Since January 2020, an already fragile situation in the Sahel region of Africa has worsened with waves of violence affecting millions of people. The situation is being compounded by the arrival of COVID-19 in the countries of the region.
The Sahel and International Cooperation
The Sahel sits on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. The Sahel is usually defined as the territory traversing the width of the continent from northern Senegal on the Atlantic west coast, through areas of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and into Sudan and Eritrea on the eastern Red Sea coast. It is characterised by its semi-arid land and low population density
In 2014, due to rising shared security concerns, five Sahel countries the Sahel Group of Five (G5). Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger’s launched the G5 to fight insecurity and support development across the five states.
In 2017 the G5 initiated a 5,000-strong cross-border Joint Force to combat terrorism, people trafficking and transnational crime. The Joint Force carried out its first operation in November 2017, using the armies of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. It is active in a 50km strip of land straddling the three countries’ shared borders, with seven battalions in zones in the west, central and eastern areas.
Also in 2017, the Sahel Alliance was launched, formed of a range of states and international bodies. France and Germany were the most prominent states in the formation of the alliance, keen to focus on economic development through increased employment opportunities.
More details on the organisational development of the G5 and Sahel Alliance can be found in this Tactics Institute Briefing.
In early 2020, the already fragile situation in the Sahel has worsened.
In April, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a call for warring parties to protect civilians in the region. Increased militia and security forces activity and violence have caused what UNHCR describes as “one of the world's largest displacement crises”.
Violence has reportedly spiked since March 29 when security forces from Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria began a crackdown on armed groups responsible for attacks on both members of the military and civilians.
Deputy Director for UNHCR’s Bureau for West and Central Africa, Aissatou Ndiaye has stated: “Too many civilians in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin have already paid a high price and should not be made to suffer more.”
The UN official was responding to a situation in which thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes and villages. This dynamic is not new to the Sahel region, with violence already a cause of significant forced migration and a root cause of one of Africa’s most significant humanitarian challenges.
The UNHCR reports that up to 50,000 people, including thousands of women, children, and elderly, have been displaced in the Sahel this year. 25,000 were displaced when the Chadian army launched operation ‘Wrath of Boma’ at the end of March with support from other countries’ militaries.
More than 4,000 were displaced during clashes in April in Niger’s Tillaberi region and hundreds have crossed borders to seek safety in parts of Mali. Another 6,000 have left Niger for Mali, while UNHCR estimates at least 10,000 Malians are internally displaced.
In Niger, UNHCR and its partners recorded 191 incidents with 549 victims in the first three months of 2020 in localities within 50 kilometres of the borders. The humanitarian situation is compounded because of limited access available to aid agencies. The UN estimates that 3.8 million are internally displaced across the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, with 270,000 living as refugees in neighbouring countries.
In early April, UNHCR was forced to express its alarm regarding Burkina Faso, where hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced and the country was suddenly faced with the fear and uncertainty brought by the coronavirus.
Malian refugees, estimated to number 25,000 in Burkina Faso, have been targeted by armed militias and many have returned to the dire situation back across the border.
UNHCR estimates the number of people displaced in Burkina Faso to be over 838,000 since January 2019 – a figure which the refugee agency has said rises every day. And the agency also reported that, following attacks and ultimatums by armed groups, the Goudoubo refugee camp, recently home to 9,000 refugees, lay empty and was effectively closed.
Mali’s volatile security situation denies many refugees the choice of returning home to that country. A curfew imposed by authorities in response to COVID-19 has further increased security and health concerns among vulnerable groups within the population.
Last week, there was violence in Niamey, capital of Niger, following the government’s imposition of an anti-coronavirus curfew and a ban on prayer gatherings. Security forces used teargas to disperse a crowd of people who wanted to hold prayers in a mosque and protesters, mainly young people, burned tyres and blocked streets.
Niger is one of the African countries to have suffered coronavirus cases including a number of fatalities. Niamey has been isolated from the provinces by the government, who have also declared a state of emergency and imposed a 7pm-to-6am curfew. Places of worship and schools have been closed.
These latest developments in the Sahel compound an already dire security situation. The region has experienced a worrying rise in Islamist militia activity in recent years, much of which is funded by an illegal gold trade, which sees African gold smuggled off the continent. The United Arab Emirates is the prime destination for the gold, which is then sold on and contributes significantly to the Emirati economy while doing nothing to boost the treasuries of the Sahel states from where the gold is mined.
Tactics Institute’s analysis of the illegal gold trade can be read here.