To fight hate and violence in the Sahel, we need to talk more

Born from distorted interpretations of culture as well as from hatred and ignorance, violence by armed groups threatens the very foundations of our societies, tearing us apart and weakening collaboration between communities. Worryingly, the Global Peace Index 2022 reported a 17 percent increase in such attacks in 2021.

The Sahel region has been particularly affected. Fragile governance and instability, only furthered by recent coups in the region, have left spaces for armed groups and non-state actors to thrive. A complex network of such outfits operates in the Sahel – groups with official links to al-Qaeda or the ISIL (ISIS) armed group, others focused on local issues and still others emerging as responses to specific situations and events.

Citizens in the Sahel live with a very real and constant fear of armed attacks. According to the 2021 Afrobarometer (pdf), one in 10 citizens in Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and Mali has personally experienced them. The region accounted for 35 percent of global “terrorism” deaths in 2021 with half of the 10 deadliest attacks last year occurring in Burkina Faso and Niger.

This violence compounds the region’s other challenges, with 1.6 million people experiencing a food security crisis and 1.9 million people internally displaced, according to the United Nations.

Fortunately, we know that there is a tool that can help combat hatred and ignorance and heal some of the wounds that, if left bleeding, can fracture societies. In addition to improving living conditions, we need to talk.

Intercultural Dialogue is when different groups commit to engaging in meaningful and open communication – creating connections and breaking down barriers. It has been used around the world, particularly in the Sahel, in conflict zones. Now, for the first time, data has been established that this approach works. A new report based on UNESCO’s data – We Need To Talk’ – underscores just how effective dialogue can be.

Between 2015 and 2019, 69 percent of attacks by armed groups and 89 percent of deaths from such incidents globally occurred in countries where dialogue was stalling. Countries with higher levels of dialogue see greater peace and stronger protection of human rights.

Dance as dialogue

So what does intercultural dialogue really look like? There is perhaps no better example than Chadian choreographer Taïgué Ahmed’s initiative, Refugees on the Move (ROM). Launched by Ahmed and his association Ndam Se Na, which means “let’s dance together”, ROM uses dance as a tool for social and cultural mediation in refugee camps.

The idea is to help refugees deal with trauma, reduce violence in camps where different communities from possibly opposing sides reside and create links between them as well as with local populations. Today, ROM is supported by the African Artists for Development Fund and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. ROM runs programmes in refugee camps across Africa, including in Burkina Faso and Chad in the Sahel.

In a recent interview on UNESCO’s Artlab podcast, Ahmed highlighted the transformative power of intercultural dialogue. “Refugees, when they dance, we see them as artists, which is already positive,” he said. “We see this exchange between them and the population … which creates a link of trust, decreasing conflicts and helping integration”.

UNESCO’s Initiative for Enabling Intercultural Dialogue, launched in partnership with the Institute for Economics and Peace, is a testament to the agency’s belief in the power of intercultural dialogue. The new framework offers communities a guide on how to maximise change. If we take advantage of this important data, we will see improvements in our world.

When we stop talking, solutions to tensions and conflict become impossible. When we stop talking, hatred and ignorance thrive. Intercultural dialogue offers an alternative. As the new framework shows, it is effective, and ought to be expanded in the Sahel and beyond.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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