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.