Editorial: Conflict and chaos in the Sahel

An ambush about 40 km from the Boungou mine in southeastern Burkina Faso last year left 39 people dead. Credit: Semafo.

When I was interviewing Jon North, the founder and CEO of 79North (CNSX: TWLV), about his exploration projects in Suriname, a small country at the top of South America, he told me about the many years he had spent working in West Africa and around the Sahel region – the semiarid belt south of the Sahara stretching from Senegal to Sudan.

From the time he started working on the continent with his former companies North Atlantic Resources and Northquest in 2002, until he left to pursue a project in the Canadian Arctic in 2010, North travelled widely in the Sahel region, crisscrossing Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger in pursuit of various exploration prospects.

In one anecdote from 2004, North described hiring a local Tuareg man who owned a land cruiser and getting permission from local authorities in northern Niger to drive around in the Sahara looking at rocks in the uranium-producing area around Arlit and Agadez. But he says those times are long gone. “You would be so kidnapped and killed so fast now,” he says. “It would be out of the question now, you can’t do that.”

North also recalled the 2008 kidnapping in Niger of Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler. “It was not far from the capital Niamey, and I know exactly where they picked him up, near a ferry crossing of the Niger River,” North says. “He wrote a book, A Season in Hell, that pretty much says everything about that part of the world.”

My discussion with North prompted me to take a closer look at security in the region over the last year and see just how unstable it has become. The news doesn’t appear good. Security is deteriorating with the spread of jihadist groups and militant factions including Islamic State and al Qaeda battling for supremacy in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

The most powerful militant groups are Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), part of the al Qaeda consortium, and their victims include just about everyone — from tribal leaders and villagers to other civilians, civil servants and soldiers. It doesn’t help that some state security forces have also been accused of human rights abuses.

“People aren’t paying enough attention, but the Sahel is now one of the most insecure places in the world,” Caleb Weiss, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a research institute in Washington, D.C., told the Wall Street Journal in June.

The newspaper quoted figures from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, part of the U.S. Defence Department, which documented nearly 1,000 separate attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in the year ended March 31. During that period strikes by al Qaeda factions jumped 55% year-on-year and those by the Islamic State by 120%, it said. The group also reported that more than 1 million people have fled the violence, most from Burkina Faso, fuelling Africa’s already dire refugee crisis.

According to the International Crisis Group in a report published on their website in June, the Islamic State’s Sahel affiliate “is at present the most potent security threat in Niger, if not the region,” and the group’s leadership “has proven expert at mobilising local communities to their side, using the border zone between Niger and Mali as an important recruiting ground to bolster their forces.”

In March, a former finance minister in Mali, Soumaila Cisse, was kidnapped while campaigning for president near his hometown of Timbuktu. Although no group has claimed responsibility for his abduction, he was seized in an area controlled by the Macina Liberation Front, an al Qaeda-linked militia, news agencies report.

In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that volunteers from the Peace Corps “are no longer allowed to serve in Burkina Faso, Niger or Mali because of security concerns,” and at a summit hosted by France in mid-January, governments from the Sahel called for strengthening military capabilities and targeting the Islamic State in the Sahel as a priority.

France – one of the region’s former colonial powers – already has roughly 5,000 troops in the area and along with forces from the United Nations is trying to keep the peace, while the U.S. under President Donald Trump reviews its troop commitments to the continent.

As governments the world over grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, many Africa experts warn that the violence may escalate as militant groups press to take advantage of the chaos. News agencies reported in June that an al Qaeda-linked group killed ten soldiers in Cote d’Ivoire, the first strike in that country since 2016.

But using armed force to contain the threat is just one part of the solution. To help stem the violence and prevent further inroads by extremist groups, observers say, governments must address the socio-economic grievances that plague the region including poverty, state corruption, and a lack of education, all of which terrorist groups try to exploit.

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