Recurrent violence perpetrated by armed Islamist groups threatens populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – with violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. Populations are also at risk of abuses by security forces, as well as communal violence between ethnic militias and self-defense groups.
During 2012 Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in northern Mali following a military coup. Despite numerous security initiatives, including the presence of international forces and a UN peacekeeping operation (MINUSMA), the conflict shifted into inter-communal violence and attacks by armed Islamist groups. Recurrent violence perpetrated by such groups – including those affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – subsequently spread into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, threatening populations across the Central Sahel with violations that may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes. At least 2.6 million people are internally displaced in the Central Sahel, including more than 2 million in Burkina Faso alone.
For more than five years armed Islamist groups across the Central Sahel have systematically used sieges, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines as deliberate tactics of war. In Burkina Faso, more than 1 million people live in areas under blockade and face daily threats of violence. Across the region these groups are imposing “zakat” (forced taxation) and strategically destroying and looting civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, water services and bridges. Armed Islamist groups have targeted secular state education, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. Nearly 10,000 schools are currently closed or non-operational, impacting 1.6 million children. These groups have also targeted humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. Throughout the region violence has also taken place between rival ethnic militias and self-defense groups resulting in countless abuses, including kidnappings, unlawful killings and arbitrary detentions.
The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Mali and national human rights mechanisms have found that some counterterrorism operations have led to grave human rights violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes. A group of UN independent experts concluded that the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group have perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity during counterterrorism operations since December 2021. A report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that FAMa and mercenary operatives killed at least 500 people – the majority of whom were summarily executed – and perpetrated rape, sexual violence and torture against civilians in Moura from 27-31 March 2022. State-sponsored militias in Burkina Faso, notably the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDP), have also been implicated in grave crimes, including unlawful killings, torture and enforced disappearances of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters.
The region has faced significant upheaval since 2021, particularly following military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso in May 2021 and January 2022, respectively, which prompted their suspensions from the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States. As a result of growing frustration and insecurity, Burkina Faso had a second coup in September 2022. In the past year, amidst a shrinking of civic space across the region, human rights defenders, journalists and real or perceived government critics have faced increasing reprisals, including threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests.
Burkinabé authorities launched a drive in November 2022 to recruit 50,000 people into the VDP to fight alongside the army in a purported effort to curtail the spread of violence. Since then, there has been an increase in extrajudicial killings and disappearances of civilians – oftentimes ethnic Fulani – who VDP fighters and the security forces accuse or suspect of supporting the militants. Nearly 300 civilians were killed in attacks involving Burkinabé security forces between October and February, compared to about 100 during the same period a year ago, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). On 20 April at least 150 civilians, including the elderly, women and children, mainly from the Mossi ethnic group, were reportedly killed by the Burkinabé security forces in likely the deadliest incident against civilians since the crisis began. In response to the alleged involvement of security forces in civilian killings, the government announced during May the deployment of judicial police to ensure accountability during counterterrorism operations.
Since January, there has been an intensification in fighting between ISGS militants and the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims in the Ménaka region of Mali. Militants continue to launch persistent attacks against civilians, including punitive attacks against communities they accuse of helping the state or refusing to join their ranks. In April ISGS took control of Tidermène – a main supply route – further isolating populations. Since ISGS launched their offensive in March 2022, more than 100,000 people have been forcibly displaced and 1,100 civilians killed in Ménaka and Gao. According to the radio station Voix du Sahel, during April and May 2023 more than 18,000 women and children fled abuses by unidentified armed men in Tillabéri, Niger, where clashes between the Djerma and Fulani communities led to several deaths and injuries.
The UN Children’s Fund reported that 2022 was the deadliest for children in the Central Sahel since the crisis began. In Burkina Faso, three times more children were killed during the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period in 2021, with most dying from gunshot wounds or due to IEDs or explosive remnants of war. In Niger, the UN documented over 200 grave violations against children between July and September 2022 in the tri-border area, most of them involving the forced recruitment and use of children.
While Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger each face distinct challenges, these states also share a legacy of structural vulnerabilities, weak governance, limited state presence and porous borders. The expanded area of influence and/or control of armed Islamist groups increases protection risks, including targeted attacks against certain communities.
Armed Islamist groups appear to be deliberately targeting civilians as a tactic to pressure local communities into cooperation or forcibly displace them. The CoI on Mali has previously implicated armed Islamist groups in crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Populations continue to be targeted and persecuted on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. According to ACLED, more than half of the civilians killed by the defense and security forces or ethnic militias in Burkina Faso and Mali during 2022 were Fulani despite comprising around 10 and 14 percent of the population in each country, respectively. The Burkinabé government’s reliance on VDPs has fueled abuses.
In January 2023 the UN Secretary-General released an internal review of MINUSMA, stating that significant movement restrictions undermine the Mission’s ability to protect populations. Protection gaps increase the risk of atrocities and hinder MINUSMA’s capability to take timely interventions.
While countering violent extremism remains crucial in the Central Sahel, it is essential that all three governments and international forces establish civilian harm mitigation mechanisms and ensure that their efforts do not exacerbate inter-communal tensions and fuel distrust of state authority. All actors should refrain from supporting or collaborating with ethnically aligned militias with poor human rights records.
Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms, militias and self-defense groups and improve land management and local governance. Support for local reconciliation initiatives needs to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are greatest. The transitional authorities in Burkina Faso and Mali must promote public dialogue and remove unlawful restrictions on fundamental human rights.
The governments of the Central Sahel should investigate all violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law. Malian transitional authorities must cooperate with MINUSMA and ensure that the Mission can carry out its mandate, particularly its human rights components.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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