclusive manner the Tuareg question; and fourth, the plan has to be fully and actively endorsed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

However, on the long run, immediate African action in the north of Mali will not guarantee the stabilization of an extremely fragile region and the world powers have to create the conditions for this part of the global village to find the way of economic and social development. In Sahel, radical ideologies and obscurantism flourished on poverty and despair.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) affirms that the Sahel food and nutrition security crisis has not been funded adequately, moreover, Niger, Mali and, to a lesser extent, Chad are threatened by the possible invasion of locust swarms.

In close partnership with the African Union and the ECOWAS, the European Union, the U.S. and China could co-design a series of mechanisms to change Sahel's path and, by doing so, demonstrate that they are able to look at Africa not as a field for new forms of rivalries but as a land for synergies.

Ahead of this summer's fifth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, China announced plans to build a centre for agricultural research in the region of Koulikoro, 40 kilometers from Bamako. This is certainly a highly constructive initiative, but the development in the Sahel region of Sino-Western cooperation projects -- in water management, for example, or in education -- would carry an even more significant and promising message.

It is precisely because the eighth Secretary-General of the UN made the right choice, that a failure by Romano Prodi to unify the community of nations on such a strategic and noble cause would signal a profoundly worrisome trend, the incapacity, in a period of redistribution of global power, to generate peace and hope where they are most needed.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.