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 – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger – are facing increased attacks by Islamist armed groups and state security forces, as well as inter-communal violence perpetrated by rival militias. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 6,600 civilians have been killed in the three countries since October 2019, making 2020 the deadliest year for civilians in the Central Sahel. On 2 January 2021 armed men launched coordinated assaults on two villages in the Tillabéri region of Niger, killing at least 105 civilians, including 17 children, and destroying food supplies. This massacre was one of the deadliest attacks in Niger’s recent history.
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 escalated and 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, maiming and other cruel treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, hostage taking and attacks against personnel of humanitarian organizations and MINUSMA.” More than 130 MINUMSA peacekeepers have been killed since July 2013. The CoI also determined that the Malian defense and security forces committed war crimes.
Since Islamist armed groups expanded their activities from northern to central Mali during 2015, violence has spilled over 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, such as the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. 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. Armed groups have also increasingly used landmines and improvised explosive devices, indiscriminately killing and maiming civilians.
Islamist armed groups have also increased their attacks on civilian infrastructure, including places of worship, health centers and schools. Non-state armed groups targeted state education across the Central Sahel, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers for using the secular state curriculum. Attacks on education more than doubled between 2018 and 2019 in Burkina Faso and Niger. More than 4,000 schools were closed due to attacks, while COVID-19 restrictions and conflict forced 12.8 million children out of school. 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.
In response to attacks by Islamist armed groups, counter-terrorism operations by Sahelian security forces have led to grave human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians. The Human Rights Division of MINUSMA has reported that nearly 150 civilians were extrajudicially killed by Malian and Burkinabè security forces in Mali between April-June 2020 and that the security forces sometimes conducted “reprisal operations against civilian populations” accused of supporting Islamist armed groups. State security forces have also used dozens of schools for military purposes.
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. In Burkina Faso, government-affiliated civilian security “volunteers” have launched numerous attacks against the Fulani community. These attacks have left dozens dead according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
The Central Sahel is also one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 1.8 million internally displaced persons. Over 1 million people are displaced in Burkina Faso alone, a 258 percent increase over the past year. A record 13.4 million people need humanitarian assistance and 7 million are acutely food insecure.
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 by security forces – militias, self-defense groups and security forces continue to target populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. Attacks by Islamist armed groups and community self-defense groups, as well as extrajudicial killings by security forces, persist in a climate of impunity. The CoI’s 2020 report is an important first step towards accountability for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.
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 has fueled ethnic tensions. These groups have also taken advantage of the fragile security situation to launch cross-border attacks.
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 may fuel 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.
Operation Barkhane, a 5,100-member French force, has become the leading external counter-terrorism 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. A counter-terrorism force composed of European special forces was launched in July to complement the activities of the G5 Sahel and Operation Barkhane.
Twenty-four governments and institutional donors pledged more than $1.7 billion for lifesaving humanitarian aid and protection at the Ministerial Roundtable for the Central Sahel on 20 October.
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. The G5 Sahel must fully implement its Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) Compliance Framework and strengthen internal monitoring and accountability to prevent human rights violations during operations.
The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, with support from regional and international partners, must prioritize efforts to address the multidimensional causes of the current conflict. 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, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Office on West Africa and the Sahel, should investigate all violations and abuses of IHL and International Human Rights Law, ensuring perpetrators are held accountable.