By Awuor Alai

The Sahel region aptly dubbed the land of opportunities, spans a large area covering 3,053,200 km2. The countries found in the greater region include Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Algeria, Cameroon, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. However, the countries that form the G5 Sahel are Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.

While this region is potentially the world’s wealthiest, with amazing cultural, human and natural resources, the humanitarian situation in the Sahel has been and continues to deteriorate at a rate that is enough cause for alarm.

The needs and vulnerabilities of the people of Sahel have now reached unprecedented levels with the biggest driving force behind this being food insecurity, the COVID 19 pandemic, rapid population growth, increasing conflict and emergencies arising as a direct result of climate change.

Over the last two years, and certainly more than any other region in Africa, the Sahel region has seen a worrying trend of increasing extremist activity. The fire of extremism in the Sahel has further been fuelled by rising cases of farmer versus herder conflicts as well as the fact that the Sahel remains a catena for illicit trafficking and various organized crime networks.

Extremist activity in the Sahel

Extremist groups activity and in particular militant Islamist activity in 2021 largely occurred in five theatres; Egypt, Mozambique, Lake Chad Basin, Somalia and the Sahel. All the above countries recorded a sharp incline in these violent activities except Egypt. Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger recorded 1,170 of these violent events with numbers going up steadily since then.

The protracted conflict and unrest in the Sahel region entered its tenth year in 2021 with threats of a communal war in Niger, Mali dealing with multiple conflicts from the different factions and Burkina Faso trying to restore ceasefire agreements.

The conflict in the Sahel may be transnational in nature but each of the countries is definitely going through unique challenges and transformations.

Two main groups have been linked to the extremist activities in the Sahel; the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Jama’ at Nusrat Al Islam Wal Muslimin (JNIM).

A factor that is, unfortunately, aiding these extremist groups to remobilize and realign their forces has been the constant eruption of fresh conflict. Central Mali, Tillaberi and East Burkina Faso are classic examples of this.

There is a general misconception that Niger is less riddled with extremist activities compared to its Sahel neighbours. The truth is that Niger faces serious challenges from the insurgency of Boko Haram in the Chad Basin, ISGS in North Tillaberi as well as JNIM in the southwestern part of Tillaberi.

In 2021, 66 per cent of all deaths in Niger that resulted from political violence were caused by the ISGS. The same group was responsible for 79 per cent of deaths caused by violence targeted at civilians.

The main triggers for ISGS have been resistance and defiance by villagers as well as a refusal by the same to pay Zakat or alms, which is an obligation in Islam that has been abused by the group to justify cattle raiding and extort residents.

Some attacks meted out by the group, such as what was witnessed in March last year appear to be instrumental though as the indiscriminate killing of over 140 people in Tuareg, Bakorat, Tillia and Oursanet showed.

Burkina Faso has seen a decrease in extremist group-related violence partly due to cooperation between G5 countries and partly due to competition and fighting between JNIM and ISGS with the former overpowering the latter. This has however not prevented the group from committing atrocities in Oudalan and Seno province.

Mali remains quite frangible because it is the hotspot of the Sahel crisis. To date, the worst attacks on local Malian forces occurred in February (perpetrated by JNIM) and in March (perpetrated by ISGS).

The main challenge for Mali has been the very fractious nature of the country’s politics. This has led to a lot of friction between the French army and the Malian forces especially after the coups which took place in August 2020 and May 2021. This led to President Macron threatening to call back his troops and go on to severe joint operations with the Malian army.

The humanitarian crisis spiralling out of control in the Sahel region is a clear sign that there is so much more to be done. With Jihadist groups beginning to employ more violent means to gain control of various regions (including public executions, mass killings and forceful displacement).

Local efforts by Malians help some but a concerted global effort to quell the situation is required. The growing rift between the state militia and French groups is only working to help JNIM and ISGS to widen their reach in the region.

French troops: Time to roll out of Sahel?

The French military has been active in the Sahel region since 2013 when France intervened to help overthrow Islamic rebels from power in various northern towns. Despite the presence of French troops, Islamic extremist groups have continued to mete scathing attacks in various regions of the Sahel.

By and large, various governments in the Sahel have welcomed the presence of France in the region but harsh critics say the situation is nothing but a remnant of colonial rule.

Speaking next to President Macron, President Mohamed Bazoum said, “The main thing is that France maintains the principle of its support, its cooperation and support for the armed forces of our different countries. We need France to give us what we don’t have. We don’t need France to give us what we already have.” (VOA News, 9 July 2021).

There has been speculation that the scaling down of operation Bharkane (with further withdrawal anticipated in 2023) and instead centralizing military efforts in the tri-state borders was a result of the political tension. A general dissent from locals in the various Sahel countries has been caused by what they see as interference by a former colonizing state.

Initially, the conflicts experienced in the Sahel region were largely limited to the urban areas but these have now spread on to rural areas despite the presence of French troops. The ‘accidental’ killings of civilians (UN, 30 March 2021) both by airstrikes and direct fire have angered locals who have taken to the streets in protest with placards saying “down with France”.

In a piece written for the A l’econtre website, Guillaume Davranche said, “it is waging an endless war there, delaying a political solution, aggravating the situation, reinforcing a criminal system and its intervention is imperialist.”

France has also been accused of turning a blind eye on human rights transgressions committed by its local partners. According to ACLED and data collected by the UN, Malian troops were responsible for the death of more civilians than the extremist groups and committed more human rights violations in 3 of the four quarters of the year 2020 (MINUSMA, March 2021)’Lash-up’, the alliance between French troops and militia in the Sahel region did not yield desired results as cases of violence surged and took on inter-ethnic/communal angles (RAND, 2008).

These fresh violence eruptions only served to strengthen ISGS as it trained more militants and recruited more factions to join their cause. The French military has been blamed for having adopted a largely lethal approach in their intervention and the fear is that will lead to revenge attacks and consequently collateral victim killings; an endless loop of violence.

These cycles of violence only birth more catastrophic acts of retribution. Also, the feelings harboured by the locals in the Sahel region that the intervention is somewhat colonial is seen as the reason youth are joining extremist groups. It is a way for them to protest the presence of a former colonial power.

Any credibility France may have had as regards its efforts to fight violent extremist activity has been watered down and quite frankly rendered null. It may be time for France to consider an absolute exit from the Sahel region.

Photo credit: Hardy Chinedu