Populations in the Central Sahel – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – face potential 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.
Civilians across the Central Sahel are facing increased attacks by Islamist armed groups and state security forces, as well as inter-communal violence perpetrated by rival militias. Almost 7,000 people were killed during 2020, making it the deadliest year in the Central Sahel since the conflict began. In Burkina Faso and Mali, more civilians were killed by local militias and national security forces than by attacks by Islamist armed 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 several international forces, including a UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), the conflict in Mali has expanded from a separatist rebellion into inter-communal and extremist violence.
The International 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 other forms of sexual violence, as well as attacks against humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. More than 130 MINUMSA peacekeepers have been killed since July 2013, including six since January 2021.
Since Islamist armed groups expanded their activities from northern to central Mali during 2015, violence has spilled into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger. The porous tri-border area has facilitated the expansion of Islamist armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies has recorded an almost sevenfold increase in violent incidents connected to these groups in the Central Sahel since 2017, with a 44 percent increase in attacks in 2020. On 2 January 2021 armed men, allegedly affiliated with an Islamist armed group, launched coordinated assaults on two villages in the Tillabéri region of Niger, killing at least 105 civilians, including 17 children. This massacre was one of the deadliest attacks in Niger’s recent history.
Islamist armed groups have increased their attacks on civilian infrastructure, including places of worship, health centers and schools. These groups targeted state education across the Central Sahel, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers for using the secular state curriculum. The UN Refugee Agency has warned of a sharp increase in grave human rights violations committed against children in Mali, including human trafficking, forced recruitment by armed groups, rape and being forced into sexual or domestic servitude. Armed groups have also used landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), indiscriminately killing and maiming civilians. From January-September 2020 IEDs killed 181 civilians in Mali.
In response to attacks by Islamist armed groups, counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces have led to grave human rights abuses against civilians. The CoI determined that the Malian defense and security forces committed war crimes, including targeted killings, rape and torture. According to MINUSMA, between June-December 2020 the Malian security forces were one of the leading perpetrators of extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. MINUSMA also reported that the security forces sometimes conducted “reprisal operations against civilian populations” accused of supporting Islamist groups. On 30 November Niger’s National Human Rights Commission found that elements of the Nigerien Defense and Security Forces were responsible for the summary and extrajudicial execution of more than 70 unarmed civilians whose remains were discovered in six mass graves in Inatés, Tillabéri region.
Inter-communal violence between rival ethnic militias and “self-defense” groups is also rising across the Central Sahel. Violence in Mali 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, particularly in the Mopti and Ségou regions. During the second quarter of 2020 there was also increasing violence within the Dogon community. One armed group, Dan Nan Ambassagou, has carried out attacks against other community members who have participated in reconciliation efforts. In Burkina Faso, meanwhile, 89 percent of attacks by government-affiliated civilian security volunteers have targeted the Fulani community, killing dozens of civilians.
The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 1.7 million people displaced, including over 1 million children. A record 14.4 million people need humanitarian assistance, a 60 percent increase since January 2020.
While violent incidents along the tri-border area decreased from June-December 2020 – due in part to the rainy season, mediation initiatives and counterterrorism activities – 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, including destroying crops and food reserves.
Weak state institutions, porous borders, a climate crisis and arms proliferation have exacerbated conflict across the Central Sahel. Historically, the Dogon, Bambara and Fulani communities have clashed over land, water and grazing rights. The conflict in the Central Sahel has been exploited by Islamist armed groups who have targeted young Fulani men for recruitment. Violence and atrocities by Islamist armed groups continues to fuel ethnic tensions.
Despite support from international military forces, Sahelian security forces have been unable to adequately protect civilians in the vast regions of central Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso and western Niger. The Burkinabè 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 led to further violence.
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 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.
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 2020 the UNSC renewed MINUSMA’s mandate for an additional year. The UNSC issued a Presidential Statement on 3 February 2021 that underscored the need for a holistic approach to address inter-communal violence in the region.
Operation Barkhane, a 5,100-member French force, has become the leading external counterterrorism operation in the Central Sahel. During July 2017 the G5 Sahel Joint Force was established using troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. On 12 June 2020 the G5 Sahel countries and France launched the International Coalition for the Sahel to coordinate responses to security, political and development issues in the region. During July 2020 a counterterrorism force composed of special forces from European Union (EU) countries was launched to supplement Operation Barkhane.
During January 2021 the G5 Sahel Joint Force launched the Civilian Casualties Identification, Tracking and Analysis Cell, in partnership with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Center for Civilians in Conflict, and with funding by the EU, to enhance civilian harm mitigation practices.
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 distrust in state authority. Additional measures must be implemented to end the proliferation of arms, militias and self-defense groups. Disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts need to be focused on areas where atrocity risks are increasing. Community-based dispute resolution mechanisms should also be supported.
The governments of the Central Sahel, with the support of MINUSMA, OHCHR and the UN Office on West Africa and the Sahel, should investigate all violations and abuses of international humanitarian and human rights law and help restore confidence in state accountability. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger should establish a special entity to investigate and prosecute international crimes.