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The impact of the Malian crisis on the Group of Five Sahel countries: Balancing security and development priorities

UN Peacekeepers Arrive at Niger Battalion Base in Eastern Mali/UN Photo
UN Peacekeepers Arrive at Niger Battalion Base in Eastern Mali/UN Photo

The so-called ‘Malian crisis’ has now become a regionally multidimensional crisis. Economic, social, political and human dimensions are fed by structural and continuing dissatisfaction of marginalized and vulnerable populations. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya (2011) and the subsequent destabilization of Mali (2012) have had protracted consequences throughout the Sahel region which was already affected by structural factors of fragility such as climatic, economic and development challenges. States in the Sahel rank at the bottom of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) 2019 Human Development Index—respectively, ranking 161st (Mauritania), 182nd (Burkina Faso), 184th (Mali), 187th (Chad) and 189th (Niger) out of 189 countries. According to the World Bank, the poverty rates of these states vary between 30 and 40 per cent while their growth rates are around 3 per cent in Chad and Mauritania and more than 4 per cent in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

As part of regional research conducted between January and November 2019, SIPRI’s Sahel and West Africa Programme and its partners in the Sahel region documented the spillover effects of the Malian crisis in the neighbouring states that make up the Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel) countries—Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger. This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder is the fourth and final research output on the impacts of the Malian crisis in these countries. The first output provided a general overview of the crisis on the Sahel region; the second analysed the consequences for transhumance and trade in the border region of Hodh el Gharbi in Mauritania; the third output commented on the consequences on communities and in particular the situation in the Malian refugee camp in Ayorou (Niger). This last output analyses regional and national policy responses that—with limited success so far and to the detriment of development policy—aim to address key security challenges.


Violent extremist groups’ strategy to fill the void: Threatening states

Violence has spread from Northern Mali to the regions of Ségou and Mopti and to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. These hostilities are mainly directed towards civilian populations and national security forces and affect local communities in peripheral regions and fuel pre-existing inter-communal tensions. As the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, pointed out to the UN Security Council on 8 January 2020: ‘In Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, casualties from terrorist attacks have increased five-fold since 2016 with over 4000 deaths reported in 2019 as compared to an estimated 770 deaths in 2016’.

While geographical proximity is one main factor for the violence, other domestic causes have facilitated attacks from non-state actors and the establishment of armed groups. Since the abduction of a foreign security agent at a mine (4 April 2015) in the north of Burkina Faso, the country has regularly suffered attacks from non-state armed groups. Burkina Faso is now deeply affected by insecurity and human rights violations perpetrated against civilians, leading to massive displacement. The deterioration of the security situation also coincided with the transitional phase that followed the resignation of Burkinan President Blaise Compaoré on 31 October 2014. During his 27-year presidency, traditional authorities played an important role at the security level to compensate for the lack of effective state control over the territory and the structural weaknesses of the defence forces. The fall of Compaoré and the dissolution of the Presidential Guard Regiment (RSP) in 2015 after the failed coup d’état by the RSP on 16 September 2015, led to the breakdown of the security system. On 15 January 2016, an attack was launched against the restaurant ‘le Cappuccino’ in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Since then, insecurity has increased, mainly in the border areas, in the north and the Sahel regions. The country’s geographical proximity to Mali—particularly the porous border between the two countries—has facilitated the spillover of insecurity from Mali to Burkina Faso and since then, the situation has continued to deteriorate in the Liptako–Gourma region (the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger). Since April 2019, ‘armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have committed targeted attacks and summary executions that have killed over 250 civilians’.

In Niger, the crisis in Mali has had a strong impact on the border region of Tillabéri with increasing inter-communal tensions between the communities of Zarma and Fulani. These conflicts are a direct consequence of the conflicts observed in Mali. Armed groups target symbols of the Nigerien state by abducting and killing traditional authorities suspected state collaborators. This strategy aims to discourage local populations from cooperating with the state while at the same time coercing them to sympathize with armed groups. The Malian crisis has disrupted authorities in the affected localities with most of the traditional chiefs fleeing to seek refuge in Niamey or in other parts of the region. However, having left their communities, local authorities now have little knowledge of the security situation in their localities. Thus, their authority is limited and superseded by armed groups who benefit from the weakness or the absence of the state and have entrenched themselves in local communities.

In the most exposed localities, military personnel have been appointed as interim traditional chiefs (chef de canton). This was the case in the border locality of Inates in the Tillabéri region of Niger, where two attacks against a military camp on 1 July and 10 December 2019 resulted in some 20 soldiers being killed in the first attack and more than 70 military personnel killed in the second. Since 2019, attacks claimed by Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) have killed more than 170 soldiers have been killed in Inates, Chinedogar and Sanam.


The proliferation of security initiatives at the regional level

To address the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, several initiatives have been undertaken at the regional level. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was established by Security Council Resolution 2100 on 25 April 2013 with the mandate to support the stabilization of the country. Of the 11 620 troops and 1723 police deployed in Mali (as of January 2020), G5 Sahel countries are the main contributors. At the regional level, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger established the G5 Sahel in February 2014, with the objective of ensuring security and development in the Sahel region. Following the French-led Operation Serval—launched in January 2013 several months after the uprising in Mali’s northernmost regions—France launched Operation Barkhane on 1 August 2014 to support and strengthen the national security forces in the G5 Sahel countries and address terrorism-related threats in the region. Last, in 2015, the G5 Sahel announced the creation of a joint counterterrorism task force which became effective in 2017. Alongside these security-oriented initiatives, other missions focus on training Malian military forces such as the European Union Training Mission in Mali (EUTM Mali) and programmes like EU Parsec conduct inclusive work to pave the way for the country’s long-term stabilization.

Despite the presence of international forces including the G5 Sahel, as reported by a military source in Burkina Faso, the situation has not improved: ‘In some localities, terrorists systematically kill everyone. In some areas, the only way to survive is to leave or cooperate with them. In other places, they look for men. Adults are killed and young boys are taken away to be indoctrinated. Women try to hide their children, so they are not taken away to be indoctrinated by terrorists. But sometimes they are betrayed by terrorists’ informants and they risk their lives.’ (Interview conducted by SIPRI’s partner in Burkina Faso, the Centre pour la Gouvernance Démocratique (CGD), Ouagadougou, August 2019)

The fight against terrorism at the regional level has also contributed to changing the political situation in these five countries and for some of them, such as Chad, overcoming their political isolation. After years of uneasy diplomatic relationships, the visit of the former French President, François Hollande, in July 2014 and the installation of the Barkhane Headquarters in N’Djamena marked the return of Chad’s President Idriss Deby into the international community’s favour. For example, in February 2013 Chadian troops were deployed more than 2000 km away to Northern Mali. They have also been deployed alongside French troops in Operation Serval and participated in MINUSMA. The official reasons behind these deployments are among others, the common membership in regional organizations, the reputation of Chadian soldiers as ‘desert fighters’, and the fact that Chad was already fighting a jihadist group—Boko Haram—along their eastern border. Another reason could be Chad’s undeclared desire to play the role of regional hegemon, which could divert the attention of the international community from the country’s internal political problems. 


National strategies: Prioritizing security over development

The G5 Sahel countries share common fragilities including increased tensions within the security apparatus, lack of means and equipment, and difficulties in controlling their territory. Other structural challenges include corruption, impunity and bad governance, but also poverty and unemployment, a high cost of living, regional disparities and a lack of basic social services.

Long before the deterioration of security in the Sahel region, Mauritania was heavily affected by terrorism with 17 terrorist attacks (including 6 attacks in the capital Nouakchott), abductions and kidnappings claimed by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (2005) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007). Under the former general Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz (in office 2009–19), the country created special intervention units, deployed mobile units and improved military intelligence capabilities. It also revitalized its armed forces in terms of their equipment, pensions and the payment of soldiers’ salaries. Mauritania managed to dismantle local terrorist cells and the border region with Mali has been turned into a militarized zone with checkpoints established along the border. One of the most visible impacts in both the capital Nouakchott and Nouadhibou—the second-largest city—is the prevalence of private security companies, surveillance and guards for private houses or governmental institutions and diplomatic or consular representations, banks and restaurants. Although this can also be observed in all other capitals and major cities in Africa it comes with the inherent risk of further militarization and proliferation of small and light weapons. Mauritania has regulated the private security sector and issued authorizations for companies to operate (law no. 2009-025 of 7 April 2009). Fifteen private security companies are currently operating and constitute an important source of employment. As a consequence, since 2011, security has improved and there have been no terrorist attacks, with the army becoming a respected institution. Moreover, the economy has benefited from gold and copper mining but the social situation remains worrying and future development is still at stake

In order to face new threats, other G5 Sahel countries have revised their national defence policies: in Burkina Faso a commission has been mandated to formulate a new security policy and the new policy was adopted in 2018 (decree no. 2018-1161 of 19 December 2018) and military camps have been established in the north, Sahel and the east, the country’s most volatile areas. It has also increased patrols in insecure areas or launched antiterrorism operations such as Operation Doofu (11 May 2019) in the north and Sahel regions and Operation Otanpuanou (7 March 2019) in the eastern provinces. More recently, in January 2020, the national security policy was revised to be more inclusive and takes into account human security, e.g. food, health and education.

While extrajudicial executions and human rights violations have resulted in the rejection of the defence forces, non-state armed groups have become more accepted by populations with whom they share cultural codes and to whom they provide basic services that the state no longer provides. In some areas, the strengthening of the military presence has improved the situation. However, as a young man reported during an interview conducted by CGD, ‘Schools, prefectures and town halls have closed. Since the state is absent, we do not have access to health services; some of our relatives have been killed. Schools have closed. Students are mistaken for spies.’ (Commune of Banh, North Region, August 2019).  

Like Burkina Faso, Chad has been very active in strengthening its military and legislative arsenal to face new and growing security threats. Following several attacks perpetrated in N’Djamena and in the Lake Chad region, an antiterrorism law has been adopted (law no. 034/PR/2015) in which terrorism is broadly defined to encompass all aspects of daily life. These measures can also be a major threat to the freedoms of Chadian citizens. In order to regulate public space, legislative measures have been adopted such as a ban on demonstrations, begging and the wearing of burkas and turbans. Several new security units have been created including a specialized response unit and a unit that patrols rivers and lakes. Police stations have also been converted into public security stations and authorities strongly rely on traditional and religious authorities as community liaison actors. Above all, the Chadian state also has ambitions to control religious spaces. Similar to 1997 and 2006, several religious associations were dissolved in 2015 and human rights organizations have reported a limitation of rights and freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions. However, because of its commitment to combat Boko Haram and its participation in MINUSMA, the international community is turning a blind eye to the excesses of the Chadian regime, even following the disputed presidential election that took place in 2016. A constitutional reform in 2018 has increased the presidential power and, as reported by Amnesty International, the regime can ‘use national legislation to impose unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of associations’. 


Fighting violence: The need for differentiated and inclusive development strategies

The steps taken by the G5 Sahel countries, supported by the international community, essentially consist of security measures. However, drivers of conflict and instability, such as the weak presence of the state, the lack of basic social services including health and education still remain unaddressed. Based on SIPRI’s evidence-based research conducted in the G5 Sahel countries, the main findings indicate that the fight against extremism requires the implementation of targeted development strategies. The needs of communities are different across nomadic groups, sedentary groups and among men and women. These populations also suffer the consequences of their ‘peripheral’ geographical isolation (fewer public services and less security) and are extremely exposed to external shocks like drought. This situation increases their vulnerability and exposure not only to illegal trafficking, but also to recruitment by armed groups. However, SIPRI’s local research shows that, far from rejecting the state, communities are calling for a better state, namely a more inclusive state that provides public services. 


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