GIGA Focus Africa
Number 7 | 2020 | ISSN: 1862-3603
Since the Northern Mali war of 2012, the Sahel countries have seen substantial international aid and military involvement. Yet, the region is more fragile than ever. As jihadist groups have established themselves throughout Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, violence has escalated dramatically and states have been pushed to the brink of collapse. In August 2020, after weeks of public unrest, Mali’s government was toppled by a military coup. There is a palpable need to rethink international engagement in the Sahel region.
Policymakers in Africa and Europe must realise that governments are involved in asymmetric conflicts that they cannot win militarily. Parts of the Sahel will remain ungovernable for the foreseeable future. As the situation takes a growing toll on societies, state legitimacy and social order are eroding.
National policy and international assistance risk doing further damage, by narrowly focusing on counterterrorism, by taking sides in local conflicts, and by fuelling corruption through ill-designed development programmes. To prevent these unintended consequences, policymakers should adopt a holistic understanding of the Sahel crisis that explicitly considers the risks and consequences of military and development interventions.
Governments and their international partners still lack coherent strategies to mitigate the impacts of violent jihadism on states and societies, to strengthen state–society relations and to address growing intercommunal violence.
International involvement, including military assistance, is necessary to stop the spiral of violence and counter state fragility in the Sahel region. However, it must be centred on the objective of strengthening state–society relations. Preventing abuses against civilians and advocating for profound security-sector reform should be top priorities. Governments must begin to address growing injustices and economic grievances at the local level, to prevent further intercommunal violence. At the same time, targeted strategies need to be developed to undermine jihadists’ recruitment strategies, intimidation tactics, revenue streams, and internal cohesion.
Over the past five years, the countries of the Western Sahel region – Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger – have experienced an unprecedented escalation of violent conflict. By the numbers alone, this wave of violence dwarfs the Northern Mali civil war of 2012, with an annual death toll of 4,807 in 2019 and of 4,345 in just the first half of 2020 (author’s own calculation with data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project). To date, over 2.7 million people have been displaced (UNHCR 2020), the majority of whom are internally displaced people living in precarious conditions. The escalation of violence is centred on the border regions of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger (referred to as the larger Liptako-Gourma region) and Central Mali, but jihadist attacks have also increasingly spilled over to the east and west of Burkina Faso, as well as to the border regions of Côte d’Ivoire and Benin (see Figure 1 below).
A closer look at the types of violent events highlights several disturbing trends. The number of attacks on civilians has been increasing dramatically, eclipsing fights between armed groups and security forces (see Figure 2 below). Violence against civilians is, to a considerable extent, committed by jihadist groups. These include the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ (JNIM) in Mali and Burkina Faso and the Islamic State (IS) in Niger’s Tillaberi region and in the border regions of Burkina Faso and Mali. However, security forces and local self-defence groups are responsible for a growing share of civilian deaths (see Figure 3 below). By now, security forces and self-defence groups each account for more annual civilian deaths than jihadists, although it is possible that many attacks on civilians by the latter remain unattributed.
The current escalation of violent conflict has, without doubt, been triggered by the presence of jihadist groups. However, as social order deteriorated, misguided responses by security forces and the growing escalation of intercommunal conflicts (often involving self-defence militias) have become as much a source of violence and instability as the jihadist groups themselves. Long-standing internal crises of the Sahel states are coming to the surface and are limiting governments’ ability to cope with the jihadist threat. As insecurity continues to dominate daily life, administration and public services have been shuttered, thousands of schools closed or destroyed, and teachers and administrators have fled the area. Security forces have been put in situations for which they were never prepared, trained, or equipped, nor have they been subject to political oversight or judicial accountability. Pre-existing conflicts – particularly between pastoralist Fulani (Peulh) and agrarian communities – which had been peacefully managed for generations are now being manipulated by jihadists. This has resulted in instances of mass violence and a rapid erosion of community institutions. As the spiral of violence and retaliation escalates, governments are losing access to local communities while also facing growing levels of political discontent. Democratic institutions and public order are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. States of the region are being pushed to the brink of collapse, with jihadist groups viciously exploiting their vulnerability.
State fragility is both a cause and a consequence of violent jihadism in the Sahel. Long neglected by central governments, the border areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger were predestined to be targeted by jihadist groups, who thrive in areas where they go unchecked by governments. Effective state authority has been absent from large parts of this region for a long time (by some accounts, since the fall of the Songhay Empire in the sixteenth century). Long prior to jihadists’ involvement, illicit trans-Sahara trade – which includes the smuggling of drugs, arms, and counterfeit medicine – has had an outsized economic and political influence in the region (Gaye 2018). Human trafficking, artisanal gold mining, poaching, and the looting of archaeological artefacts complement the range of illicit and extractive activities in the area.
These activities thrive in the absence of state authority, do not require long-term investments, and are by orders of magnitude more profitable than any stationary economic activity. Thus, there have never been strong economic incentives to establish a monopoly on violence. For decades, the governments of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger instead relied on local strongmen as proxies, while corrupt political elites colluded with organised crime networks to secure a share in illicit revenues. In an essentially stateless environment, armed banditry flourished, leading to the increasing militarisation of smuggling activities and a growing circulation of weapons. In this environment, jihadist groups found not only opportunities to retreat and raise revenue, but also local communities who had little reason to work together with governments they had hardly ever experienced in positive ways.
Jihadist activity in the Western Sahel has not always targeted the state. Originally consisting mainly of North African members, jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have been present in the Western Sahel since the end of the Algerian civil war around 2002. Over the subsequent decade, the Salafi jihadist movement began to attract a heterogeneous group of local fortune-seekers and fanatics – including warlords such as former Tuareg rebel leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who went on to found the Malian group Ansar Dine. Prior to 2012, jihadist fighters operated mostly clandestinely, focusing on kidnappings as a lucrative source of revenue while avoiding openly challenging the government. In the Bush-era War on Terror, governments were able to use the presence of Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to their advantage on the international stage.
Jihadists’ decisions to challenge the state were driven by moments of political opportunity. The Northern Mali conflict, which started as a Tuareg rebellion in 2012, created a power vacuum in which several Islamist groups managed – within a matter of months – to gain control over all major cities and transportation hubs of Northern Mali and were advancing further south until they were stopped by French military intervention in 2013. Then, 2015 was a fateful year. The collapse of Blaise Compaoré’s authoritarian regime in Burkina Faso created a power vacuum, as it upended the regime’s reciprocal relationships with local strongmen – including alleged tacit arrangements with organised crime networks and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. Jihadists from Mali, under pressure from the international military presence, were actively recruiting in Burkina Faso and intimidating communities near jihadists’ areas of retreat. By 2016, Burkina Faso-based Ansarul Islam was engaged in a low-intensity war against Burkinabé security forces.
Simultaneously, the anti–Boko Haram offensive in the Lake Chad region – recapturing a territory the size of Belgium in northern Nigeria – put pressure on IS-affiliated jihadists. This accelerated the spread of IS activities into Niger’s Tillabéri region, bordering Benin, Burkina Faso, and Mali. The second Libyan civil war, in turn, created a power vacuum that enabled IS-affiliated groups to establish control over trafficking and oil exports. By 2016, IS-affiliated jihadists had thus become active in a corridor from Nigeria to the Mediterranean, while Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups were operating from the Maghreb to Burkina Faso.
The rapid expansion of jihadists’ influence in the Western Sahel depended crucially on their ability to intimidate local communities. Unlike political rebel groups, such as Tuareg and Arab separatists in Mali, jihadist groups had no mass support. Especially in a country like Burkina Faso, which has a long history of inter-religious and interethnic tolerance and local traditions of Islam that are themselves victimised by jihadists’ imported radical Salafist ideology (International Crisis Group 2017), jihadists’ social basis is thin on the ground. Yet, they were able to prevent local communities from cooperating with governments and security forces, thanks to their reputation for violence and cruelty, their access to superior weaponry, and the visible failure of security forces to stand up to them. With only relatively small numbers of local recruits, jihadist groups have succeeded in targeting opposing individuals (such as religious leaders, traditional authorities, teachers, or other people willing to resist jihadists) and projecting their power through large social networks. For example, threats of collective punishment against whole families or villages have kept local recruits from defecting. Jihadist groups have also not hesitated to use their own members as hostages vis-à-vis their families and villages. Through credible threats of retaliation and collective punishment, jihadists command an outsized ability to intimidate and compromise local communities.
To diminish state authority and establish control over lucrative revenue streams, jihadist groups have flexibly employed a number of strategies. Following an initial phase of infiltration, jihadists have used targeted attacks against state installations such as schools, police posts, and municipal offices to disrupt public order. This caused a massive exodus of civilian state representatives, widespread school closures, and a partial breakdown of public services. With security forces scrambling to regain control, hundreds of thousands of citizens have been displaced from war zones. This facilitated jihadists’ gaining control over important smuggling routes and mining sites, such as artisanal gold mines in Burkina Faso, where they displaced corrupt state agents and began to collect informal taxes (Lewis and McNeill 2019). At times, miners’ discontent with the governments’ attempts at regulation has played into the hand of jihadists.
An increasingly important part of jihadists’ wholesale assault on social order is the manipulation of pre-existing conflicts. Jihadist presence has become a factor in a whole range of social conflicts, including intergenerational strife, political and clan rivalries, protection against armed bandits, tensions between local communities and the state, and, most importantly, intercommunal and interethnic conflicts (International Crisis Group 2020a). Most consistently, jihadists have used long-standing tensions between pastoralist Fulani (Peulh) communities and local agrarian communities of different ethnic origin, such as Dogon in Mali’s Mopti region, Mossi and Gourmantché in Burkina Faso, and Hausa in Niger and Nigeria. By framing themselves as defenders of Fulani interests, jihadist groups such as Katiba Macina in Mali (which named itself after a theocratic Fulani state that existed in the early nineteenth century), Ansarul Islam in Burkina Faso and IS in Niger have fuelled the stigmatisation of Fulani – making them targets of both state repression and local conflict. Since then, armed violence between ethnic groups has increased at an alarming rate.
The emergence of community-based self-defence groups, such as the Koglwéogo in Burkina Faso, has increased the escalation potential of local conflicts. Such groups are a direct consequence of faltering state control. In Burkina Faso, the political vacuum of 2015 led to a wave of crime and armed banditry, forcing communities to take security matters into their own hands (Leclercq and Matagne 2020). In western Burkina Faso and central Mali, traditional hunter fraternities (Dozo) filled the void in local security provision and enforcement of justice, while in other areas new militias were formed. While these armed self-defence groups are often the only security provider in rural areas, their existence has increased the capacity for organised violence and thus the escalation potential of intercommunal conflicts, such as farmer–herder disputes. In response specifically ethnic self-defence militias are increasingly emerging, while jihadist groups have been trying to turn these groups against each other. On various occasions, jihadists are believed to have instigated or aggravated mass violence, by committing attacks that have then been blamed on Fulani, as in the case of the Yirgou massacre in Burkina Faso, or framing themselves as the defenders of Fulani, as Katiba Macina did in the aftermath of the Ogossagou massacre in Mali.
As jihadists seek to consolidate power in the areas under their control, anti-state propaganda and symbolic politics play a growing role. Besides being involved in security provision (for both legitimate and illegitimate activities) and the punishment of rule violators, jihadists selectively provide public goods when doing so helps them to further delegitimise the state. Jihadists pose as defenders of local or ethnic interests, attempt to co-opt locally influential individuals, and engage in brutal persecution of people accused of collaboration with the state or of violating strict religious prescriptions (International Crisis Group 2020b). As time passes, these efforts erode social cohesion and may increase resentment against the state. It may become harder and harder for governments to gain the trust of local communities that were never close to the state to begin with.
International intervention was prompted by the acute need to avert state collapse in Mali in 2013. While initially successful in fulfilling this goal, it has failed to stabilise the region as a whole. A growing consensus is emerging that, in their current form, international responses to the Sahel crisis have failed to address a central aspect of it: weak state structures, which are not only at the heart of the crisis but progressively deteriorating (Schiller 2020). At present, there is no plausible scenario in which military operations or development aid in their current forms will increase loyalty to the state in the areas most at risk from jihadist groups.
One reason is that jihadist groups in the Sahel have proved themselves extraordinary resilient, flexible, and adept at exploiting the vulnerabilities of both the state and of international security forces. As counterterrorism operations have been ramped up, jihadist groups have not only become more resourceful and sophisticated in their tactics to challenge security forces through ambushes and remote violence, but have also become more effective at profiting from illicit activities (Assanvo et al. 2019) – that alongside escalating and positioning themselves within local conflicts. As a consequence, jihadists have been able to more than offset periodic military losses through increased recruitment, drawing on a growing population of people who have suffered injustices at the hands of security forces.
Government security forces appear to have contributed more to the problem of faltering state authority than to its resolution. The counterterrorism campaign has not only exposed the vulnerability of security forces but also, especially, their failure to protect local communities, not to mention their tendency to respond with abuse, brutality, and extrajudicial killings against civilians suspected of collaborating with jihadist groups. Recurring, well-documented abuses (Human Rights Watch 2019) demonstrate that security forces are not adequately trained or monitored, and, more importantly, treat local populations as enemies rather than allies in the fight against jihadist groups. Meanwhile, military capacity-building via the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) Mali has focused on narrow tactical and defensive skills – which were already of questionable use in an asymmetric conflict setting. EUTM Mali has addressed neither the need to prevent abuses against civilians and local communities nor the root causes of corruption and dysfunctionality in the military. Given that asymmetric warfare against jihadist groups can only succeed with information from and cooperation with the local population, the balance of counterterrorism operations is devastatingly out of kilter. Security forces have not only failed to leverage whatever willingness to cooperate there may have been in frontline communities, but they have also fostered a growing sense of grievance and frustration among those affected.
International actors have remained complicit, as governments have contributed to the ethnicisation of the conflict by intervening via local proxies, targeting specific groups (especially Fulani), and by failing to decisively counter growing anti-Fulani resentment in society and public discourse. For example, Niger’s military cross-border cooperation with Malian rebel groups in 2017–2018 that was perceived as anti-Fulani weakened the government’s position among Fulani in Niger (International Crisis Group 2020b). The day-to-day harassment and general suspicion experienced by Fulani populations, as well as abuses by security forces (such as summary executions by the Burkinabé military; Human Rights Watch 2019), have increased resentment, discontent, and a sense of marginalisation. Government attempts to address this issue have regularly fallen short. For example, Niger has made attempts to bridge divides between security forces and local populations by integrating local recruits into state security forces. However, these efforts appear to have largely failed due to a lack of trust – as well as to favouritism and the non-transparent awarding of posts (International Crisis Group 2020b: 10). In Burkina Faso, attempts to delegate enforcement tasks to local self-defence militias have amounted to taking sides in local conflicts, thus further eroding government legitimacy (International Crisis Group 2020a: 22ff.).
Despite commitments to “integrated” approaches to security and development, international actors have, in practice, mostly focused on singular political objectives – be they counterterrorism, migration control, or development. Rhetorically, the integration of security, development, migration, and climate change-mitigation policy in the Sahel plays a prominent role, but this purported integration exists only at a very high level of abstraction. On the ground, these efforts are neither coordinated nor necessarily compatible, and fraught with logical gaps. For example, it is often maintained that creating economic opportunities for youth contributes to security by reducing vulnerability to jihadist recruitment. In practice, this is a far-fetched argument. First, there is a mismatch between the scale of the problem and the capacity of traditional development aid to resolve it in the short term. Second, the geographic foci of employment and economic opportunity programmes differs from the loci of jihadist activity. Conflict-affected areas remain out of reach for most traditional development programmes, due to security concerns. Third, the number of people recruited into jihadist groups is actually very small. While there is little data on jihadist fighters’ actual motivation to join, anecdotal evidence points more to past experiences of injustice rather than mere economic co-optation (International Crisis Group 2017). The gap between assumptions and local realities of “integrated” policy approaches thus seems to be significant.
Finally, international engagement lacks a convincing and legitimising narrative that is powerful enough to counter the widespread scepticism and growing public resentment against international actors. For example, in view of the Malian experience, Burkina Faso’s government faces domestic pressures that make it nearly impossible to publicly commit to an international military presence – perhaps for good reasons. The scope for cooperation would increase if international actors had a clear political strategy supported by a large public majority in each country.
Faced with the accelerating erosion of state capacity and social order in the Sahel region, governments and the international community now have to confront an uncomfortable truth: The damage done by jihadist groups is irreversible in the short-term, and current approaches offer no way to end the problem or return to the previous status quo. Like in Afghanistan, a military victory in the asymmetric war against jihadists remains elusive (Michailoff 2018). Militarily, it may be possible to displace jihadists from a particular area. However this will not necessarily diminish the problem, as jihadist groups remain highly mobile and are becoming more and more a pan-African phenomenon. For the years to come, governments of the Sahel region and their international partners should therefore expect to live with a lingering presence of jihadist groups not just in the Western Sahel but in many parts of the African continent, from the Maghreb to Mozambique. Given this reality, it is important to develop effective strategies to minimise the impacts of violent jihadism on states and societies, to prevent the region from devolving into further violence and state failure.
Going forward, governments and their international partners should focus on damage control: Making state structures and local communities resilient enough to carry on, even as they are under continued threat by jihadist groups. This will require several strategic readjustments: First, stopping practices that further undermine state legitimacy, especially abuses and repression by security forces. Second, taking action to defuse the potential for intercommunal violence, by addressing growing injustices and economic grievances and (re-)establishing a basic social contract between states and local communities. Third, designing security policy on the basis of realistic assumptions and from a long-term perspective.
To stop governments from further undermining their own legitimacy, international actors have an essential role to play. Given security forces’ lack of domestic political accountability, the political pressure and the resources to address this issue must come from the international community instead. Abuses and repression against civilians should be raised at the highest political levels, and international support should be conditional on their cessation. However, in addition, governments must be put in a position to overcome political resistance to security-sector reform.
Since the Northern Mali conflict of 2012, the corruption, incapacity, and unaccountability of security forces have been correctly identified as among the central obstacles to stabilising the state and countering the jihadist threat. Yet despite these well-known issues, no progress has been achieved in terms of security-sector reform, possibly because of international hesitation to meddle with the internal political affairs of government partners. Within the domestic political scene, however, militaries have proven powerful enough to suppress any initiatives seeking comprehensive security-sector reform. The military’s siding with anti-government protesters in Burkina Faso in 2014 and in Mali in 2020 has given the former further leeway to evade political accountability: public pressure tends to crystallise more around economic grievances and civilian corruption than civil–military relations. Poorly resourced investigative media and civil society organisations fight an uphill battle for accountability, while growing militarism mutes criticism in public discourse. In this political environment, international actors have a pre-eminent role to play in advocating for security-sector reform, in developing a political vision for it, and in fostering a coalition of civilian government and civil society strong enough to stand up to pushback from military leaders.
To address the erosion of social order in conflict-affected areas, security and development policy should be reoriented towards (re-)establishing a basic social contract between the state and local communities.
The prevention of intercommunal violence should be a top priority, due to its high escalation potential. In this respect, it will be essential to address the ambivalent role of self-defence militias. The latter have become increasingly responsible for civilian deaths and abuses, but they also fill a critical gap in local security, while being informally accountable to their communities and often perceived as more legitimate than state security forces (International Crisis Group 2020a). What they currently lack is the commitment and capacity to de-escalate local conflicts and to contribute to conflict management and reconciliation. Where disarmament does not find local support, it might be more successful to promote cross-ethnic integration, conflict management, and the de-escalation capacity of self-defence groups.
New institutional approaches must be found to minimise the unintended consequences of counterterrorism operations. For example, elected local governments and other local stakeholders could be given a role in their planning and monitoring. In Burkina Faso, for instance, elected local governments are the only democratically legitimated authorities at the local level. Yet, they are reduced to passive accomplices to the security forces, as they are ordered to provide input to and information for security operations by the police, gendarmerie, or military, but are rarely (if ever) consulted about their goals and outcomes. This erodes their already fragile legitimacy in the eyes of the local population.
Governments must find ways to increase responsiveness to local needs in areas that are at risk of being destabilised by jihadist groups. For example, central governments could consider deploying local coordinators of government responses who are tasked with assessing communities’ needs and grievances and initiating fast-tracked reactions from central government structures, aid organisations, and non-governmental organisations. To be effective, local coordinators would need to report directly to the highest levels of government, bypassing regional administrative structures and line ministries. They would also have to be free of conflicts of interest and would need to be protected against retaliation from jihadists.
Overcoming the isolation of conflict-affected and at-risk communities should be a central priority for development policy. The disruption of economic ties, administrative services, and political representation has left many communities vulnerable to intimidation by jihadists, and created socially and economically precarious situations that the latter were able to exploit. To counter this, governments and aid organisations could prioritise policy measures that safeguard the transportation of people and goods in and out of at-risk areas, secure market access, and improve cell phone and mobile Internet coverage where necessary. Methods of remote administration and service delivery could be developed to mitigate the impacts of forced displacement, abandonment of public infrastructures, and public health restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the medium-term, investments in paved roads that are secured by surveillance technology might help to reduce vulnerability to attacks, while also providing opportunities for local job creation.
Finally, combatting violent jihadist groups in the Sahel requires gradual, long-term strategies.
Negotiation and conflict de-escalation with jihadist groups are increasingly being considered by Mali and Niger, whereas France and Burkina Faso continue to reject it categorically (Thurston 2020). Rather than dismissing negotiations from the outset, international actors could consider the possibility that they might actually weaken jihadist groups in the long run, by incentivising them to limit their areas of operation or to refrain from escalating intercommunal conflicts, or by deepening internal rifts between fanatics and opportunists.However since negotiations with jihadists can, at best, mitigate the symptoms of the crisis, governments should be careful not to make concessions that limit their ability to re-design their intervention strategies and to rebuild their authority in the long run.
A better understanding of jihadists’ strategic decision-making could go a long way in reducing their ability to inflict harm on states and societies. This requires some mental flexibility from political decision-makers. Rather than portraying jihadist groups as an abstract, amorphous threat that ought to be countered with the comprehensive and uncompromising presence of security forces, greater emphasis could be placed on pre-empting likely targets, minimising vulnerability, and preventing individual attacks from having broader social consequences.
To target jihadists’ ability to recruit new members, various forms of counter-recruitment could be explored. This would involve identifying the people who are most likely to be targeted by jihadists, especially those who have suffered injustice at the hands of the state or local actors, redress their grievances if possible, and recruit them for the state’s efforts to combat jihadism. Counter-recruitment efforts could also focus on motivating defection from jihadist groups, as well as infiltrating them.
Finally, greater importance should be placed on undercutting jihadists’ revenue sources, weakening their internal cohesion, and countering their intimidation and recruitment strategies. In this respect, methods from combatting organised crime may prove more effective against jihadist groups in the Sahel than military counter-insurgency operations. This may involve infiltrating and observing these groups, strengthening intelligence on their supply chains, sources of financing, and social interactions, and exploring possibilities of weakening their internal cohesion or creating conditions under which rival factions are more likely to turn against each other. Most importantly, it requires gaining the trust of ordinary citizens and protecting those who stand up against jihadist intimidation.
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