Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger... the Sahel quagmire (1)

by the admin guy
19 minutes
Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger... the Sahel quagmire (1)

The Sahel, that stretch of land that still is not sure what it wants to be. Desert? Arable land? Pasture? Bone-dry in some places, waterlogged at times closer to the Niger river that passes through it... homes to more peoples than one could imagine and theatre of tragedy. Drought, floods (yes they go hand-in-hand), poverty and malnutrition, disease and jihad...

Sahel map from WikipediaAccording to Wikipedia, "The Sahel part of Africa includes from west to east parts of northern Senegal, southern Mauritania, central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, the extreme south of Algeria, Niger, the extreme north of Nigeria, parts of Cameroon and Central African Republic, central Chad central and southern Sudan, the extreme north of South Sudan, Eritrea, and the extreme north of Ethiopia." 

To the geographically challenged: it's a shitload of land, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. And each of the countries that are part of the Sahel are vast in their own right. Don't take my word for it! Test The True Size of a country yourself by sliding the country of your choice over the globe... Just Burkina, Mali and Niger would fill the Mediterranean Sea and then some...

But I am not convinced size alone does matter.

 it becomes more than an imperative to join efforts to tackle the major problems in a concerted and coordinated way

G5 Sahel Permanent Secretary, Maman S. Sidikou

My 'expertise' if there were such a thing however concerns the western part of the sandbox, the countries of the G5 Sahel (Burkina, Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) an institutional framework for coordination of regional cooperation in development policies and security matters created in 2014.

"In a world confronted with multiple challenges, including poverty and insecurity - in particular violent extremism - as well as challenges that are directly related to the survival of our planet, - climate change - , it becomes more than an imperative to join efforts to tackle the major problems in a concerted and coordinated way --.

The woes of the Sahel are... God I don't even know where to even to begin - so here goes, in no way in an order of importance or complexity and certainly not complete. Extreme poverty, political instability, acute malnutrition & stunting, Staggering unemployment, poorly developed health and sanitation infrastructures, and weak social protection systems...

Most of the information comes from newspaper articles I collect and curate in a Flipboard magazine called "SAHEL" ... Not always an easy read, for how much misery can one stomach? As I write the word 'misery', I paused for a bit. Because I know all too well that the Sahel is also culture, music: Salif Keita is on the radio as I write and in Bamako the 12th Rencontres are underway.

Internal strive, Islamists and foreign intervention

Mali was once considered  a model democracy but in early 2012 it suddenly collapsed int a volatile crisis when in April 2012 Tuareg rebels seize northern Mali and declare independence, d and other armed groups, including ethnic based (political) movements, jihadist groups and transnational criminal networks, fight for hegemony and the control the North.

When the armed Islamic groups advanced on the capital of Bamako, a French military intervention returned a fragile control, allowing the establishment of an interim government and an international peacekeeping force. The former colonial power, remained militarily present from 2013 onward, first under Operation Serval, fighting against Islamist extremists throughout the Sahel region until it was replaced by by Operation Barkhane, which focused on creating local capacity to safeguard security.

A UN Mission - The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) - was established by Security Council resolution 2100 of 25 April 2013 to support political processes in that country and carry out a number of security-related tasks; in June 2014, the Council further decided that the Mission should focus on duties, such as ensuring security, stabilisation and protection of civilians; supporting national political dialogue and reconciliation; and assisting the reestablishment of State authority, the rebuilding of the security sector, and the promotion and protection of human rights in that country.

The 2015 peace agreement reached after international mediation, led by Algeria and with the participation of international organisations, including the African Union and the United Nations, and by neighbouring countries was signed by all parties but remains very difficult to implement and signatory groups still resort to violence to settle differences.

Jihadist violence against security forces is increasing and militants have gone rural to capitalise on local conflicts and the absence of the State to secure safe havens and new recruits; violence has now spread to the centre of the country, an area of socioeconomic diversity shared by pastoralist communities, farming communities, fishermen, traders and a variety of ethnic groups.

The perceived absence of trusted arbitrators to resolve disputes in central Mali—namely the state and customary authorities—who would normally be able to de-escalate disputes before they become violent, has led to a cycle of violence, compounded by the spread and multiplication of armed groups who are in part enabled by the proliferation of illicit trafficking of weapons over porous borders in the wider region.

Mali’s instability has regional consequences as violent extremism spills into neighbouring countries. 


It is interesting to note that the OECD in it's West Africa Brief on Increasing inequality in the Sahel and West Africa shows that inequality in the Sahel countries is significantly lower than in neighbouring countries. Inequality is often measured as a ratio of the incomes of the top quintile to the bottom quintile or via the Gini index to better reflect the wealth distribution within a country. 


The lower inequality in the G5 Sahel countries is however not so much the result of equal distribution of wealth but rather of an equal distribution of poverty

the states no longer even fulfil their sovereign functions: security, justice... Other actors have taken over

Beyond income inequality, inequalities are strongly visible between urban and rural areas where in the latter, access to basic services remains a key problem and the 'absence of the state' is felt the strongest. States in the region have failed to protect particular communities and, in doing so, fuelled conflict, militancy, and insecurity through their use of ethnic-based militias.

Far from being able to deliver basic services or even the most rudimentary infrastructure, the states no longer even fulfil their sovereign functions: security, justice... Other actors have taken over and exercise a sort of shared governance,” says Alain Antil, a researcher from the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in an analysis in Le Monde.

Oxfam's 2019 report on rising inequality in the Sahel, identifies the roots of the problems in the Sahel in the inequality and the strong sense of injustice among the region’s people, particularly young people. Combating inequality in all its forms will require “designing fairer and more equitable policies and modes of governance that align with the needs and aspirations of populations in Sahel countries.

Tribal conflicts turn violent 

Nomadic herders are among the world's most exposed communities when it comes to the impact of climate change. Higher temperatures, shifting winds and moisture levels that alter rainfall patterns, sandstorms, torrential rain - all can change the quality or even the location of pasture on which migrating herders depend.

Conflicts - often violent - between pastoralist wandering with their livestock and sedentary communities farming the land are seasonal events as common as the recurring rains but over the past decade, these clashes have taken a more organised and lethal form of violence  where heavily armed ethnic militias have taken on the role of protector where the state is absent.

This Reuters story of Chefou, a cattle herder turned leader of militants allied to Islamic State explains how he and his fellow Fulani turned from vigilantes protecting their cows to jihadists capable of carrying out complex attacks: "Like most gunmen in so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which operates along the sand-swept borderlands where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, Chefou used to be an ordinary Fulani pastoralist with little interest in jihad, ... but after repeated attacks by Tuareg raiders that have killed hundreds of people and led to thousands of cows and hundreds of camels being stolen, he took up arms. For the Fulani, it was a sense of injustice, of exclusion, of discrimination, and a need for self-defence..."

Violence between the rival communities has escalated this year.In Mali alone, suspected Dogon militiamen killed more than 150 Fulani in central Mali in March 2019, one of the worst acts of bloodshed in the country’s recent history. (Retaliatory) raids on Dogon villages in June killed over 40 people. (More on the Dogon-Fulani violence in Mopti) - In Burkina Faso, Koglweogo militiamen committed a massacre of Fulani in Yirgou and neighbouring areas - according to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: ...armed attacks and insecurity in Burkina Faso’s Est, Centre-Nord, Nord and Sahel regions have triggered an unprecedented humanitarian emergency. Over 138,000 people have been uprooted from their homes, over half of them since the start of 2019

The Malian armed forces cooperate with and use Dozos (traditional hunters largely drawn from the Dogon and Bambara communities) as guides and auxiliary forces, often spurring a response against these communities. Similarly, Koglweogo militiamen allegedly aid government forces by identifying members of the — largely Muslim — Fulani community involved in militant activities, behaviour that may provoke retribution against the perceived constituency of the Koglweogo.  (ACLED, 2019). As of lately - the conflict also takes on a 'religious dimension' - especially in Burkina Faso - where Jihadists attacked churches killing scores of Christians.

Lives disturbed 

The human cost of these various forms of violence is huge: as UNICEF reported in April 2019, "... the continued and growing insecurity in the Sahel region has forced nearly 2,000 schools in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger to close or become non-operational, UNICEF said today. This marks a two-fold increase in the number of education facilities forcibly closed or left non-operational since 2017."

They told the headmaster he should be teaching in Arabic. They said French is not the language of Islam.

A local teacher who asked not to be named to The New Humanitarian

abandoned school

The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have all endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration – committing to the protection and continuation of education in armed conflict, but attacks like this have had a domino effect, forcing the closure of dozens of surrounding schools and creating a level a fear that means “even when schools are not occupied or destroyed, children are staying at home,” said Jean Claude Ndabananiye, a specialist at UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP)

Tens of thousands of children are out of school", says Bernard Kitambala, Unicef office manager in Dori. “There have been threats, and some have been carried out.

People become 'internally displaced' - the UN's term for people leaving their homes, fleeing violence but who do not cross international borders - but UN definitions aside, the story of Roukiata Sow as reported from Dori in Burkina Faso by the Guardian's Patricia Huon is just one example from a small town in the Sahel...

“In this neighbourhood only, there are about 4,000 displaced persons. Every week, more are coming. We never thought this situation could happen in Burkina Faso. It seemed far from us,” she says. “I don’t even like watching war movies on TV. And now, it happens at home. For real.” IDP in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are teetering on the brink of disaster as armed conflict, following years of chronic poverty and climate change, continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people, leaving 2.4 million across Africa’s Sahel region food-insecure. As Marwa Awad writes in a WFP Opinion piece, the rise of militant groups is spurred on by widespread poverty, hunger and malnutrition— 40 percent of the country’s population live on less than US$2 a day. Extreme weather has contributed to a reduction in rainfall. Farmlands wither and die, making the country fertile ground for insurgent groups who can easily exploit disenfranchised young men living in poverty.

MSF speaks of 'the hunger gap' - the annual period after which stored food from the previous harvest has run out but the next is not ready - which in combination with the rainy season, triggers a spike in rates of malnutrition and malaria each year in southern Niger. ... "hundreds of thousands of children are still affected by this chronic, annual emergency. They need timely, free, high-quality health care—especially from July to October, the peak of the hunger gap."

In 2018, the government of Niger registered more than 2.75 million cases of malaria, mostly during the seasonal peak between July and October. More than 3,000 of these proved fatal. Children under the age of five were the worst-affected, accounting for half of the deaths. A country-wide survey conducted by national authorities in October and November 2018 revealed that prevalence of severe acute malnutrition reached a worrying level of 3.2 percent, higher than the emergency threshold of 2 percent.

However, as this infographic by Doctors without Borders explains,  the security crisis impacts on health: