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The Sahel has long been one of Africa’s most fragile regions, but the growing insecurity associated with the 2012 Malian crisis has exacerbated chronic vulnerabilities. Although the Malian crisis has been extensively studied since its outbreak in January 2012, its far-reaching consequences for the region are poorly documented. To examine the regional effect of the crisis, SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme and its partners in the G5 Sahel countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger—conducted research during August until November 2019. This blog provides an overview of the findings of this qualitative research and serves as an introduction to a series of forthcoming SIPRI publications.
The genesis of a regional crisis
The fall of the Libyan regime in 2011 and the return of hundreds of combatants to Mali and Niger contributed significantly to the destabilization of the Sahel region. However, these factors cannot account for the speed or the intensity of the crisis. The crisis primarily builds on structural factors of fragility—including weak states, poverty, and pre-existing inter-community tensions. It is compounded by other situational factors associated with the emergence of armed (religious) groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) in weakly governed territories. Since 2001, international security forces (e.g. the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and the Sahel Plan) have established themselves in the northernmost regions of the Sahel with their key priority being to combat terrorist organizations. However, their performance and actions have indirectly fuelled mistrust between them, local populations and central governments.
The Malian crisis prompted several other international security operations. These included interventions by Operation Serval and the Armed Forces for the Chadian Intervention in Northern Mali (FATIM), both in 2013. Later, in 2014, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) and the G5 Sahel joint force were mobilized. Nevertheless, the situation has continued to deteriorate and the crisis has taken on a regional dimension. Border regions—especially the Liptako–Gourma region which borders Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and the Lake Chad Basin—are among the most affected areas.
SIPRI research findings revealed that the drivers and impacts of the crisis vary between countries. While Burkina Faso is now the new epicentre of the crisis, other countries—particularly Mauritania and, to a lesser extent, Chad—are seemingly more resilient. However, they are struggling to mitigate the economic and social effects. Last, Niger is torn between various crisis hotspots and is engaged in several military operations both domestically and abroad.
Burkina Faso: The invisible state
As the second-largest troops-contributing country to the MINUSMA in Mali in 2020, Burkina Faso is now exposed to the regional threat. The first AQIM attacks in this country occurred three years after the outbreak of the crisis in Mali. They were related to the kidnapping of a foreign worker in north-eastern Burkina Faso in April 2015 and the attack on a cafe in the capital city, Ouagadougou, in January 2016. Now, the country is under constant pressure from armed groups. In 2019, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reported 399 events associated with actions by state security forces or militant groups and that caused 1800 fatalities. Despite several military-led operations in 2019, the situation remains volatile. Arbitrary arrests and executions by Burkina Faso’s forces have led to distrust between the central government and populations. The weak presence of the state provides fertile ground for inter-community conflicts (mostly between the Mossi and Fulani ethnic groups) and religious tensions.
These pressures come at a time when economic outlooks are not promising. The poverty rate in Burkina Faso remains high with the country ranked 182 out of 189 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index. This is despite Burkina Faso being Africa’s fourth-largest producer of gold and having an estimated GDP growth rate of 6 per cent in 2019. The country’s national wealth is unevenly distributed. SIPRI research findings show that although some 20 per cent of Burkina Faso’s livestock is concentrated in the Sahel region—characterized by its grassy savannah—the local population are constantly subject to food shortages and receive limited support from the government. The absence of state authorities also limits service delivery. Since 2016, 2300 schools have been closed, affecting 325 245 pupils. The limited presence of state authorities has also left communities with limited protection (765 000 internally displaced people countrywide) and has opened the doors to the proliferation of armed groups and militias. The government’s formal or informal support to some of these armed groups (e.g. the Koglweogo militia group) is a clear indication of the weakness and dismay of the state toward the rapidly deteriorating situation.
Mauritania: The last security bastion in a turbulent G5 region?
At the crossroad of the Maghreb and the Sahel, Mauritania shares a border with Mali. With no geographic obstacles to limit the cross-border movement of people and goods, the two countries have long-developed ties at the human, religious (brotherhoods) and economic levels (transhumance corridors, fairs and markets). The Malian crisis has direct repercussions for Mauritania’s border populations, especially in terms of their security and the rising commodity and labour prices. SIPRI research findings reveal that most of Mauritania is now stable. This is despite the country being severely affected by terrorism with 17 terrorist attacks during 2005–11 (6 of which were recorded in Nouakchott). The exception to this is the Wagadu forest near the border with Mali which still serves as a tactical withdrawal by non-state armed groups. Despite the presence of hundreds of Malian refugees and the structural problems of governance and development, Mauritania has adopted a proactive and yet deterrent security policy. The current stability is partly due to the fact that since 2009, the northern regions of the country have been declared as ‘exclusive military zones’ and contain mobile patrols including patrols by multiple private security companies. Moreover, local communities have put in place several initiatives to tackle the consequences of the Malian crisis. These include local mediation efforts by religious Hamallist leaders and marriage strategies between community members living on both sides of the border between Mali and Mauritania.
Niger: The epitome of the Sahel’s challenges
Stretched between several crisis zones (Mali, Liptako–Gourma and the Lake Chad Basin), Niger faces most of the current challenges experienced by the other states in the region. Niger’s armed forces are involved in MINUSMA in Mali and are a part of the regional Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram (MNJTF). They are also involved in the northeast region at the Libyan Border to monitor the cross-border traffic that has played a prominent role in the regional destabilization. Because of old connections, the situation in Mali has a direct impact on Niger’s stability. SIPRI research findings show that Niger’s economy has progressively become unformalized and criminalized, especially in peripheral areas. The crisis also has led to a deterioration of the relationships between communities and a weakening of traditional intermediate powers due to the new and growing influence of non-state (armed) groups. The arrival of refugees has forced authorities to manage the local economy and to avoid the disruption of local dynamics and tensions between locals and foreign communities around natural resources.
Chad: Military activism vs. economic austerity
Chad is located at the crossroads of the Maghreb and the regions of West, Central and East Africa. The country is surrounded by security hotspots—Darfur, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Libya, and the Lake Chad basin—and has a history of military involvement in regional operations. Chad has been involved with both FATIM and MINUSMA since 2013 in Mali, and also with the MNJTF to fight Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region since 2015. SIPRI research has revealed that—from a security perspective—Chad’s military operations have increased the country’s exposure to terrorist threats. This was particularly felt following the attacks in the Lakes Province and N’Djamena in 2015. The subsequent reactions from the government culminated in strong measures including anti-terrorist legislation prohibiting, for example, the wearing of burqas and turbans.
At the economic level, Chad has remained stuck in a cycle of recession since at least 2015. The significant fall in oil prices against the backdrop of a deteriorating security situation has prompted the adoption of ‘16 austerity measures’. These policies threaten people’s livelihoods and exacerbate their vulnerability, particularly in remote areas. For security reasons, some regions are designated as ‘red-zones’ and face restrictions on seasonal migration. Moreover, the arrival of refugees and transiting migrants have increased local tensions over resources (e.g. agricultural goods, pastureland, and water) and disrupted the internal equilibrium of local communities.
In sum, the prevailing insecurity has increased the vulnerability of the Sahel countries, which were already grappling with structural fragility due to their weak states. With various armed groups operating in peripheral regions, the subsequent control of border areas remains the main challenge facing the Sahel countries. The local context of the Sahel is fluid and shifts rapidly. This is why SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme monitors and documents security and social dynamics at the local levels in order to provide evidence-based analysis that can help interested stakeholders to maximize the impacts of their programmes and stabilization strategies. The G5 Sahel research project is a key part of this endeavour.
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