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 intensifying 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 shifted from a separatist rebellion into inter-communal violence and attacks by Islamist armed groups. Since these groups expanded their activities from northern to central Mali during 2015, violence has spilled into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. At least 3,100 civilians have been killed in the region since March 2021, including at least 335 civilians – mostly from the Daoussak (or Dawsahak) ethnic group – who died in the Ménaka and Gao regions of Mali during March 2022 when heavy fighting broke out between armed groups and the so-called Islamic State Sahel Province.
The Central Sahel’s porous tri-border area and absence of state authority have enabled the expansion of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Mali 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. The groups use siege tactics, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines as deliberate tactics of war and also strategically attack and loot civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, crops and water services. 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 groups have also perpetrated attacks targeting humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. Since July 2013 the UN has documented 158 MINUSMA peacekeepers killed in hostile acts, including 20 in 2021. In October 2021 alone, these groups carried out 42 attacks involving IEDs against MINUSMA, the highest monthly total since the mission’s establishment.
Some counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces, the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) and international forces have led to grave human rights violations and abuses. The CoI has alleged that the Malian defense and security forces have committed war crimes, including targeted killings, rape and torture. An estimated 300 men – some suspected Islamist fighters – were reportedly summarily executed in Moura, central Mali, during military operations conducted from 27-31 March by the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and suspected Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group. The majority of victims were members of the Fulani ethnic group. Niger’s National Human Rights Commission has implicated Nigerien forces in grave abuses against civilians. Burkinabé security forces and state-sponsored pro-government militias, notably the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, have been implicated in grave crimes, including unlawful killings, torture and enforced disappearances of hundreds of civilians and suspected Islamist fighters.
Civilians are also at risk due to violence 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 perpetrated numerous attacks causing civilian casualties.
The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world, with at least 2.3 million people internally displaced, including more than 1.8 million in Burkina Faso alone. Nearly 15 million people need humanitarian assistance.
Parties to the conflict continue to target and persecute populations 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.
Despite international military support, Sahelian security forces have been unable to adequately protect civilians. The proliferation of ethnic militias and self-defense groups is due in part to the inability of states to effectively protect their populations.
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 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.
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 the ICC opened the trial of Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mahmoud, an alleged member of an Islamist armed 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 2021 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year.
On 17 February 2022 France and its European partners, as well as Canada, announced plans for the full withdrawal of their counterterrorism forces in Mali. On 11 April the European Union announced the end of its training mission for the FAMa and national guard. On 15 May Mali withdrew from all the organs and bodies of the G5 Sahel, including the FC-G5S.
Fourteen European countries issued a joint statement on 23 December condemning the deployment of Wagner Group to Mali, stressing that their presence will aggravate the human rights situation.
Mali remains suspended from the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following a coup in May 2021. Following a military coup on 24 January 2022, ECOWAS and the AU suspended Burkina Faso.
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 further exacerbate inter-communal tensions and fuel distrust of state authority. The FC-G5S must fully implement its Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Compliance Framework, as well as finalize its civilian protection strategy.
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, 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 IHL and International 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.
The UNSC should renew the mandate of MINUSMA in June, maintaining its strong civilian protection and human rights reporting mandate and requesting to strengthen early warning and response mechanisms.