The Sahel: The crisis in the central Sahel

In the previous blog the crises in the Sahel were introduced. This blog addresses one of these: the central Sahel crisis affecting Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. A rebellion in northern Mali, which began in 2012, was the beginning of a wider crisis and despite a strong military response, the crisis has changed and grown worse over time.   

The central Sahel crisis is an example of how a conflict situation changes and grows over a short period of time, despite military intervention and conflict resolution measures. The 2012 rebellion in northern Mali by Tuareg nationalists and jihadist allies was followed by a series of events, which included: a nationalist-jihadist split, the ouster of the Malian government in a military coup, condemnation of the coup by regional and international actors, a commitment by the Malian military to return Mali to civilian rule, a realignment by Tuareg nationalists with the government, foreign intervention, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission, and the signing of a peace deal between nationalists and the government (jihadists were not included). There was a lot going on and this cursory description only covers the period between the 16th of January 2012 and 18th June 2013.

Prior to 2012, there had been four Tuareg rebellions in the desert north of Mali since independence from France in 1960. The Tuareg claim they have been excluded from power by black African governments based in the more densely populated south. Jihadist groups had been prevalent in neighbouring Algeria for decades, becoming Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) amongst others, and the overthrow of Gaddafi and subsequent civil war had released heavy weapons into circulation. The government’s authority and reach were weak in the wide expanse of the north and the mix of Tuareg separatism and jihadist militancy was a potent mix (reflected in Ansar Dine, a predominantly Tuareg jihadist group). We should not forget socio-economic issues and food scarcity in the north, but the political situation meant that the real shock was not that there was a rebellion but said rebellion’s (temporary) success.

Fast forward to 2020 and 2021, and the situation is very different. The events of 2012 and 2013 were dramatic enough, but instead of being contained in northern Mali they have spread into southern Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The impact is being felt further afield: Mali’s neighbours on the West African coast are eying the conflagration nervously. There has also been a proliferation of jihadist groups, some of whom have merged. Farmers and pastoralists are in conflict, a factor prevalent throughout the Sahel, and linked to an increasing scarcity of fertile land. The Tuareg opposition to the government in Mali continues and there are more groups (their agreement was quick to break down). There are also armed militias, some of which were formed at the behest of the Malian and Burkinabè governments as self-defence groups, but which engage in inter-ethnic violence. On top of this are the criminal networks, with two major people smuggling routes crossing Mali, and drug and cigarette smuggling and other lucrative ventures. When a bombing happens, or a military installation is attacked it is likely to be a jihadist group. When a village, town or convoy is attacked, or humanitarian relief stolen, it is not so clear who is responsible.

The consequences are dire. There were 4122 fatalities linked to extremism in the central Sahel during 2020 alone, representing an increase of 57 percent on the previous year. Across the three countries over 2.1 million people have been displaced, and 4000 schools and 150 medical centres have been forced to close due to insecurity. This has also affected humanitarian responses in a region beset by food insecurity and suffering from land degradation related to climate change. A recent example of the sudden and brutal violence which takes place was an attack on a village in northern Burkina Faso, during which over 160 people were killed, and homes and a market were burned to the ground. While jihadists are suspected it is not known who the attackers were. The increase in fatalities in the country has been severe. There were less than 200 killings in 2018 but in 2019 there were almost 2,000.  

The security response to the crisis has also undergone change. In 2012-2013, Malian forces were backed by foreign intervention in the form of the UN authorised intervention by the African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), France (Operation Serval), and with logistics support from other countries. They were successful in retaking northern Mali and AFISMA was replaced by the United Nations Mission to Mali (MINUSMA). This is now the largest UN peacekeeping deployment, with over 13000 military personnel alone and a total complement of over 18,000. It is also the most dangerous, its troops having sustained 158 deaths and 426 serious injuries by the end of March 2021 (UN figures).

MINUSMA is there as a peacekeeping operation and is focused on security and stabilisation in Mali. French led involvement is another matter. With the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, the Sahel will also have the largest Western deployment in the world. France’s Operation Barkhane is at the forefront of this and dominates the Sahel G5 force, comprised of forces from Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. The European Union has deployed training missions to Niger and Mali and a European task force (special forces) has been deployed to support French operations in Mali (Operation Takuba). The US has also been active in the region, building an airbase in Niger, and the African Union has considered sending a force. While the Western forces are a focus of attention, the combination of Western and African troops, and the multinational contributors to the UN mission in Mali, means that the forces on the ground are a complex mix of actors working under different masters.

The presence of the Western military missions has proved controversial and much of the criticism has been towards France, as the lead country and former colonial power (MINUSMA less so as it is a UN mission). Prior to a summit in Pau, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, hinted that without support from the G5 France would consider withdrawing its troops. As summed up by the Economist: ‘The French would not be thanked for staying, but nor would they for packing up’. In a scenario not unfamiliar to students of Western interventions, France is fighting alongside government forces that are accused of having killed more civilians than the jihadists, backed the training of armed militias that have proved to be dangerous, the violence has increased, and Paris has had to turn a blind eye to governance problems. Military coups in Mali in 2020 and 2021, and Chad in 2021, are but two recent examples of problems with government legitimacy in the region. There have been popular protests in all three countries.   

There have been calls for a more multifaceted response in the central Sahel, particularly concerning the question of governance. To be fair to France and the EU, strengthening governance is part of the stabilisation strategy, which has since been revised, but there has been an emphasis on defeating jihadists and providing security at the expense of governmental reform. The Sahelian elites have allegedly proved more interested in maintaining their own power and influence, have utterly failed to deal with corruption, and are unable to maintain control over large areas of their countries. This leaves their citizens vulnerable to armed groups, jihadists, and criminals. When they have shown an interest in talking to jihadists their Western supporters have balked. As the International Crisis Group puts it, military operations should be at the service of a stabilisation strategy but since the Pau summit there has been a doubling down on the military approach. A report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel argues for a people centred approach and identifies areas for improvement. They also set targets by which improvement can be measured. Much of this is directed as the central Sahel governments. A recent letter from a group of African intellectuals called for the African Union to act more decisively in the region, coordinate the many interventions that are taking place, and act to improve governance and support dialogue. In its conclusion to a conflict assessment of the tri-border region, the Catholic Relief Services noted that Sahelians needed to rebuild the tattered social contract between the people and the state, and that peacebuilding should be the mandate and responsibility of ordinary people. In its recommendations the report also noted the need to link foreign peace actors with Sahelian knowledge. None of these rejects security measures but they do put the emphasis on political reform and African ownership of the crisis.

The international response to the crisis has in fact been more general than it is in given credit for and has had three aspects: security, development, and diplomacy. We have already seen the complexity of the security aspect, but this applies to the development and diplomacy aspects as well. As of the end of 2020 there were twenty envoys to the Sahel, including from the UN, AU, US, and many European states. There are also many forums. While the challenges facing the central Sahel are complex, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has noted that without agreement on concrete goals and a path to progress between Sahelian countries and their international partners, it does not matter how many soldiers and diplomats are involved. Having too many diplomats and forums is counterproductive and distracting. It remains to be seen if the Sahel Alliance (launched 2017, related to development) and Coalition for the Sahel (launched 2020, related to diplomacy) facilitate a more effective response.

Given the number of international actors involved and their commitment to resolving the security crisis in the central Sahel, it is not unreasonable to ask why it has gotten worse instead of better. One thing that most are agreed on is that the current strategy is heavily focused on counterterrorism and is not working. Another is that the international responses are complicated, overlap, and require consolidation. A third is that addressing governance issues is crucial. This will not remove the complex challenges facing the region, but it will make them easier to deal with.

There appears to be a common understanding on what the root causes of the crisis are and what needs to be done to resolve it but getting from one to the other is no straightforward task. The jihadists are generally treated as a symptom rather than a root cause and are seen as exploiting differences between groups, economic problems, and mistrust of the government for their own ends. They remain a key concern for the foreign governments and are a genuine problem, even when their ability to alienate people once they take power in an area and the lack of appeal of their interpretation of Islam to the Sahelian population is considered. The real root causes predate 2012 and include socio-economic issues, demographic change towards a younger population, political marginalisation, food insecurity, and the impact of climate change. The lack of security in the tri-state area is a major contributing factor, enabling all manner of non-state armed groups to exploit the population and inhibiting development and aid. That effective governance needs to return to the area is obvious, hence the focus on security, but there is more to this than combatting the jihadist groups.  

The next blog with look at how effective governance can be brought to the tri-border region. Regaining the confidence of the people and projecting authority through consent are a part of this but the measures taken would be implemented over the long-term, require the combination of international, regional, and local knowledge and resources, and work in conjunction with aid and development.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include the Economist and BBC News. The International Crisis Group report concerning the Sahel stabilisation strategy can be accessed at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/sahel/299-course-correction-sahel-stabilisation-strategy. The report by the People’s Coalition for the Sahel can be accessed at: http://www.africansecuritynetwork.org/assn/the-sahel-what-needs-to-change-new-report-by-the-peoples-coalition-for-the-sahel/. The letter from African intellectuals is available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/5/12/a-letter-from-african-intellectuals-on-the-sahel-crisis. The report from the CRS can be accessed at: https://www.crs.org/media-center/current-issues/sahel-crisis-facts-and-how-help. The CSIS brief can be accessed at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/rethinking-crisis-responses-sahel. Information for MINUSMA was obtained from the UN’s MINUSMA page. Fatalities information is from the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies: https://africacenter.org/spotlight/spike-militant-islamist-violence-africa-shifting-security-landscape/ , the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/05/suspected-extremist-attack-on-burkina-faso-village-kills-100-people , and the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-57368536.

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