Central Sahel, Burkina Faso

1 September 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
2,440 civilians killed in attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger during 2020

Populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – face atrocity crimes as a result of attacks by Islamist armed groups and security forces, as well as growing conflict between ethnic militias and community self-defense groups.


Violence and instability have been endemic in Mali since 2012 when Tuareg separatists and Islamist armed groups seized territory in the north following a military coup. Despite the presence of international forces, including a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), the conflict in Mali has shifted from a separatist rebellion into inter-communal and extremist violence. Since Islamist armed groups expanded their activities from northern to central Mali during 2015, violence has spilled into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as parts of southern Mali. More than 2,440 civilians were killed across the Central Sahel during 2020.

The porous tri-border area has facilitated the expansion of groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These groups have isolated some areas under their control and are now enforcing repressive policies based upon their interpretation of Islam.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Mali has reported that between 2012-2018 Islamist armed groups committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, torture, recruitment of children, maiming, rape and sexual violence, as well as attacks against humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. Such groups routinely attack and loot civilian infrastructure, including places of worship and health centers. Armed groups have also used landmines and improvised explosive devices, indiscriminately killing and maiming civilians. More than 140 MINUSMA peacekeepers have been killed since July 2013, including 10 so far this year.

Attacks by Islamist armed groups against civilians in the Central Sahel have become more frequent since the start of 2021. In the volatile Tillabéri and Tahoua regions of Niger, more than 450 civilians have been killed since January. A series of massacres targeting populations from the Zarma and Tuareg communities account for most of these deaths. In northern Burkina Faso, alleged child soldiers affiliated with the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims perpetrated the deadliest attack in the country since 2015, killing over 130 people on 5 June.

The UN has recorded an increase in grave violations committed against children, including killing and maiming, abduction and forced recruitment by armed groups. Armed groups have targeted secular state education across the region, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. At the end of 2020 more than 4,000 schools remained closed due to insecurity.

Some counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces, the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) and Operation Barkhane – France’s regional force – have led to grave human rights violations and abuses. The CoI on Mali has alleged that the Malian security forces have committed war crimes, including targeted killings, rape and torture. MINUSMA recorded a sharp increase in human rights violations by the Malian Defence and Security Forces between January–June 2021, including the extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution of over 60 civilians.

Violence between rival ethnic militias and “self-defense” groups is also rising across the Central Sahel. In Mali violence has taken place between Dozos – traditional hunters mainly from the Dogon ethnic community – and ethnic Bambara fighters against members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani community, as well as within the Dogon community. One Dogon armed group, Dan Na Ambassagou, has carried out attacks and dozens of abductions of civilians from Dogon villages who participated in reconciliation efforts or did not contribute to the group’s “war efforts.” Several community-based groups in central Mali have also been responsible for inflammatory online messages that incite violence and hatred against the Fulani community.

The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 2 million people internally displaced, including more than 1.3 million in Burkina Faso alone. A record 14.4 million people need humanitarian assistance.


Militias, self-defense groups and security forces continue to target populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. Islamist armed groups also target people’s livelihoods, destroying crops and food reserves and blockading villages, exacerbating humanitarian needs. The rise in inter-communal tensions and creation of self-defense groups in southwestern Niger highlights the growing risk of further atrocities.

Historically, the Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities have clashed over land, water and grazing rights. However, weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict. These conditions have also been exploited by Islamist armed groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment.

Despite support from international military forces, Sahelian security forces have been unable to adequately protect civilians. The Burkinabé government’s “Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland” law provides arms and training to civilian volunteers, but the proliferation of arms and militias has fueled further violence and heightened ethnic cleavages.

The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are struggling to uphold their responsibility to protect.


Following a referral by the government of Mali, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation in January 2013. During August 2017 former Ansar Dine leader Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi was sentenced for the war crime of partially destroying the World Heritage Site at Timbuktu. On 30 March 2021 the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims, UNESCO and the government of Mali awarded symbolic reparations to victims of atrocities in Timbuktu.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) subjects eight individuals in Mali to targeted sanctions for obstructing the peace process and violating human rights, including recruiting child soldiers and attacking UN personnel. On 29 June 2021 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year. In response to rising violence against civilians, on 15 July the UN Secretary-General requested that the UNSC increase MINUSMA’s uniformed personnel in order to enhance the protection of civilians. On 17 August the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement condemning continued attacks against civilians and stressing the need for accountability.

In June 2020 the International Coalition for the Sahel was launched to coordinate efforts led by the FC-G5S and its partners. Operation Barkhane is scheduled to be drawn down by early 2022 with a reconfiguration of French forces into Task Force Takuba – a counterterrorism force composed of European special forces.

On 29 June 2021 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the rise in human rights violations and abuses in Mali since August 2020.

Mali remains suspended from the African Union and Economic Community of West African States following a coup d’état on 24 May 2021.


While countering violent extremism remains crucial for Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, it is essential that all three governments and international forces ensure that their efforts do not further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and fuel distrust of state authority. Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms, militias and self-defense groups and improve land management and local governance. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts, as well as support for local reconciliation initiatives, need to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are greatest.

The governments of the Central Sahel, with the support of MINUSMA, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel, should investigate all violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger should establish a special entity to investigate and prosecute international crimes. The transitional authorities in Mali must take concrete steps to implement the recommendations of the CoI.


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