Sahel in the Spiral of Violence

Niger soldier Niger soldier AFP

8 March 2020

Sahel has been the centre of a spiral of violence that is focused around armed groups, jihadist terrorism, and intra-ethnic conflict

The Sahel is a southern, semi-arid region below the Sahara, that encompasses several states, from northern Senegal on the Atlantic coast, through parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and into Sudan and Eritrea in the Red Sea. 

In addition to the severe climate shifts that have interested the region for some years, with periods of drought that affect the already vulnerable population residing in it, a so-called “fireball of conflict” hit the area since 2012. An alliance of Sahel’s jihadist groups, which was largely contained to the northern part of the country until then, joined forces with separatist Tuareg rebels to take over several strategic towns, including the city of Timbuktu. This prompted a military intervention by France to stop their advance towards the capital, Bamako, and prevent a total collapse of the Malian state. From 2012, the area has seen the rise of two main jihadist groups, the al-Qaeda-linked Jama’at Nasr al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the ISIL-affiliated Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Other groups operating in the region include al-Mourabitoun, Ansarul Islam, Plateforme, Ansar al-Din, and Boko Haram. 

Focusing on Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, we can observe how, as of now, the level of violence may qualify as ethnic cleansing: jihadist groups are manipulating inter-communal conflicts, exploiting the region’s ethnic fault lines to stir violence that can be far deadlier than anything the militants are doing directly themselves. Governments have also helped local militias thrive, allowing, and in some cases, encouraging the proliferation of communal militia groups - decisions that are coming home to roost as inter-communal conflicts rise. It is a reality that civilians look to jihadists for support the state doesn’t provide, as it happens to be that jihadist groups often understand the social grievances of local communities. Indeed, a recent study by the peacebuilding charity International Alert attributes the rise in violent extremism in the Sahel to weak states rather than religious ideology. On the other side, instead, civilians are even becoming casualties of security forces, as reported by The New Humanitarian, that add to insecurity by killing them during counter-terrorism operations. In Burkina Faso, military forces are killing three times more civilians than jihadists. Furthermore, displacement, food insecurity, and other humanitarian crises are escalating, but resources to respond are lacking: some 5.1 million people require humanitarian assistance, and the new violence is “compounding” already existing needs and “threatening civilians’ lives and livelihoods”, a UN official said. Since 2013, when French intervention dislodged jihadist and Tuaregs, the militants have regrouped, and insurgencies have spread into central Mali. 2018 saw the highest body count since the conflict began in 2012, and the situation has continued to deteriorate in 2019, with 133,000 people displaced since January. Most of the violence is concentrated in the centre and involves armed members of the Fulani community - which is accused of joining and harbouring jihadists - and Dogon and Bambara militia groups. In March 2019, at least 157 Fulani men, women, and children were killed in a single attack by a Dogon militia in central Mali. 

In Burkina Faso, we can argue that the country has never experienced mass displacement or conflict like this before. It had been struggling with a jihadist insurgency since 2016 in the north, along its porous border with Mali. But last year, militants spread to the country’s eastern and southwestern regions, within touching distance of several countries, along West Africa’s coastline. As the militants gain ground, the number of attacks is multiplying and the response from the army is becoming increasingly brutal. Like Mali, the crisis has developed into a broader inter-communal conflict that pits stigmatised Fulani communities against a patchwork of ethnic militias. The number of people unrooted has meanwhile skyrocketed to 160,000, with more than 100,000 fleeing in the past five months alone. For what concerns Niger, in the end, the humanitarian crisis unfolding along the country’s western frontier, which borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, is unfortunately largely invisible. Jihadist groups based in the area hit the headlines in October 2017 after killing four US soldiers. They have since faced military operations by Nigerian forces, supported by French and US troops, as well as Malian militia groups, but these have failed to nullify the threat, and the targeting of Fulani herders by militias has revived age-old inter-communal tensions. Daily violence and a climate of fear have now uprooted 70,000 people, many into areas aid workers struggle to access. As noted by The New Humanitarian, the unrest represents a second border crisis for a country still facing the longer-running threat of Boko Haram in the southeast Diffa region. 

In the midst of all of this, a multinational military force funded by international donors, including the United States and Europe, comprising of troops contributed by the G5 Sahel regional body - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger - intervened to try to solve the situation, but has not succeeded to halt the violence since it began its operations in 2017, amid persistent funding shortfalls and coordination disputes. In early February, France announced it was expanding its military presence in the region and sending an additional 600 troops to its existing 4500 strong-mission. 

This came after a France-G5 Sahel summit in January ended with leaders agreeing to the creation of a new structure aimed at bringing the two parties’ forces together under a single command, as well as facilitate joint operations and improve intelligence sharing. During the summit in Pau, French president Emmanuel Macron also sought a clear declaration by his counterparts confirming their preference for France’s military engagement at a time of rising anti-French sentiment in some of these countries, amid the swiftly deteriorating security situation.

Moreover, in September, leaders of the regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) announced a billion-dollar plan to help in the fight against armed groups: the financial aid is expected to run between 2020 and 2024, amid concerns by several West African countries of also been hit by attacks.  


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Author: Pasquale Candela; Editor: Shrabya Ghimire

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