The African Center for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT) was inaugurated in 2004 with Headquarters in Algiers, Algeria, as a structure of the African Union Commission, in conformity with the Protocol to the 1999 OAU Convention on the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism. The Protocol confers on the Peace and Security Council of the African Union, the responsibility for implementing regional, continental and international counter-terrorism instruments as well as harmonizing, standardizing and coordinating continental efforts in the prevention and combating of terrorism.
The mission of the ACSRT is to conduct research and study on Terrorism and develop strategic policy, operational and training mechanisms within the context of International and Continental legal instruments to strengthen the capacity of the African Union and its Member States to prevent and combat terrorism in Africa.
Le Centre africain d’étude et de recherche sur le terrorisme (CAERT) a été inauguré en 2004 avec son siège à Alger, en Algérie, en tant que structure de la Commission de l’Union africaine, conformément au Protocole à la Convention de l’OUA de 1999 sur la prévention et la lutte contre le terrorisme. Le Protocole confère au Conseil de paix et de sécurité de l’Union africaine la responsabilité de la mise en œuvre des instruments régionaux, continentaux et internationaux de lutte contre le terrorisme ainsi que de l’harmonisation, de la normalisation et de la coordination des efforts continentaux en matière de prévention et de lutte contre le terrorisme.
La mission de le CAERT est de mener des recherches et des études sur le terrorisme et d’élaborer des mécanismes stratégiques de politique, d’exploitation et de formation dans le contexte des instruments juridiques internationaux et continentaux afin de renforcer la capacité de l’Union africaine et de ses États membres à prévenir et à combattre le terrorisme en Afrique.
Date of publication/Date de publication : April 2022 / Avril 2022
Site of the publication / Site de publication : www.caert.org.dz
Extracts from pages / Les extraits proviennent des pages : 4, 6, 8, 11, 12,13, 14, 15, 16, 17
Coups d’état and Political Instability in Western Sahel: Historical Perspectives
Most African countries experienced some form of political instability after gaining independence, typically characterized by a military takeover of a democratically elected government, or the overthrow of another military regime (counter coups). The ensuring political instability led to deteriorating security conditions, which severely affected states’ overall developmental objectives. A push for multi-party democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to many countries on the African continent, including in West Africa and the Sahel, to adopt multi-party democratic rule.
By the mid-1990s, all countries in the Western Sahel – including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – had embraced multi-party democratic rule. This development was seen as a breath of fresh air that would usher in new stability for the region, and enabling it to tackle the developmental challenges confronting states. During this new era, the internal civil conflicts and interstate wars that had characterized post-colonial African states disappeared in all but a few cases. However, the democratic gains achieved in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st century have waned in recent years. This is due to growing insecurity and discontent over issues such as bad governance, underdevelopment, poverty, corruption, unemployment, terrorism and violent extremism.
Violent Extremism and Terrorism in Western Sahel: An Evolving Situation
The Sahel region has become home to some of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups in recent years, witnessing numerous atrocities committed against civilians, security forces and government officials. The most active groups in the region are JNIM and ISGS. Tens of thousands of people have lost their lives in attacks perpetrated by these groups, and millions more have been displaced within and across national borders.
Numerous international military deployments in the region have included the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), Operation Barkhane, and the G-5 Sahel Force. In response to the expansion of these groups, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups – comprising Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Mourabitoun, the MLF and Ansaru Dine – announced in March 2017 that they would merge to form JNIM (Jama’a Nusrat alIslam wal Muslimin). The merger led to an intensification of attacks in northern and central Mali, western Niger, and north and eastern Burkina Faso. Figure 1 shows the number of terrorist attacks per year in Western Sahel countries from 2019 to 2021.
By the mid-1990s, all countries in the Western Sahel – including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – had embraced multi-party democratic rule. This development was seen as a breath of fresh air that would usher in new stability for the region, and enabling it to tackle the developmental challenges confronting states
While the total number of terrorist attacks in 2019 was 408, 2020 witnessed a 32.1% reduction, with 277 attacks were recorded. Similarly, 2021 saw a further decline in attacks: 176 attacks were recorded, lower than those recorded in 2019 and 2020. The decrease may be attributed to several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic; the intensification of counter-terrorism operations by Operation Barkhane, the G-5 Sahel Joint Taskforce, and the Malian forces; as well as reported conflict between JNIM and ISGS.
International Response to the Current Coups d’état and Political Instability
The recent overthrow of governments in the Sahel could be viewed as a dangerous fallout of prioritizing counterterrorism efforts while neglecting obvious governance challenges, local grievances, and concerns. The overthrow of President Kaboré was the fourth coup in the Western Sahel in 18 months, starting with the August 2020 coup in Mali, the April 2021 coup in Chad, and Mali’s ‘coup within a coup’ in May 2021. These coups spurred widespread condemnation, including from West African leaders (from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS), the AU, European Union (EU), UN, US, and France – which had deployed troops to Mali to fight extremists.
Following the first coup in Mali, ECOWAS – in line with the relevant provisions of its Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance – imposed trade restrictions and border closures, and suspended Mali from all its decisionmaking bodies. Following dialogue with the military junta by ECOWAS-appointed mediator, former president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan, the junta subsequently handed over power to a civilian-led transitional government and pledged to hold elections within 18 months. This culminated in the lifting of sanctions by ECOWAS, except for the country’s suspension from ECOWAS-related proceedings. The second coup toppled the interim civilian-led government in May 2021, after the military junta accused transitional President Bah N’Daw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane of failing their duties. This disrupted the transition calendar, which required that presidential elections be conducted before 27 February 2022.
The 4th Extraordinary Session of the Authority of Heads of State and Government of ECOWAS was held in Accra, Ghana, on 9 January 2022 to review the political situation in Mali. Here, the junta submitted a new transition calendar, proposing the end of December 2026 as the period for holding elections. ECOWAS rejected the proposed transition period and imposed new diplomatic, trade and economic sanctions, which many have described as draconian.
While the total number of terrorist attacks in 2019 was 408, 2020 witnessed a 32.1% reduction, with 277 attacks were recorded. Similarly, 2021 saw a further decline in attacks: 176 attacks were recorded, lower than those recorded in 2019 and 2020
In the case of Burkina Faso, ECOWAS suspended the country on Friday 28 January 2022, in line with its protocol. However, the regional body did not impose sanctions against the country. The differences in ECOWAS’ approaches were partly motivated by the backlash it had received after imposing sanctions on Mali, and more significantly, a so-called demonstration of commitment by the military junta in Burkina Faso to hand over power to a civilian-led transitional government, following a meeting with the ECOWAS Chiefs of Defence Staff and ministerial level envoys on 3 February. Consequently, the ECOWAS Heads of State called on the military rulers to return to constitutional order as soon as possible.
Both the AU and ECOWAS called on the international community to support the sanctions against Mali. At the United Nation Security Council (UNSC), Russia and China blocked the Council from endorsing the new ECOWAS sanctions on Mali. The EU, however, on 4 February, imposed sanctions on five senior members of Mali’s transitional government, including Prime Minister Choguel Maiga – accusing them of working to obstruct and undermine the transition from military to civilian rule. Others affected by the EU asset freezes and travel bans include purported members of the inner circle of Col. Assimi Goïta, comprising Malick Diaw, President of the National Transition Council; Ismael Wague, Minister for Reconciliation; Ibrahim Ikassa Maiga, Minister for Refoundation; and Adama Ben Diarra, member of the Transitional Council. Similarly, the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) suspended $450 million in aid to Burkina Faso, and described the coup as being at odds with MCC’s commitment to democratic governance and respect for rule of law.
These international condemnations and sanctions are politically and normatively justifiable. Yet there are concerns that this approach is likely to cause severe hardship and serious disruption to economies in the Western Sahel that have already been ravaged by multifaceted security challenges – and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Implications on the Fight against Violent Extremism and Terrorism
At the national level, there is likely to be a vacuum in terms of the strategic direction needed to fight terrorism and violent extremism, due to the fractured and weak political leadership in the region.28 For instance, prior to his demise, Idriss Déby Itno of Chad was considered a stabilizing force in the region and a major international ally in the fight against groups such as Boko Haram, ISWAP, JNIM and ISGS in the Lake Chad Basin, as well as the tri-border region of Liptako-Gourma of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.29 He provided the strong political leadership not only to the well-financed and competent Chadian military, but also to the regional joint efforts through the MNJTF and G5 Sahel Force. His sudden death, and the ensuing tense and fragmented political landscape in Chad, has left behind a leadership vacuum that has already hampered momentum in the fight against violent extremist groups. There is a risk of in-fighting within the Chadian military and the circles of power if the political transition is not managed well.
The consequences of Idriss Déby’s demise could spill over to the entire Central African region and even Sudan’s Darfur region, as that country grapples to return to constitutional order. Just as the instability in Libya, for instance, continues to affect Chad, any destabilization of Chad can have immediate consequences on the Darfur region. Darfur has experienced armed conflicts for several decades because of its historical connections to the Western Sahel and the Maghreb region.
The recent overthrow of governments in the Sahel could be viewed as a dangerous fallout of prioritizing counterterrorism efforts while neglecting obvious governance challenges, local grievances, and concerns
For the fight against terrorism in the Western Sahel, the effects of the political situation in Chad have further exacerbated by the recent coups in Mali and Burkina Faso, which have left both countries with an extremely weak political leadership. These two states are now led by military personnel who arguably lack the international credibility, political fortitude, and experience needed to address imminent challenges.
Al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked groups in the Sahel may continue to commit violent attacks in their bid to undermine domestic and regional security. Beyond the political leadership vacuum, the capacity of states to fight terrorism may also be weakened by the international sanctions and persistent internal challenges. The weakness of state institutions is reflected in many ways. First, in Mali, the leadership vacuum is exacerbated by the cessation of defence and security assistance by Western allies due to the coup; the alleged new orientation of the military and security cooperation of the country with non-state actors; as well as the diplomatic, trade and financial sanctions of ECOWAS.
In particular, the alleged involvement of a Russian private military company; the proposed withdrawal of French forces; and the gradual international isolation of Mali through sanctions may negatively affect the international financial and technical support. The country needs this support to address the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation caused by terrorism, violent extremism and communal conflicts.
Second – the ECOWAS sanctions against Mali and the negative consequences on the economy, coupled with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s systemic challenges – may hinder the essential investment required for state authority and services to be extended throughout the country. There are limited resources for strengthening the country’s socio-political resilience to overcome the persistent challenges and to support the political transition processes. This can significantly undermine the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, and allow the terrorist groups operating in northern and central Mali to further ingratiate themselves with local populations by providing basic services, resources and other materials that the central government has persistently failed to deliver.
Third, the impact of the political crisis may give violent extremist and terrorist groups the opportunity to further consolidate their authority and influence in the areas where they control, and even expand to new geographical areas outside the Western Sahel.
These international condemnations and sanctions are politically and normatively justifiable. Yet there are concerns that this approach is likely to cause severe hardship and serious disruption to economies in the Western Sahel that have already been ravaged by multifaceted security challenges – and the COVID-19 pandemic
Conclusion and Recommendations on the Way Forward
The complex situation requires flexibility, pragmatism, and skilled diplomacy to avoid exacerbating the precarious security situation. To achieve this, the following recommendations are made:
- Action taken to pressure the various military juntas to cede power must be crafted and implemented with extreme care to avoid causing more suffering and misery to an already impoverished population, as this would risk promoting solidarity with the juntas and playing into the hands of terrorist and violent extremist groups, as well as organised crime groups.
- The AU Panel of the Wise (PoW) should be deployed to consistently engage with the various transitional leaders together with ECOWAS, the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and other international partners for a swift return to constitutional order.
- Neighbouring countries affected by terrorism and violent extremism, including Algeria and Mauritania, should be fully engaged to ensure unity of purpose and coordinated action.
- There is a need for comprehensive security sector reform in Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger to enhance capabilities, unlock possible funding, and improve the professionalism of the defence and security forces to address current capacity shortfalls that hinder an effective response to the terrorist threat.
- As the current attention of the transitional authorities in Mali, Burkina Faso and Chad is directed towards internal politics, the AU should consider collaborating with ECOWAS and ECCAS to take up the leadership role in fighting terrorism and violent extremism in Western Sahel. This could serve as an alternative to current ad hoc coalitions like G5-Sahel and MNJTF, which are unduly influenced by the interests of countries.
- The AU should also consider activating the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crisis (ACIRC) to strengthen the counter terrorism response, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso – where the need is urgent.
- The AU and ECOWAS should endeavour to undertake a joint assessment mission in Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali within the framework of subsidiarity and complementarity to understand the underlying causes of the recurring coups d’état. This will enable the relevant decision-making organs of the AU and ECOWAS to know what is and is not working, manage expectations of the various interest groups – including the military – and boost the effectiveness of political elites’ response generation mechanisms to the various local specific grievances.
- Coastal countries in West Africa should elevate their state of preparedness to effectively respond to the lack of security in western Sahel, and the consequent humanitarian needs, based on regular security risk analysis.
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