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 armed Islamist groups – including groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State Sahel Province – 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 2,300 civilians were killed in the Central Sahel in 2022 alone.
For at least five years armed Islamist groups across the Central Sahel have systematically used sieges, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices and landmines as deliberate tactics of war. These groups also impose “zakat” (forced taxation) and strategically destroy and loot civilian objects, including places of worship, health centers, food reserves, water services and bridges. Armed Islamist groups have targeted secular state education across the region, 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. In July 2022 the European Union (EU) sanctioned three al-Qaeda affiliated commanders due to attacks against civilians, MINUSMA and the defense and security forces in Burkina Faso.
The region has faced significant upheaval since April 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.
Throughout 2022 persistent attacks by armed Islamist groups significantly intensified. Since March 2022 groups aligned with the Islamic State have carried out systematic attacks against civilians – primarily those from the Dawsahak, a Tuareg ethnic group – in dozens of villages in Ménaka and Gao, northern Mali. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and thousands forced to flee. In Burkina Faso, at least 1 million people live in areas under blockade and face daily threats of violence. In Tillabéri, Niger, approximately 60 percent of displaced people have reported being victims of violence, including threats, kidnapping and theft, by armed Islamist groups between November 2022-January 2023.
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. Since the beginning of 2022, hundreds of civilians, particularly ethnic Fulani people, have been killed in indiscriminate attacks during counterterrorism operations by the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) and allied mercenaries from the Wagner Group, and at times accompanied by Dozos – traditional hunters that are mainly from the Dogon ethnic community. A group of UN independent experts stated that Wagner mercenaries and FAMa perpetrated possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in Mali since December 2021. 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.
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.
At least 2.5 million people are internally displaced in the Central Sahel, including 1.9 million in Burkina Faso alone. An estimated 14.4 million people need life-saving humanitarian assistance.
Violence against the Fulani community in Burkina Faso has escalated since the coup in September. Between 30-31 December suspected Dozo VDP members killed at least 86 Fulani people, including children, reportedly in retaliation for an attack by an al-Qaeda affiliated armed group. Since then, hate speech and incitement to discrimination and hostility has proliferated. The incident occurred only a month after Burkinabé authorities launched a drive to recruit 50,000 people into the VDP to fight alongside the army in a purported effort to curtail the spread of violence.
There has been a significant redistribution of international forces in the Central Sahel, including the conclusion of France’s decade-long Operation Barkhane in November 2022 and the deployment of Wagner mercenaries in Mali in December 2021. In February 2023 the EU launched a military partnership mission with the Niger Armed Forces with the aim of integrating a human rights-based approach in the fight against terrorism and enhancing the protection of civilians.
On 23 January representatives from the ethnic Djerma, who are primarily sedentary farmers, and the nomadic Fulani pastoralist communities signed a peace agreement in Banibangou, Niger, to address long-standing conflict and growing tensions over access to land.
In the past year, amidst a shrinking of civic space across the region, human rights defenders have faced increasing reprisals, including threats, intimidation and arbitrary arrests. In 2023 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Mali have urged Malian authorities to ensure better respect for and protection of human rights defenders.
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.
Armed Islamist groups appear to be deliberately targeting civilians as a tactic to pressure local communities into cooperation or forcibly displace them. Communities that resist the rule and demands of these groups have faced threats, violent attacks and blockades, leaving millions increasingly isolated and vulnerable. 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. The surge in civilian deaths in Mali in 2022 coincides with the arrival of Russian mercenaries. According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, four out of five people killed by Wagner operatives, working alongside FAMa, were civilians. The Burkinabé government’s recruitment and reliance on VDPs will likely worsen inter-communal conflicts and fuel 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 provide protection to populations. Protection gaps increase the risk of atrocities and hinder MINUSMA’s capability to take timely interventions.
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.
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.
All armed actors must rigorously adhere to their obligations under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). The governments of the Central Sahel should investigate all violations and abuses of IHL and IHRL. Malian transitional authorities must cooperate with MINUSMA and ensure that the Mission can carry out its mandate, particularly its human rights investigations.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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