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 has been compounded by the arrival of COVID-19 in the countries of the region.
On the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, the Sahel region 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, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, formed the Sahel Group of Five (G5) to combat insecurity and support social, economic and infrastructure development across the five states. For our full briefing on the Sahel G5, click here.
The G5 initiated a 5,000-strong cross-border Joint Force in 2017, aimed at combating 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 and 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.
That same year 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.
In the first half of 2020, the already fragile situation in the Sahel worsened, with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issuing a call for warring parties to protect civilians in the region in April. 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. UNHCR reported that up to 50,000 people, including thousands of women, children, and elderly, were displaced within the Sahel in early 2020. Over 25,000 were displaced when the Chadian army launched operation ‘Wrath of Boma’ at the end of March with support from other countries’ militaries.
The spike in insecurity in 2020 compounded an already highly challenging security landscape. As outlined in this expert Tactics Institute analysis, “Islamist terrorism in the Western Sahel region started to boom in late 2016, with the formation of Al Qaeda affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) in Mali, and the launch of its jihadist campaign across Mali through 2017 until now. The southwards spread of JNIM into Burkina Faso, and its alliance with Burkina Faso’s own Al Qaeda affiliate Ansaroul Islam resulted in the diffusion of this jihadist campaign into the northern and eastern regions of Burkina Faso. The Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (EIGS) has been active in the area since 2015, but is affiliated with the other prominent jihadists, Islamic State, and is involved in intense, sometimes lethal, rivalry with JNIM”.
To address the crisis a meeting of leaders from five Sahelian countries and France met in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania on June 30th to identify ways to reduce militant attacks that have undermined the G5’s aims and authority.
French President Emmanuel Macron claimed that French troops working in partnership with G5 soldiers from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger were securing important victories against armed groups: "We are convinced that victory is possible in the Sahel and that it is decisive for stability in Africa and Europe," said Macron.
In January the forces had been combined under one command structure, with President Macron now hailing "spectacular results" and a breakthrough in the conflict.
In contrast, a joint statement from the United Nations and a group of aid organisations active in the Sahel gave a very different analysis: "The security situation in the Sahel countries has deteriorated considerably in recent months. Conflicts prevailing in the region are having unprecedented humanitarian consequences".
Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Kabore said the summit's context was "marked by the persistence of terrorist attacks".
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez attended the summit and other European leaders joined via video link. France has sought more assistance in the Sahel from her European allies, viewing the troubled region’s security as relating closely to that of southern Europe.
In northern Mali in 2012, a rebellion by Tuareg separatists was taken over by armed groups and spread to the centre of the country as well as neighbouring Sahel states, Burkina Faso and Niger. Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees or internally displaced peoples, and profoundly damaging the three already poor economies.
The G5 joint forces are led by 5,100 French troops and have targeted ISIS’s regional affiliate of ISIL, focusing on the Liptako-Gourma regions. In June, France said its forces killed al-Qaeda's North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel during an operation in Mali.
The forces operating in the Sahel include 15,000 from the UN's MINUSMA mission; 5,000 troops from France's Operation Barkhane (based in the north and east of the country); the internationally supported G5 Sahel Joint Force (mainly troops from neighbouring Sahel countries based in the southern, central and eastern Mali); an EU training mission supporting Malian security forces; and Task Force Takuba, EU special forces slated for tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.