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Deteriorating Security in Africa’s Sahel

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Tension and Terror has been Escalating in the Sahara Region

Terrorist attacks against both civilian and military targets have increased five-fold in the Sahel region, since 2016, according to the United Nations. The Sahel region is a severely underdeveloped semi-arid region, south of the Sahara Desert. It stretches from Senegal in the west to Eritrea at the Red Sea. The region is on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. The worsening security situation, the spread of Islamist jihadism and climate change, all resulted in huge numbers of displacement

The new year again took a hard turn for the Sahel. On the 6th of January, 2020  five Malian soldiers were killed, followed by a bigger-scale attack in Niger, where jihadist forces struck 25 soldiers dead. Just like in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, a formerly peaceful nation, numerous religious attacks occurred. Despite the country’s majority follows Islam, there’s a significant number of Christians who are increasingly becoming the target of jihadist groups. A few weeks ago, at least 24 believers were killed during an attack on a Protestant church. 

How did we get here? – Security in the Sahel

There are many causes for the worsening situation in the Sahel and Western Africa. It started with the toppling of Libya’s long-time ruler, Qadhafi, during the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011. This effectively pushed the country into the still ongoing chaos and civil war.

A year later, in 2012, a rebellion broke out in Mali when Islamist extremists took control in the northern part of the country. France immediately intervened in order to stop the collapse of the Malian state. The presence and the role of the once colonizer country in the region are still controversial. France has contributed with some of its troops to countries in the region. Several soldiers were lost while fighting these terrorist groups. But how is it possible that despite 17.000 foreign combatants serving in the region, the situation is not improving but worsening? And who are these militia groups?

Armed Groups in the Sahel

While the Islamic State (IS) is being defeated in Iraq and Syria, currently holding no area, city or township under its exclusive rule, it is gaining ground in Africa. The strongest of the jihadist groups in the Sahel are either linked to the al-Qaeda (such as the “Ansarul Islam”, or “Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin” – JNIM) or to they are affiliated with the Islamic State, like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Boko Haram is operating from North-eastern Nigeria, and a fraction of the group seceded and became what is today known as the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP). Furthermore, given the unresolved and unstable situation in Libya, there’s a high chance that more militaries and weapons are spreading to the Sahel and Lake Chad regions.

French troops
Source: Financial Times

On the other side, in 2014, a G5 Sahel force was created by Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso, to cooperate in the fight against jihadism. While France is arguing that the security situation in the region is important for them and Europe in general, locals often have anti-French sentiments due to the colonial past. As Marie-Roger Biola, African Affairs Analyst has pointed out, one of the problems with the French is their distrust towards the Malians. As she said in an interview with Al Jazeera, the French have neglected the empowerment of the local African armies, which must be a crucial element for the long-term solution. Sometimes the army does not even know how many soldiers it has in its units. It is clear, military structures can still be improved.

Root Causes at the Local Level and Possible Solutions

The African Union’s recent decision to contribute 3000 more troops to help the G5 Sahel group is to be welcomed. Still, the battle against extremist ideologies, human trafficking, and several other issues cannot be solved only by mere military means. Other militant groups can be attractive in their ability to provide security.

Source: Al Jazeera

The French forces are defeating militias in vain, if after that they leave the locals in the semi-territorial control of those groups, without any basic protection services. Besides that, soldiers of the official armies often have poor human rights records. This does not help confidence building with the citizens, as they are not seen as neutral players. For these reasons, local armies not only need a better structure and empowerment, but they also require human rights training.

Islamist groups often recruit by exploiting the existing animosities between ethnic groups like the pastoralists-farmer conflicts in Mali or Nigeria. Peace-making and peace resolution among these groups at the local level is also essential.

Stabilizing the Sahel is Europe’s Interest

Finally, let us not forget, that the Sahel’s security is important for Europe. Why? It is one of the main migration routes when it comes to refugees who are heading towards the continent.  The insecurity in these countries will lead to a worsening of the humanitarian situation in refugee camps, where people are waiting to transit to North Africa, or where some are stuck after being sent back from Libya or Algeria. Besides being transit and host countries, there’s a chance that these countries will increasingly become contributors of refugees themselves.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi meets internally displaced Burkinabe in the town of Kaya in Burkina Faso’s Centre-North region.

In Burkina Faso, for example, only during the first 3 weeks of February, 150.000 people have fled their homes, according to the UNHCR.  Having the failed state of Libya at the border of Europe is already a huge challenge. Europe cannot allow itself another humanitarian disaster, like the one in Syria, to happen in Burkina Faso, as some have warned, which would again result in more displacements.


The author of this article is Aron Lovas, International Business Economics (BSc) student at Budapest Business School. Aron is an Associate at International Diplomatic Student Association and Editor at IDSA Foreign Affairs Newsletter.



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