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 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. Between 2015-2021, violent attacks in the Central Sahel increased eight-fold while the number of fatalities grew more than ten-fold. Nearly 2,000 civilians were killed between February 2021 to February 2022, with two-thirds of the deaths attributed to armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The porous tri-border area and absence of state authority have enabled the expansion of groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIL. These groups have blockaded villages, isolating some areas under their control and enforcing repressive policies based upon their interpretation of Islam. During 2021 these groups increasingly used siege tactics, threats, kidnapping, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines as deliberate tactics of war.
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. These groups strategically attack and loot critical civilian objects, including places of worship, schools, health centers, food reserves and crops. Armed groups have targeted secular state education across the region, burning schools and threatening, abducting or killing teachers. More than 5,574 schools in the Central Sahel are closed due to insecurity, leaving 13 million children without access to education.
Armed groups have also perpetrated attacks targeting humanitarian workers and MINUSMA. Since July 2013 the UN has documented 154 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.
During 2021 Islamist armed groups increasingly perpetrated targeted attacks against civilians. In the volatile Tillabéri and Tahoua regions of western Niger, more than 600 civilians were killed during 2021, over five times more than in 2020. In northern Burkina Faso, 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. In central Mali, a presumed Islamist armed group killed at least 30 civilians, mainly from the Dogon ethnic community, in the village of Songo during December.
Violence between rival ethnic militias and self-defense groups is also on the rise across the Central Sahel and has become one of the deadliest forms of violence. 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, including the government-trained Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland, has fueled violence in Burkina Faso. In Niger, self-defense militias were established during 2021 among ethnic Arab, Djerma and Tuareg communities in Tillabéri and Tahoua.
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 against populations they believe to be affiliated with Islamist armed groups. The CoI has alleged that the Malian security forces have committed war crimes, including targeted killings, rape and torture. Niger’s National Human Rights Commission has implicated Nigerien forces in grave abuses against civilians while Burkinabé security forces and pro-government militias have allegedly summarily executed hundreds of suspects since 2018.
The Central Sahel is one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world with at least 2.1 million people internally displaced, including more than 1.6 million in Burkina Faso alone. Nearly 15 million people need humanitarian assistance.
Militias, self-defense groups and security forces 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 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 are heterogeneous and each face distinct challenges, these states also share a legacy of structural vulnerabilities, weak governance and limited state presence.
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.
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.
France’s Operation Barkhane has led the international military response in Mali since January 2013. During July 2017 the FC-G5S was established to combat border insecurity. In June 2020 the International Coalition for the Sahel was launched to coordinate efforts led by the FC-G5S and its partners, including Task Force Takuba – a counterterrorism force composed of European special forces. On 17 February 2022 France and its European partners, as well as Canada, announced their withdrawal from 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. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, visited Burkina Faso and Niger from 28 November to 4 December for an 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.
Fourteen European countries issued a joint statement on 23 December condemning the deployment of the 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 on 24 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. Authorities must protect the rights of suspects in counterterrorism operations. 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.