Central Sahel, Burkina Faso

1 September 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
At least 2.4 million people displaced in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger

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


For over a decade, attacks by armed Islamist groups – including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State Sahel Province – have spread and intensified throughout Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Since the start of 2022, populations in Burkina Faso and Mali have faced recurrent and escalating attacks by armed Islamist groups, as well as scaled up counterterrorism operations by defense and security forces. More civilian fatalities were reported in the Central Sahel in the first eight months of 2022 than in all of 2021, with at least 2,050 civilians killed.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Mali reported that between 2012-2018 armed Islamist groups committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, torture, recruitment of children, maiming, rape and sexual violence. Across the region, armed Islamist groups have used sieges, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices and landmines as deliberate tactics of war. Communities that resist their rule have faced blockades, leaving millions increasingly isolated and vulnerable. According to the UN, Malian authorities control only 15 percent of the country’s territory while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) reported that approximately 60 percent of Burkina Faso remains under state control.

These groups also strategically destroy and loot civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, crops, water services and bridges. Armed groups have targeted secular state education across the region, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. The number of schools affected by violence has tripled in three years, with more than 5,000 schools currently closed or non-operational. Armed Islamist groups have also perpetrated attacks targeting humanitarian workers and the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali (MINUSMA). Since July 2013 the UN has documented 163 MINUSMA peacekeepers killed in hostile acts.

The CoI and national human rights mechanisms have found that some counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces, the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force and international forces have led to grave human rights violations and abuses that may amount to war crimes. Since the beginning of 2022, hundreds of civilians have been killed in counterterrorism operations by the Malian Armed Forces and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group. During August the Burkinabé army acknowledged it had killed civilians in airstrikes in Kompienga province. State-sponsored militias, notably the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, have also been implicated in grave crimes, including unlawful killings, torture and enforced disappearances of hundreds of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters in Burkina Faso.

Throughout the region violence is also taking place between rival ethnic militias and self-defense groups. In Mali, violence between Dozos – traditional hunters that are mainly from the Dogon ethnic community – and ethnic Bambara fighters against members of the predominantly Muslim Fulani community has killed thousands since 2016. The establishment of communal self-defense groups, such as the Koglweogo, has led to numerous abuses and fueled violence along ethnic lines in Burkina Faso. In Niger, self-defense militias established during 2021 among ethnic Arab, Djerma and Tuareg communities in Tillabéri and Tahoua have perpetrated numerous attacks.

The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world, with at least 2.4 million people internally displaced, including more than 1.9 million in Burkina Faso alone. Nearly 15 million people need humanitarian assistance.


The crisis in the Central Sahel has its origins in Mali, where Tuareg separatists and armed Islamist groups seized territory in the north a decade ago following a military coup. Despite numerous security initiatives, the conflict shifted into inter-communal violence and attacks by armed Islamist groups. Porous borders and the absence of state authority have enabled the expansion of these groups. These conditions have been exploited by armed Islamist groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment.

Populations continue to be targeted and persecuted on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. The increased attacks against civilians are primarily in response to communities creating self-defense groups and/or resisting the punitive collection of “zakat” or alms. The surge in civilian deaths in Mali in 2022 coincides with the arrival of Russian mercenaries and the departure of French and other Western forces.

While Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger each face distinct challenges, these states also share a legacy of structural vulnerabilities, weak governance and limited state presence. Impunity for human rights violations and abuses undermines confidence in state authority, heightens inter-communal tensions and fuels cycles of violence and recruitment into armed groups.

Historically, the Dogon, Bambara, Djerma and Fulani communities have clashed over land, water and grazing rights.

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


In January 2013, following a referral by the government, the International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Mali since January 2012. On 9 May 2022 the ICC opened the trial of Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mahmoud, an alleged member of an armed Islamist group charged with involvement in crimes, including rape, torture, persecution, enforced marriages and sexual slavery committed from April 2012 to January 2013.

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 2022 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year.

Fourteen European countries issued a joint statement on 23 December condemning the deployment of the Wagner Group to Mali, stressing that their presence will aggravate the human rights situation. In July 2022 the European Union sanctioned three al-Qaeda affiliated commanders due to attacks against civilians, MINUSMA and defense and security forces in Burkina Faso.

Mali and Burkina Faso were suspended from the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following their May 2021 and January 2022 coups, respectively. On 3 July ECOWAS lifted sanctions placed on Mali.


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.

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. Malian transitional authorities must cooperate with MINUSMA and ensure that the Mission can carry out its mandate, particularly its human rights investigations.


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