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 growing 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 in Mali has shifted from a separatist rebellion into inter-communal and extremist violence. Since Islamist armed groups expanded their activities from northern to central Mali during 2015, violence has spilled into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, as well as parts of southern Mali. More than 1,500 civilians have been killed across the Central Sahel during 2021.
The porous tri-border area and absence of state authority have enabled the expansion of groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These groups have blockaded villages, isolating some areas under their control and enforcing repressive policies based upon their interpretation of Islam. According to Reuters, Islamist armed groups have killed or abducted at least 300 community and religious leaders, state officials and their family members in the tri-border area since 2018.
The UN’s 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 sexual violence, as well as attacks against humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. Such groups routinely attack and loot civilian infrastructure, including places of worship, schools and health centers. Armed groups have targeted secular state education across the region, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. More than 4,200 schools in the Central Sahel remain closed due to insecurity. Armed groups have also used landmines and improvised explosive devices, indiscriminately killing and maiming more than 450 civilians in Burkina Faso and Mali during 2020. One hundred and forty-five MINUSMA peacekeepers have been killed since July 2013, including 12 this year.
Attacks by Islamist armed groups against civilians in the Central Sahel have become more frequent during 2021. In the volatile Tillabéri and Tahoua regions of western Niger, more than 600 civilians have been killed this year, over five times more than in 2020. In November 69 people from a community “self-defense group” were killed by a suspected Islamist armed group in Tillabéri region. In northern Burkina Faso, alleged child soldiers affiliated with the so-called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims perpetrated the deadliest attack in the country since 2015, killing over 130 people in Solhan, Yagha Province, on 5 June.
Violence between rival ethnic militias and self-defense groups is also rising across the Central Sahel and has become one of the deadliest forms of violence. In Mali, violence 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, as well as within the Dogon community. One Dogon armed group, Dan Na Ambassagou, has carried out attacks and abductions of civilians from Dogon villages who participated in reconciliation efforts or did not contribute to the group’s “war efforts.”
Some counterterrorism operations by Sahelian security forces, the G5 Sahel Joint Force (FC-G5S) and Operation Barkhane – France’s regional force – have led to grave human rights violations and abuses against populations. The CoI has alleged that the Malian security forces have committed war crimes, including targeted killings, rape and torture, while Niger’s National Human Rights Commission has implicated Nigerien forces in grave abuses against civilians.
The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with approximately 2.1 million people internally displaced, including more than 1.4 million in Burkina Faso alone. A record 14.4 million people need humanitarian assistance.
Militias, self-defense groups and security forces continue to target populations on the basis of their ethnic and/or religious identity. Islamist armed groups are also increasingly targeting people’s livelihoods, destroying crops and food reserves and blockading villages, exacerbating humanitarian needs. The increased targeting of civilians in Niger during 2021 is primarily in response to communities creating self-defense groups and increasingly resisting the punitive collection of “zakat” or alms, which Islamist armed groups use as a pretext for extortion and cattle theft.
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.
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.
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, which has fueled further violence and heightened grievances along ethnic lines.
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 of Mali, the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into alleged crimes committed since January 2012.
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. From 23–25 October the UNSC conducted a visiting mission to Mali and Niger.
In June 2020 the International Coalition for the Sahel was launched to coordinate efforts led by the FC-G5S and its partners. Operation Barkhane is scheduled to be drawn down by early 2022 with a reconfiguration of French forces into Task Force Takuba – a counterterrorism force composed of European special forces.
Mali remains suspended from the African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) following a coup on 24 May 2021. On 7 November ECOWAS imposed sanctions on members of the National Transitional Council.
On 13 September the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern at the deteriorating human rights situation in Mali. On 6 October the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the government of Burkina Faso agreed to open a country office to promote and protect human rights in the country. On 28 November High Commissioner Bachelet traveled to Burkina Faso and Niger for a seven-day official mission.
On 12 November the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) and the Nigerien government launched an initiative to strengthen social cohesion and national dialogue, particularly focused on the tri-border area.
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, OHCHR and UNOWAS, should investigate all violations and abuses of IHL and International Human Rights Law. The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger should establish a special entity to investigate and prosecute international crimes.