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The high cost of insecurity: The case of Hodh el Gharbi in Mauritania

Livestock in the Sahel.
Livestock in the Sahel.

From January until November 2019, SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme and its research partners in the Sahel region have documented the spillover effects of the 2012 Malian crisis. This blog builds on the findings of research carried out by SIPRI and its partners in Mauritania during September 2019 and uses semi-structured interviews that were conducted in the administrative region of Hodh el Gharbi which is located in the south east of Mauritania bordering Mali. The blog post provides an overview of the impact that the Malian crisis has had on Hodh el Gharbi and the ongoing effects for the transhumance corridor in the Malian regions of Kayes, Koulikoro (cercle of Nara) and Ségou.

While the international community is more focused on illicit trafficking, populations from both Mali and Mauritania continue to exchange basic commodities, livestock and other essential goods on a daily basis. However, these activities and the people in the border regions between the countries have been severely affected by the growing insecurity associated with the 2012 Malian crisis. This crisis has prompted a change in commercial and transhumance routes forcing both traders and locals to adapt. As the security situation has worsened, factors such as long-standing family ties, economic dynamism (trade and pastoralism) and religious networks (Hamallism)—all areas where both states exercise little or no control—contribute to the resilience of small-scale farmers, herders and other vulnerable groups.


The impact of the Malian crisis on transhumance routes 

For centuries and especially since the last drought cycles (1970–90), nomadic Mauritanian herders have moved across the border towards the Malian regions of Kayes, Koulikoro and Ségou to find pasture for their livestock. The Malian border is the primary destination for Mauritanian livestock owners in the Hodh El Gharbi region. Populations from these border areas of Mali and Mauritania have maintained strong political, religious, economic and social links; and centuries-old blood ties and marital alliances. The border areas are used for trade and animal husbandry with feeding areas on the Malian side traditionally being open to all transhumant herders—including Mauritanians—who only had to receive the village chief’s blessing to use them. Thus, people, goods and animals were placed under the protection of the village throughout the transhumance season. Before the Malian crisis, contacts with Malian authorities were limited to the irregular transit of water and forest rangers patrolling the area. 

However, the situation has changed since the outbreak of the crisis. From 2016, Mauritanian herders have no longer grazed their animals freely in Mali for three main reasons. The first reason is related to the use of fodder. Because traditional grazing areas have been depleted, Mauritanian pastoralists excessively cut down trees to feed their herds. In response to this deforestation, Malian forest rangers impose fines (both official and unofficial) on Mauritanian herders. The second reason is that herders are continually forced to travel long distances to find food and water for their herds. As livestock move further and further south into Mali, they cause damage to Malian pastural land which generates conflicts with farmers. The third reason is related to the growing insecurity in Mali. Each week, thousands of heads of cattle and small ruminants are sold at the market of Nara in southwest Mali. However, Nara is regularly attacked due to its proximity to the Wagadou forest in western Mali and campers do not risk travelling alone. The Wagadou forest is an area where armed groups and other traffickers are concealed. It allegedly contains a camp of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

According to Mauritanian authorities, relations between Malian and Mauritanian herders are governed by traditional arrangements, between families across the border. Both governments are cautious to interfere and instead rely on traditional mechanisms to manage cooperation between herders. 


The impact of the Malian crisis on the movement of goods and people

Borders between Mali and Mauritania were originally created along age-old commercial routes. Border checkpoints were not always respected and merchants were accustomed to moving freely during both day and night. Trade between Mali and Mauritania is usually active during the weekly markets in Nara, Mourdiah, Dilly, Dally and Ballé—all located in Mali. Malian millets, peanuts and legumes are exchanged for Mauritanian fuel, tea, sugar, rice and cosmetic products. Goods are transported on the backs of animals, by carts, on motorcycles or other vehicles and physical borders pose little to no barriers to trade. 

In the city of Kobenni, on the Mauritanian side of the border, dozens of trucks unload their goods every week and immediately reload them to move merchandise across the border in Mali to shops that are mostly owned by Mauritanians. Sometimes products are stored in border villages hidden from authorities and later transported. Since the crisis in Mali, the traffic has increased because, as reported by the mayor of Kobenni, ‘It is safer to move goods from Kobenni to Bamako and then to transport the goods to Northern Mali rather than to bring them across the eastern border’. Many Malians from the north and west are present in Aïoun el Atrouss (the capital of the Hodh El Gharbi region). There are Tuareg people fleeing Mali’s insecurity and working as herders, herd keepers or merchants. There are also westerners (mainly from Nioro, a town in the Kayes region) and former farmers fleeing insecurity who now work as housekeepers. 

SIPRI’s partners in Mauritania made three interesting observations at the border crossing of Gogui (in the region of Kayes in Mali). First, it has become very complex and time-consuming because of the systematic control of all entries and exits and due to the introduction of a biometric registration system on the Mauritanian side. Second, on both sides of the border (within 3 km), bus companies have parked buses to transfer passengers and an intermediate motorcycle taxi system has been developed, mainly organized by young people. Finally, the border crossing is very important for women trading ‘Malian bazin’ to Mauritania and for young Malian households, seeking employment in Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania) and Nouadhibou (the second largest city located near the border with Morocco). These young girls migrate not only to feed their families but also to prepare their ‘wedding trousseau’ and others seek to travel onwards to Europe.


Coping strategies

Because of the current security situation in Mali, populations have been forced to adapt their behaviours. For example, according to interviews conducted with young Mauritanians from Aïoun el Atrouss, cultural exchanges are now very limited—if not non-existent—with one interview subject stating, ‘There were cultural exchanges between young people of Nioro and young people of Aïoun el Atrouss. Bi-annual meetings took place and alternated between the cities. Football matches were organized as well as theatre activities. These activities were a powerful means of integration. Since the crisis, all these activities have been abandoned. Their minds and means are elsewhere.’ 

The entire economies of the border regions are being reorganized. For example, merchants no longer travel at night. According to a herder in Kobenni: ‘Since the emergence of the problems in Mali, we have to stay together in camps, which increases the pressure on grazing areas and water. We also need to receive the blessing of the village chief in return for something’. Another herder pointed out that, ‘travel permits which used to be an optional formality are now mandatory. Arrival areas and corridors are organized. Campers tend to spend as little time as possible in Mali. All operations are carefully planned: getting food from an urban centre or an itinerant market, carrying cattle feed and even the crossing. Everywhere and at any time, campers may be caught in a scam or could be robbed.’ 

Mauritanian authorities have taken measures to increase the security of people and goods as well as to combat cross-border crime. In addition to creating fixed border crossing points, mobile patrols have been deployed along the border, all entrances and exits are monitored and each border station is equipped with a biometric registration system linked to a national database. As part of Mauritania’s border management, authorities in the Hodh El Gharbi region exchange and coordinate activities with their Malian counterparts. Consequently, nomadic transhumance farmers are followed along the border until they cross, in order to ensure that the security along on the corridor is maintained. 

Although those who live in the cross-border regions of Mali and Mauritania have strong historic ties, insecurity has had significant consequences on their daily lives. Thus, transhumance farmers have to use authorized corridors and border crossing points which are supposed to be safe. Exchanges of goods and commercial activities continue and provide employment opportunities. However, prices have risen considerably, while security incidents have an impact on the cross-border flow of goods. The border crossing point at Gogui is described as a ‘small informal economic hub’ where income-generating activities—including for border officials—and black-market monetary transactions take place. Yet, insecurity has a high cost for the populations and due to the potential security risks, prices have substantially increased. 

At the crossroads of North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, Mauritania is historically a country of migration and transit. Despite old cultural and commercial links, the Malian crisis has had a strong impact on populations in the Hodh El Gharbi region. Transhumance routes are now organized in order to ensure the security of herders and their animals. Although trade is still flourishing prices have increased and the risks of armed attacks have a significant impact on trade. However, cultural and religious connections and family ties help populations to cope with the situation. As part of SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme, the G5 Sahel research project has monitored and documented the economic dynamics at the local levels in order to provide evidence-based analysis that can help stakeholders and international actors to maximize the impacts of their interventions.


Dr Virginie Baudais is a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Sahel and West Africa Programme.