The Sahel-Saharan Citizens’ Assembly recently ended on October 7, 2010 in the historical town of Ayoun, in Mauritania, right in the midst of the Sahel-Saharan region and not very far away from the border with Mali and Senegal. We are writing from the Nuakchott airport to give you the “fresh” news and to share this true social, political and cultural event that we have just experienced with all of you. Mamadou Niang and his team did a fantastic job. There were about a hundred participants, with strong Senegalese participation and a small but very active Mali presence.
The least we can say, to begin with, is that the trip to get to the city of Ayoun is a true adventure in itself! Ayoun and Nuakchott, the capital of Mauritania, communicate through an 820 km paved road (called the road of Hope) which spreads beautifully through the intact semi-arid landscapes of the Mauritanian south. The herd of camels, the goats and the cows cross the road at will. At night, animals make themselves comfortable and take over the pavement to make good use of the sun’s heat which accumulates on it throughout the day. On the background, you can see the tents of the nomad shepherds, at times set up on the dunes and at some other times on the green pastures of the prairies, and the towns with their entourage of market stalls and street vendors.
Aboard the bus the first words are exchanged so that the participants get to know one another, together with the traditional tea and some bottled of water to fight the heat. More than just for traveling, the road is above all both an exchange and a living space. In fact, a major part of the Senegalese delegation, temporarily blocked by migration controls on the Kaedi border post, spent the night outdoors, on the side of the road.
The last third of the road, right before getting to Ayoun (250 km), is full of potholes and obstacles which the experienced truck and car drivers prefer to avoid by taking roads in between the dunes which run parallel to the route. Some of the participants, especially those coming from Tombouctou, had to travel about 2,500 km by bus, taxi or trucks, to avoid the dangerous areas of armed conflict in the north of Mali. After being blocked in the border, the Senegalese delegates from various riverside communes along the Senegal river had to take roads which went right through the desert, not only to avoid the much too frequent police controls, but also so as not to waste their money in the regular petty extortions exerted by custom officials and policemen.
Despite the long way to get to Ayoun, the quality of the greeting received and warmth with which we were welcomed soon made us forget how tired we were. From the very first day we could enjoy evenings in which dancing was part of a direct conversation among peoples. We were aware that for many African peoples dancing is a privileged form of expression, and the meeting in Ayoun turned out to be exceptional in that respect.
As regards the logistics, all of the participants were housed in the same hotel complex of Saada Tenzah. The meals, the evenings, the plenary sessions and the workshops were also carried out in the same campsite, most of the times under the traditional Sahel tents. All of these elements gave the meeting a significant flow and “circularity” and made sure that all of the participants were in permanent contact.
Three issues were identified as key to be dealt with in depth in the exchanges and proposals during the assembly. Let us not forget that a previous two-year job through caravans coordinated in various cities inside Mauritania and in the riverside communes of Senegal had allowed for the identification, in advance, of six key issues in common among all the peoples of the region. In order to focus the debates within the assembly, the organizers chose three of them:
- 1. Women’s role and position within the Sahel-Saharan society: in relation with education, health, the economy, politics, religion and family. As regards the position that women hold within the political system, it was pointed out that, among other proposals, female candidatures for the presidency of Sahel-Saharan countries should be supported.
- 2. Governance, democracy and citizenship: several reflections and proposals were put forward to strengthen the Sahel-Saharan space beyond the borders of the national state system, reasserting at the same time the role of the State to guarantee development and basic services.
- 3. The change of the economic and energy system towards a model that prioritizes renewable energies, especially solar energy. It is necessary for it to respond to various needs: those of the people as well as to the agricultural needs, the cattle-raising needs and the needs for transportation between Sahel-Saharan town and cities.
The assembly was deeply rooted in the civil society organizations of the region. It was also especially followed by political and religious institutions and by peasants and farmers’ organizations, trader groups and those people in charge of international organizations active in the Sahel-Sahara. The governor of the Ayoun region wanted to attend the opening and closing sessions with several members of his cabinet and he explicitly promised to look into the proposals which came up in the three workshops which took place during the three days. The national Congress representative of the Ayoun region coordinated the workshop on women and society and participated intensely in the conversations. Finally, we should also stress the very active presence, from beginning to end, of the five imams (religious leaders), representatives of the 40 mosques in Ayoun and the region.
On the final day, very much like in the Asian Assembly of Bangalore (in August, 2010), instead of organizing just one final plenary session, we chose to implement a “decentralized plenary session”. The participants circulated from one workshop to another, received feedback from the facilitators and spokespeople of the work done the day before and continued to enrich the debates. This form of work enabled to concentrate more on the depth of the exchanges than on the rather static plenary discussions which often enough fail to express the wealth of the collective debates by means of a synthesis report. The final plenary session was aimed, then, at the construction of the future and at continuing with this adventure.
Apart from the gratitude usually shown, the participants clearly felt that we had just gone through an unprecedented meeting, that the Sahel-Saharan Citizens’ Assembly process is a new, long adventure and that they themselves, the citizens of this vast region, had begun to follow a new caravan in which they could all become the architects of their own destiny. Mohamed Goudiaby, a Senegalese participant, poetically described it during the assembly closure, when a sudden rain had just cooled the Ayoun soil: “We’ve just planted a young tree and the rain has come to show us the way: she’s the first to water our plant. Now it’s our turn to keep on moving so that this tree grows and manages to bear fruit in the different regions”.