Authors : Pierre Englebert and Rida Lyammouri
The Atlantic Council is a nonpartisan organization that promotes constructive US leadership and engagement in international affairs based on the central role of the Atlantic community in meeting today’s global challenges. The mission of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center is to raise African voices and strengthen the African nations’ influence in the transatlantic dialogue with the US, EU, and other global stakeholders.
The Policy Center for the New South (PCNS) is a Moroccan think tank aiming to contribute to the improvement of economic and social public policies that challenge Morocco and the rest of Africa as integral parts of the global South.
Date of publication : February 2022
Extracts from the document, pages: 4 – 23
A Multifaceted Crisis at Risk of Spreading Further
The crisis that began in Mali in 2012 has spread in the region and considerably accelerated in the past few years. Since 2019 alone, for example, political violence has increased 35 percent in the triborder area of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Political violence among armed groups, between armed groups and security forces, and targeting civilians has steadily increased in all three countries.
The burden of violent conflict in the Sahel has over time fallen more and more heavily on civilian populations. Many are forced to either flee their homes or to reconcile their livelihoods and security by passively or directly engaging with armed groups for protection.
The direct attacks on communities in all three countries have led to constant states of emergencies and travel impediments, further stressing the populations of herders and pastoralists who seek income-generating opportunities outside their home communities and oftentimes in markets. Thus, the burden of political violence conducted by security forces and/or armed groups again falls on civilians.
A Mosaic of Violent Actors
Although the Sahel crisis was first prompted by the actions of secessionist Tuareg rebels and then by domestic and foreign jihadist actors, it has now spread to a multitude of groups with diverse objectives that thrive or develop opportunistically in an environment of limited and dysfunctional statehood.
International and Local Islamic Groups
Violent Islamic groups active in the three countries are of two types: an international outfit connected to global terrorism, and local groups, often operating in loose alliances. These alliances typically share characteristics such as geographical roots, ethnic solidarities, and generational identities. Among the former are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), ISGS, and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Compared to Burkina and Mali, Niger has relatively little domestic religious extremism. Its Islamic terrorism has mostly foreign roots.
Across the region, there is some degree of competition and conflict between some of these organizations. However, leaders on all sides have also at times brokered local nonaggression pacts in order to focus on defeating their common enemies: French and Sahelian defense and security troops.
Local Self-Defense Groups and Ethnic Militias
Ethnic militias and other community-based groups have also increased their violent engagements against Islamists and with one another. Local violent groups typically get involved in the violence out of two overlapping dynamics. First, they organize to protect their communities against attacks by jihadists. In the process, they also often use the opportunity of violence to settle accounts with other communities and/or to make economic gains at their expenses, promoting similar responses from these other communities.
The democratic erosion or reversals observed in the region are making the bed of future insurgencies by feeding grievances among the youth and others who find themselves excluded from access to power increasingly monopolized by an aging class of incumbent elites. The removal of term limits in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, the manipulation of elections in Benin, and the harassment of opposition in Senegal all make these coastal states more susceptible to potential jihadist threats
In several instances, local governments have found it convenient to rely on some of these groups to wage a proxy war on their behalf against the jihadists. Although they have been widely criticized for doing so, such strategies are somewhat rational for resource-deprived governments, which often rely on some mode of indirect rule via local elites over peripheral regions.
Bandits and Traffickers
On top of jihadists and ethnic militias, and often blending in with them, are a large number of bandits and traffickers operating from the coasts of West Africa across the Sahara and into the Mediterranean countries. They smuggle cigarettes, hashish from Morocco that finds its way to Libya via Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, cocaine from Latin America, and would-be migrants.
Across the Sahel, the management of trade routes is associated with certain ethnic groups, including Arabs, Tuaregs, and Fulanis, and with certain social hierarchies within these groups. This traffic significantly alters communities. Young men who could not find employment enter the trafficking business and prosper socially and economically, challenging previously established authorities within their region and ethnic groups.
Violence by State Agents
State military and other security forces are among the greatest perpetrators of violence against civilians in the region.
Other States of West Africa under Threat
The UN’s special representative for the region and other delegates recently reported to the UN Security Council that insecurity has spread into areas previously considered safe such as Côte d’Ivoire and Benin. French authorities have said the expansion effort into the Gulf of Guinea countries is led by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
The democratic erosion or reversals observed in the region are making the bed of future insurgencies by feeding grievances among the youth and others who find themselves excluded from access to power increasingly monopolized by an aging class of incumbent elites. The removal of term limits in Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, the manipulation of elections in Benin, and the harassment of opposition in Senegal all make these coastal states more susceptible to potential jihadist threats.
Diagnostic 1: A Combined Failure of International and Domestic Interventions
The crisis in the Sahel has brought about multiple international military and peacekeeping interventions, including troop deployments by the French, civilian and military personnel from UN member nations (via MINUSMA), US troops providing training and drone operations, as well as coordinated operations by Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, known as the Sahel G5. These external interventions have come on top of multiple domestic attempts to respond to the crisis.
Failure of Foreign Intervention
Operation Barkhane began in 2014, in the wake of Operation Serval, through which the French recaptured the main cities in the northern half of Mali on behalf of the Malian state. As of September 2021, 5,100 troops were scattered around the entire Sahel region.
In many ways, the seven years of Barkhane’s existence have been increasingly unproductive. Since the Pau Summit in January 2020, which claimed a strategic shift but ultimately once again prioritized the military approach, the levels of violence in the triborder area have been the highest on record. While some Western partners continue to express public support for the French-led mission in the Sahel, its image and reliability as a military partner for African states is damaged. France is struggling to gain traction outside of the forces committed by the G5 Sahel countries and a handful of European states. To date, the lack of accountability by French leadership for French actions is emblematic of a wider resistance to change its strategic calculus.
Notably absent within this environment of vulnerability are productive responses and even a persistent presence of Operation Barkhane forces—both French and regional capable of providing responsible civilian protections. While the Barkhane strategy addresses governance, justice, and development, these critical components of stabilization are more like afterthoughts, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying at the February 2021 summit that these efforts will be emphasized “once military victory is obtained”.
Public support for Operation Barkhane is weakening both in France and in Africa. A January 2021 French opinion poll showed support among 49 percent, a decline of twenty-four points since February 2013. In recent months, Malian civil society groups have repeatedly called for France to leave and for an evaluation of foreign troop presence.
The rhetoric of a French government insistent upon denying that military targeting methods are flawed increases the skepticism and outspokenness of local officials and traditional leaders representing populations said to be terrorists. Operation Barkhane was intended to create a space for local governments to operate without jihadist influence, but losing the support of local leaders weakens the role of France and other partners in advancing political and community stability.
The hesitations of Sahelian partners reflect in part French inconsistency regarding force increases and withdrawals, and its implausible claims to have no local political ambitions. French officials suggest the proliferation of violence along ethnic lines and the emergence of ethnic and community militias lie outside Operation Barkhane’s apolitical mandate, ignoring the ways in which these dynamics of insecurity create conditions for VEOs to exist, and causing further mistrust among local populations unaware of such nuances.
To date, the lack of accountability by French leadership for French actions is emblematic of a wider resistance to change its strategic calculus
Moreover, France’s increased focus on aerial operations since 2019 has created an imbalance on the ground where JNIM and ISGS’s face-to-face strategy is better at gaining support. This absentee approach compounds problems associated with G5 Sahel security forces, which continue to face structural problems, including low human and financial resources, inefficient logistics, and lack of credibility and accountability. European countries, for their part, are hesitant to provide security and defense funding to African militaries. It is highly unlikely that G5 Sahel armies would be able to significantly hinder VEO advancement if France ends operational support and technical assistance.
At a time when France is progressively removing its troops from the Sahel, a Russian paramilitary organization with close ties to Putin is making its way into the region. The involvement of Russia could undermine current counterterrorism efforts and jeopardize funding from international partners. In the Central African republic, where Wagner is also deployed, its human rights violations have amounted to war crimes, according to the UN. However, with an increasing dissatisfaction toward the French presence in the country, public opinion in Mali has grown fonder of a partnership with Russia.
Failure of Sahelian States
As suggested by the new president of Niger, the excessive focus by the French on military counterterrorist operations parallels a failure in the response of Sahelian states. Although the responses of the three countries have varied to an extent, they have precious few results to show. Observing these states’ respective responses to what is very much an existential threat, one gets the impression of a disconnect, of lip service, of business as usual, and of a tendency to delegate to others the resolution of this crisis.
While large segments of their territories and populations face tragic circumstances and fall under the control of alternative sources of authority, Sahel’s political elites remain concerned about control of the apparatus of the state in the capital city and, mostly, access to its resources. Across the three countries, corruption remains high. Some elites are themselves involved in trafficking.
Of the three Sahel states under consideration in this policy report, Mali is the most delinquent when it comes to responding to its security crisis. While it has barely lived up to its commitments under the 2015 Algiers Peace Accord with northern Mali’s armed groups, the Malian government has nevertheless continued until recently to operate under its framework, largely unable or unwilling to adapt its response to the dramatically different crisis it now faces, where the main actors and the main regions of conflict are vastly different.
The Malian government seems to be going from one initiative to another. Ministries and other state actors compete with each other more than they coordinate for success. The government gives an impression of doing busy work and of pretending more than acting. Its continued attachment to its sovereign prerogatives, despite their empirical erosion, undermines its willingness to listen to local communities and work for them.
While the Barkhane strategy addresses governance, justice, and development, these critical components of stabilization are more like afterthoughts
Mali has a Ministry of National Reconciliation and, since 2017, a National Reconciliation Support Mission tasked with organizing dialogues and mediations among communities in the Mopti region. In 2020, the government fell back to a more conventional military response with Operation MALIKO (which translates as “for peace”), aimed at regaining control of the center of the country.
When there have been agreements or cease-fires among local violent actors, it seems to have been largely without or despite the state. On March 14, 2021, the High Islamic Council (HCI) managed to broker a one-month cease-fire between Katiba Macina and local Dozo fighters in Niono (Ségou region). The Niono agreement allowed jihadists to preach in local mosques, required women to wear the veil, forgave the crimes of all actors, provided for a dual justice system between local and jihadist courts, allowed the Dozos to keep their traditional outfit and weapons, provided for the release of prisoners, and demanded the departure of the FAMa from their base in the Farabougou village within a month. Yet, the government refused to comply with this final item, suggesting it cares more about affirming its authority and projecting its power than about local peace and the safety of its populations. So far, however, the agreement has held.
Although Burkina Faso is usually deemed a somewhat more capable state than Mali, it has also struggled to get any traction in articulating coherent policies that can be implemented against political violence. Very little happened in the first few years of the insurgency, as the country was going through a difficult transition from twenty-seven years of a relatively authoritarian regime, and it was not until March and May 2019 that the government launched two large military operations in the East and in the North (Operations Otapuanu and Doofu, respectively).
Aside from these two actions and a few other smaller ones, Burkina’s forces are still completely absent from 30 percent of the territory and unevenly distributed over another third, with only 28 percent of the forces on the front line. The security forces are also hampered by significant divisions among their different units.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Burkina Faso has largely relied on local self-defense groups in its response to the crisis, first and foremost the Koglweogo. Although a law was passed in 2020 to regulate the recruitment and training of such self-defense forces, the Koglweogo are quite autonomous from the state, even sometimes administering their own justice, and are known to practice corporal punishment. While it is unclear whether they are able to successfully fight jihadists, they contribute to the multiplication of violent actors across the territory.
Operation Barkhane was intended to create a space for local governments to operate without jihadist influence, but losing the support of local leaders weakens the role of France and other partners in advancing political and community stability
Aside from military operations, Burkina’s main response to its crisis has been the adoption of the Sahel Emergency Plan (PUS) in July 2017. PUS is a complex plan that includes socioeconomic and governance “pillars” and aims to bring development to the northern region as a long-term solution to the crisis. It lacks credibility in a country where the North has long been politically and economically marginalized, and is poorly adapted to the unstable security environment. Only about half of its planned activities were carried out in its first two years.
Generally, Niger stands out in the Sahel as more capable and more responsive to crisis than its neighbors. The country also has an established history of seeking to integrate its minorities and promoting co-optation of religious clerics. However, these qualities have not spared Niger a significant deterioration of its security situation over the last few years.
In the first phase of the crisis, Niger used a multiplicity of largely successful strategies and managed to avoid a breakdown like Mali experienced. Mahamadou Issoufou’s administration allocated more resources to the northern part of the country in the wake of the Libyan regime’s collapse; launched military operation Malibero, which dissuaded Tuaregs heading from Libya to settle in Niger; increased Tuareg and Arab participation in the government; and furthered decentralization, which gave northerners important positions in their region.
The second phase of the crisis was characterized by spillover violence from Nigeria’s Boko Haram. From 2005 to 2014, the government met with some success there. The response was military in form and repressive, with a state of emergency and civilian displacement. Yet the sense of violated sovereignty might have bolstered support for the government.
Starting in 2014, however, ISGS-inspired violence spread from Mali into the Tillabéri region that lies between the capital and the Malian border. The Niger government followed the path of its neighbors and partnered in 2017 with nonstate armed groups from Mali. Niger switched tactic in 2018 and has since tried to promote reconciliation and inhibit jihadist coalition building.
To do so, it has relied on the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP). This is a rather unique institution in the region and is directly under the authority of the president. The HACP sought to co-opt local elites in Tillabéri by recruiting more locals in the security forces and working with select chiefs to channel food aid to communities.
Despite its best efforts, however, HACP has had limited success and violence has flared anew in the Tillabéri region since 2019.
It is worth addressing Chad’s role, as Chad is the main outside intervener in the region besides France. Sharing borders with Libya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, Chad is a crucial element in regional security and France’s first ally in the region.
In the first phase of the crisis, Niger used a multiplicity of largely successful strategies and managed to avoid a breakdown like Mali experienced. Mahamadou Issoufou’s administration allocated more resources to the northern part of the country in the wake of the Libyan regime’s collapse; launched military operation Malibero, which dissuaded Tuaregs heading from Libya to settle in Niger; increased Tuareg and Arab participation in the government; and furthered decentralization, which gave northerners important positions in their region
The April 2021 death of President Idriss Déby led to a power grab by a military junta under the leadership of his son, Mahamet. France’s reliance on Chad as a Sahelian security partner was visible in its lack of condemnation of this coup. The display of support was not in vain as Mahamet Deby confirmed his intentions to keep Chadian troops in the G5 Joint Force. However, in August, the Chadian transitional government announced the withdrawal of half of its troops, or about 600 elements, to better deal with Chad’s own rebels. Chad’s partial withdrawal is a blow to the collective military strategy in the triborder area, where it has been a very active participant with frequent joint operations with Burkina Faso and Niger’s militaries.
Diagnostic 2: The Nature of the Crisis
There has been a rise of violent extremism and intercommunal violence in the Sahel as the result of patterns of state abuse, state weakness and neglect, the politics of exclusion, and a lack of accountability of political elites.
A Patter of State Abuse, Even for Democracies
The states of the Sahel may appear as benign creations from a distance. Yet, they remain steeped in their colonial legacy and engage with their societies in command-heavy, topdown relations where abuse remains common and largely unchallenged. As a result, they produce a significant degree of alienation and grievances among their citizens, which feed ongoing patterns of violence.
In Mali, state representatives, particularly gendarmes and water and forestry officers, are at the origin of many instances of abuse against local populations. It is important to note that democratization at the top of the state does not appear to affect the daily behavior of state agents at the local level. There also is a long history of impunity for state actors and security forces in Burkina Faso. In all three countries, there is also significant abuse of civilians by nonstate groups that often act on behalf or with the blessing of the state.
Niger switched tactic in 2018 and has since tried to promote reconciliation and inhibit jihadist coalition building
A Pattern of State Neglect and Incapacity
When the local state is not abusive, it is too often negligent, truant, or incompetent. Sahelian states are fundamentally weak in their ability to design and implement policies, and cope and respond to crisis. This deep structural weakness is at the root of their problems. This comes from far more than a lack of will, “poor governance,” or corruption. It is a structural deficit of statehood that results from the broad mismatch between the ambitions of sovereign territorial states, the overwhelming scope of challenges in vast and underpopulated countries with minimal infrastructure, and the extremely limited resources at their disposal.
Instead of thinking of jihadist terror as an exogenous problem affecting the region, it is more fruitful to conceive of it as an opportunistic infection in a diseased body: the Sahelian state. To think of the state as the problem rather than the solution can help in thinking of new ways to address the crisis. Indeed, jihadist ideology is appropriated by local Muslim activists who use it to tap into the larger grievances against the state. Jihad presents itself as a solution, an alternative. In this respect, religious fervor is not the main mobilizer. State weakness is.
Who’s In? Who’s Out? Exclusionary States
Both geographically and demographically, Sahelian states can be thought of as having cores and peripheries. The latter are incorporated into the state under different terms than the cores, which typically own the state and find representation in it. Peripheries are more often under regimes of “administrative occupation,” sometimes indirectly. The developments of the last five to ten years in the region suggest that this differential mode of national integration and the subsequent marginalization of some communities and regions lie at the root of the grievances that feed insurgencies.
Complacent Political Elites Shielded from Accountability
Weak, vulnerable, and unpredictable governments with political elites more focused on their careers and benefits than on public policy or the fate of their citizens represent another factor that lies both at the roots of the violence and as part of the difficulties in curbing it. All triborder countries have undergone coups and attempted coups by their militaries in recent years and months. It is a plausible inference from this coup activity that at least some segments of these countries’ militaries are more focused on taking power or improving their lot than on fighting insurgencies.
Burkina Faso and Niger might seem like more functional democracies than Mali, but they are exceedingly fragile and rather superficial. Both at the national and local levels, there tends to be an absence of genuine leadership.
What Alternatives for the Sahel?
Although foreign partners have long recognized poor governance as a root cause of the worsening security situation in much of the West African Sahel, efforts to tackle the inability of Sahelian states to provide equal access to public goods and the lack of accountability in many of their institutions, including in the police and military, have remained secondary to existing efforts in the realm of security and development.
To do so, it has relied on the High Authority for the Consolidation of Peace (HACP). This is a rather unique institution in the region and is directly under the authority of the president
To be sure, Sahelian populations need a lot more than some token and financially unsustainable improvement in governance. Despite its dire humanitarian consequences, the crisis presents an opportunity for something more fundamental and more salutary, both for African states and for their international partners. For the former, the time has come to embark upon real reforms. It also is high time to stop stigmatizing Islam as a political project, to recognize its potential contributions to governance, and to show greater flexibility with respect to the secularism of the state. Outside of security, donors might also want to focus their assistance on projects that help Sahelian societies deal with their climate, resource, and energy crises.
Better Adapted States that Empower Local Communities
The state Sahelian states imitate, by and large the French centralized interventionist model, is, however, a very poor fit to their material conditions and an unlikely candidate for eventual state-building success. Fortunately, the region has other, more adapted precedents to rely on. Before the French invasion, multiple state formations had existed over centuries in the Sahel.
The Sahel region has historically been built around long-distance trans-Saharan trade. Territorial states that partition the area have set themselves up in opposition to these flows. Their trade is instead mostly with the former colonial power. Dissolving postcolonial Sahelian states is obviously not a realistic policy prescription. Yet diluting their arbitrariness and tempering their incongruence to local societies might be.
Federalism would come a lot closer to approximating past forms of successful governance in the region, particularly if it were accompanied by a genuine union of the states at the supranational level. It would start by recognizing that sovereignty belongs to local communities, not to postcolonial states, and build up from there. Local communities and regions could claim local authority over a large realm of public policies, as well as over the tools of generating their own resources. The federal state, with limited and constrained authority, could more successfully focus on a smaller set of functions. Among these would be security. A dilution of international borders could make it more feasible to design effective security responses and to confront violent extremist organizations seamlessly, from Chad to the Atlantic coast. The G5 joint force provides a readymade shell that could be the embryo of such a large-scale response.
Building upon Islam’s Political Legacy
Mired in their struggles with good governance, Sahelian states continue to cling to colonially derived notions of laïcité (securalism) as foundations for legitimacy. Largely reflecting the fears and prejudices of Westerners and Westernized elites, Islam is a political scarecrow in the Sahel. Yet more than 90 percent of Malians and Nigeriens, and more than 50 percent of Burkinabe, are Muslim. Between 25 percent (Burkina) and 70 percent (Niger) of Sahelian populations want their country governed primarily by religious law. Lasting progress in local governance is unlikely if these preferences are not taken into account.
The relative rejection of Islam as a source of principles and mechanisms of governance undermines the legitimacy of the state, and misses the opportunity to capitalize upon the experience of precolonial political formations such as the Mali and Songhai Empires, which were based on Islamic law, or the Fula and Tukulor theocratic states that now feed instead the narratives of violent jihadists. Islam can be a resource for Sahelian states, a repository of social capital, especially at a time when corruption and nepotism have thrived under democratic reforms.
Sahelian states are fundamentally weak in their ability to design and implement policies, and cope and respond to crisis. This deep structural weakness is at the root of their problems. This comes from far more than a lack of will, “poor governance,” or corruption
It is indeed important to note that, for all their criminal activities, contemporary violent jihadists are also providers of governance and at times credible competitors to the state. Not all of these initiatives are welcomed by local populations and some are particularly harsh, fundamentalist, and reactionary. Yet there is a lot more to Islamic governance than these excesses.
However, it could imply a greater representative, if not legislative, role for Islamic associations, of which there are hundreds in the region and which now tend to be controlled top-down by the state; constitutional or legal provisions that could build on Islamic culture, justice, and doctrine and provide a more ethical environment for governance; or a better integration of Koranic schools into the state’s education system, which could reduce the alienation of youth, for example. Moreover, recognizing a role for political Islam would provide a foundation to negotiations with jihadists, which are much overdue.
A Different Kind of Military Assistance
The French strategy has very much rejected the notion that it, too, must evolve to meet the moment. The reaffirmation of this strategy at the Sahel Summit in February 2021 is the reaffirmation of a counterterrorism strategy that hinges on a military-first approach to defeating jihadism despite eight years of poor overall results. First and foremost, any adjustment to the Barkhane strategy must put civilian protection at the forefront.
Other providers of security assistance stand to gain from rethinking their approach. Drone-supported intelligence by the United States, for example, facilitates the French focus on killing jihadist leaders, which tends to generate new leaders, displacing and replacing fighters more than it eliminates them. Similarly, the training of African forces, including the European Training Mission (EUTM), has very little to show for its efforts. Inadvertently, when they help strengthen local militaries with training and resources, Western partners worsen the balance of power between state and society to the benefit of already unaccountable states.
A Different Focus for Foreign Aid
Good governance in the Sahel requires reconciling the state with local populations who have developed a deep distrust of their government over decades of corruption and a general lack of presence to address their needs. Much of the geographic area is actually governed space, often by nonstate actors. While the issue of a deep reform of the state will take time, donors can help in the meantime by recognizing and supporting the effective provision of governance by any willing and accountable actor as a safe and reliable alternative to governance by violent actors.
France has yet to accept any responsibility for the alleged targeting of civilians through their air and ground operations. In many ways, the Barkhane operation must grapple with how it can be effective at all in its mission when high-ranking government officials make public comments that suggest local populations are seen as terrorists first.
France should engage with its government partners to reflect on what processes of healing must occur within the communities disproportionately affected by the violence perpetrated under the banner of Operation Barkhane. This requires a transparent, open dialogue and an acceptance that the French strategy has broken trust, support, and relationships across the region and also at home.
Finally, donors would be well inspired to increase their support for ongoing initiatives in the fields of climate, environment, and energy, which hold the keys to many socioeconomic problems in the region.
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