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Sahel’s Security Crisis: the Fragile (Im)balance

Analyses - 24 November 2020

Mali is dealing with a post-coup transition, while Burkina Faso and Niger are in the midst of election season in a highly insecure context, due to the increasing presence of armed groups and local militias. Will the presence and aid from the EU help to preserve the supposed equilibrium in the region, or feed into the hostile narrative against the international community? Guillaume Soto-Mayor, Lead research engineer at CNAM Security and Defense Research Team, answers our questions.

What observations can be made about the security situation in the Sahel currently?

It is first and foremost important to emphasize that the fact that elections are being held in Burkina Faso and Niger despite the particularly insecure context is an indicator that they are perceived as valuable: they serve as an assessment of democratic life and the rule of law in post-conflict or conflict situations. That being said, the situation remains extremely problematic, as one would expect elections to be when large swathes of the population are displaced or when people simply don’t have access to the electoral process due to the presence of armed groups.

On top of that, there is the issue of access to political power. Creating new positions for representatives, at the local or national levels, has been a bargaining chip between the state and discontented communities. The powers that be thus give privileged access to certain chiefs and local strongmen, thereby creating a new electoral map, which naturally becomes a way for organized crime or armed groups to gain political power and legitimacy. This is then used to reinstate their influence amongst local communities, and to safeguard licit and illicit money flows in the territories where they are "elected". Such is the case of Mohamed Ould Mataly, cited in the latest UNSC report as being an important facilitator of criminal activities in the region of Ménaka, in Mali.

Let’s recall thus, that the upcoming elections are set to be held in highly tense security situations. First, armed groups, Dozo hunters, as well as Koglweogo and Pular militias are conducting deadly raids and exactions against civilians, leading the region further into a vicious cycle of inter-community violence. Secondly, the release of more than 200 prisoners in October, in Mali, against the liberation of a handful of hostages, among which French humanitarian Sophie Pétronin and opposition figure Soumaïla Cissé, puts the region at great risk. Many critics of the "military" solution perceived this as a first step towards engagement with the jihadist groups that are present in central and northern Mali. However, if they do exist, the negotiations are starting in a serious position of weakness for the Malian and Sahel governments. Recent jihadi attacks in the region of Bankass in Mali, and near Tin-Akoff in Burkina, which killed dozens of soldiers, were a stark reminder of that harsh reality. In fact, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the liberation was a massive win for Al-Qaeda on every count. It provided them with a massive communication boost, and many experienced fighters joined back their ranks, including some key logisticians and commanders of Al-Mourabitoun, the Al-Qaeda branch in charge of conducting sophisticated attacks throughout West Africa, such as in Ouagadougou and Grand Bassam. Finally, on an ideological level, Al-Qaeda emerged as the true defender of unfairly imprisoned young muslims, targeted by an inefficient and rigged justice system.

The powers that be give privileged access to certain chiefs and local strongmen, thereby creating a new electoral map. 

As a response, the French Operation Barkhane and its allies of the Takuba taskforce have tried to even the score in recent weeks by targeting high-value targets in different katibas: Ansar Dine Chief Ba Ag Moussa, was killed on November 10 by French troops. But I doubt this will prove to be sufficient to halt the spread of the terrorist threat in West Africa.

Burkina Faso and Niger are holding elections in the midst of the coronavirus and security crises, and Mali is still grappling with its post-coup transition, how do they relate?

Against this background, the upcoming elections in several countries could actually represent an additional opportunity for Al-Qaeda. Let’s first take the example of the elections that already took place in Ivory Coast. The official winner is Alassane Ouattara, who secured a third term. The legality of the outcome has been highly disputed, prompting a boycott of the result by the opposition leaders and riots. The unrest that followed has been highly problematic, as it is increasingly drawn upon ethnic, communitarian and religious lines. On the one hand, the northern Muslim communities, perceived to be quite closed off, voted mostly in favor of Ouattara. On the other hand, the Christian and animistic communities mostly supported the opposition. While resilience factors exist, knowing that the issue of territorial control and competition over resources is also central to these divisions, any deterioration of the situation would have a serious impact over the entire region. 

As for the elections in Burkina Faso, more than in any other country, we can say that access to voting rights has been a major issue for many people across the country. Government authorities have been unable to reach large shares of their territories, and local armed militias should be expected to attempt to disrupt the post-electoral process. This is particularly risky for the Burkinabe government, which has been severely criticized for its inability to secure peace in the country. Hence, the security and alleged ability of the future government to restore peace and stability in the country will be key factors in this election. 

Presidential elections will also be held in Niger in December, in an equally unfavorable context of deteriorating public services and insecurity. The growing power struggles between these various armed groups are significantly threatening the integrity of the Nigerien state. Until now, the government has been holding together a somewhat peaceful equilibrium, through the coordination of multiple state institutions, security services, the army, but also traditional chiefs and criminal networks, in what Morten Bøås describes as a hybrid governance system. Any new government will have the very difficult task of maintaining this very fragile equilibrium. Niger remains an important diplomatic actor for Mali and Burkina Faso, and any post-electoral crisis would certainly have spillover effects, potentially triggering new armed rebellions. 

To that end, it must be noted that the electoral process bears some worrying signs that should alert the international community. The candidacy of the main opposition leader, and influential figure, Hama Amadou, was rejected by the Constitutional Court on November 13, which on the other hand did validate the ruling party candidate, Mohamed Bazoum. Amadou remains an extremely popular figure in several regions of the country. 

In Burkina Faso, access to voting rights has been a major issue for many people across the country. 

All that naturally leads up to an important question: if anything goes wrong, or if the electoral results are not accepted as legitimate, what will the army do? In Burkina Faso, where the army has been very much downplayed under former president Blaise Compaoré, there isn’t really a risk of it playing a detrimental role in a post-election context. That is not the case in Niger, where the army is on the one hand a respected institution, but whose leadership has also come under a lot of negative scrutiny for money and weapon mismanagement, human rights violations and extrajudicial killings against local civilians. In this context, the army freeing itself from its obligations towards its civilian electorate could be a dangerous prospect. 

A new 22.6 million euro budget was approved from the EU Trust Fund for Africa, in order to help stabilize the situation. What is your assessment of the EU's contribution to the region?

The EU’s cooperation with the Sahel does not stop at this budget. The EU has also announced that it would give 92 million euros to strengthen the response against coronavirus in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger and Chad. All in all, it is doing a lot to be perceived as a reliable partner that can bring short term responses to the most urgent needs of the population. However, there are increasing worries that most of this budgetary support might have a highly detrimental impact. There is a significant multiplication of actors and NGOs in the humanitarian landscape in Africa, and granted, EU funding is crucial for them. However, the success and actual impact of this financial outpour is hardly straightforward, and often exposes the degree of miscoordination and mismanagement between local actors. 

Funding that has been allocated to curbing the migration flows is a typical example. The EU made a number of mistakes in its conception of migration policies in the Sahel, which turned out to have significantly harmful consequences. The criminalization of migration in the region ended up making it more costly overall, dangerous and less possible to control by authorities. It facilitated a climate that is repressive of migration flows, but based on narratives of good governance and humanitarian needs. Yet as long as migration remains a government priority across the region it is a sure way to obtain funding and diplomatic support from the EU.

If the technical support that is given to local partners ends up being diverted by a kleptocratic and corrupt elite, it means that you’re creating a new rent out of migration. The same goes for the aid allocated to the fight against Covid-19 and terrorism (or the next crisis). The EU’s current approach echoes these same strategic mistakes, and risks reinforcing the same ill-functioning structures and practices, and in turn, strengthening the root causes behind a possible uprising within the army ranks. 

It is crucial to understand the ideological matrix of the multiple populations in the Sahel right now.

One of the main questions that the EU should ask is: how can we critically assess the real long term impact of this aid, and is spending money actually the solution? The answer to that should also be assessed keeping in mind the context of the aid system becoming an increasingly competitive field, where aid from Islamic organizations is often perceived as more fair, efficient and quick. 

There is growing anti-international community sentiment in the region. Where does it come from and how is it to be reconciled with the international community’s prospects for the Sahel? 

This anti-international community sentiment in the region is indeed very much spreading, through social media, in the press, and sometimes also through political rhetoric. The international community must seriously assess the danger this poses to their presence in the region, and to their security operations. There is an amalgamation of a feeling of neocolonialism attached to the French presence on the ground, but also the success of conspiracy theories in very large portions of Sahelian populations. The international community is seen as collaborating with the political elitesto impose on the population a certain way of life, manifested in things such as "Western clothing", secularism, the use of French in the administration and so forth. 

One of the rallying cries in this regard is the shared belief that the French and international community are present in northern Mali, or in the Sahel in general, for their own political and economic gains, which range from the exploitation of Malian gold and Nigerien uranium, to the sale of weapons. Salafi networks have assisted in spreading many of these currents of thought, on social media, local radio and newspapers. Let’s remember that this is unfolding against a background of France’s alleged islamophobia. This very large amalgam is being used efficiently by Dr. Ahmad Lo in Senegal, among others. 

What we need to realize is that this sentiment won’t stop. There are backers who will feed into this narrative and continue to frame and structure this anti-French/anti-international propaganda. The role of traditional religious figures in moderating and mitigating such calls to violence is important, but I’m not sure that this time they will suffice to curb this trend. 

It is crucial to understand the ideological matrix of the multiple populations in the Sahel right now. The success or containment of the growing anti-West sentiment should be observed in the long term, and should be a key element in the way we communicate with these countries and their populations, and in the way we seek to protect the more vulnerable communities in the region. 





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