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Sahel Conflict

The security situation seems to be getting more dire by the day as the number of attacks rises. Violence in the region has increased five-fold since 2016, according to the UN special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, with over 4,000 deaths reported in 2019 compared to an estimated 770 in 2016. Between January and November 2019, more than 1 million people were displaced — twice as many as the year before, according to the UN. There is a real danger that terrorists could establish a new Islamic state, a caliphate. The Sahel could become the new Syria, and Islamist fighters could then be sent from there to Europe to commit terrorist attacks. With the rising number of casualties, people increasingly feel military operations are futile.

West Africa has seen a sharp rise in violence motivated by ISIL or Al-Qaida affiliates and an increase in recruitment efforts. Both of these factors are exacerbated by porous borders and authorities ill-equipped to confront the growing threat. In the Sahel, Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) (QDe.159) dominates. Its centre of gravity remains in north Mali, where it relies on several militia groups, known as katibat, to support its objective of radicalizing the population.

The exponential militant expansion seeped across borders, sucking in a motley mix of jihadist and armed ethnic groups, as well as criminal bands in an impoverished zone. Many young people join local terrorist groups because there is either no police force in their region or the police force goes rogue. Joining a local militia is the only way to keep safe. There are almost no jobs for young people other than joining the militia, which pays rather well. To really root out terrorism in the region, there is a need to improve these countries' police, justice and governance system.

Drought is a recurring phenomenon in the semiarid Sahel. A perfect storm of violence is breaking across Africa’s Sahel region. Since late 2018, various conflicts have produced hundreds of deadly attacks in which thousands of people have been killed, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

The Sahel region of West Africa is a semi-arid zone between the Sahara Desert and the humid Gulf of Guinea coast, roughly between 10-20°N. This region is irrigated by summer monsoon rains and rain-fed agriculture is the primary sustenance for Sahel populations. Severe droughts therefore have devastating negative societal impacts. The future frequency of Sahel droughts and future changes of its water balance are therefore of great interest.

The G5 Sahel force was formed to enable Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad to defend themselves against Islamist militant groups that operate in the region, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. It was authorized by U.N. resolution 2509, which was agreed upon by France and the United States after intense negotiations. The plan is to coordinate with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) established in 2013, and France’s anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane.

The problems facing the people living in this semi-arid land are caused by more than just one poor harvest. The 80 million people of the Sahel, representing roughly ten percent of sub-Saharan Africa's total population, live in some the world's poorest countries which consistently rank at the bottom of any human development scale. Human and environmental security are inextricably linked. At its core, this challenge is one of natural resource access, fueled by a lack of governance and exacerbated by the presence of an array of armed groups, with transhumant pastoralists being both the perpetrators and victims of armed conflict.

The challenges faced by the nations of Africa's Sahel region go beyond the spread of both terrorism and trafficking. These problems alone impose a danger to the security of both the Sahel and developed countries, not only because of air traffic to West Africa that transits northern Mali but also because of the use of the region as a base of attacks by Islamic extremists on Western targets. Moreover, the preexisting humanitarian crisis is now worsened and as are human rights concerns. The underlying political instability is becoming equally serious. The threat involves not only Africa's Sahel region but also countries in north Africa, especially Algeria and Libya. It also involves terrorist groups originating from and based in nations outside of the Sahel.

In 2012, about 18.7 million people throughout the Sahel region— comprising areas in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, The Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal— struggled with food insecurity and the affects of conflict. The U.N.'s 2013 Sahel regional strategy amply illustrated the immense challenge experienced by those living in the Sahel and nations which have the resources and desire to make a difference. The report notes that some of the key drivers to the humanitarian crisis include food and security, epidemic disease, floods, and locust infestation.

The Sahel had become breeding grounds of extremist activity as these nations face many internal struggles, political instability from dangerous droughts that are wiping out entire villages to food shortages, human rights concerns, and domestic conflicts. This leaves large swaths of land ungoverned. And their borders are porous and easy to cross undetected. This fragility gave extremist groups, like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQIM, Boko Haram, Ansar al-Dine, and others, the ability to roam freely in the most lawless region, setting up safe havens for terrorist activities, and doing their dirty work, kidnapping, drug trafficking, arms trafficking.

The security situation continued to deteriorate across the Sahel region in 2019, with attacks by terrorist groups against civilians and security forces and persistent violence along community lines. The aggravation of the security situation caused resentment among sections of the population over the inability of security forces to provide security and protection, which prompted demonstrations both in Burkina Faso and Mali. In Burkina Faso, the number of suspected terrorist attacks increased, especially in the northern part of the country. The increase has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and has led to growing discontent. Civilians were victims of extremist violence, including during an attack on a mosque in the town of Salmossi, in northern Burkina Faso, during Friday prayers on 11 October. The attack of 19 August on the military camp of Koutougou, in northern Burkina Faso, was one of the deadliest in 2019. Government sources reported that 24 soldiers had been killed in the attack. The northern and north-eastern provinces remained most affected by intercommunal violence.

In Mali, the security situation remained complex. Attacks by terrorist groups in northern Mali continued to target national defence and security forces, MINUSMA and the French forces. Confrontations between armed groups led to violent clashes in the Gao, Ménaka and Timbuktu regions. Violence surged in central Mali, following a marked decrease in incidents in June and July. Conflicts along community lines, exacerbated by the presence of terrorist groups and self-defence militias, resulted in the killing of civilians.

Africa's Sudano-Sahel is a distinct bioclimatic and ecological zone made up of savanna and savanna-forest transition habitat that covers approximately 7.7 million square kilometers of the continent. Rich in species diversity, the Sudan-Sahel region represents one of the last remaining intact wilderness areas in the world and is a high priority landscape for wildlife conservation. It is home to an array of antelope species such as giant eland and greater kudu, in addition to African wild dog, Kordofan giraffe, African elephant, African lion, leopard, and giant pangolin.

This region is also home to many rural communities who rely on the landscape’s natural resources. Among these communities are pastoralists, whose livelihoods and cultural identity are centered around strategic mobility – including across national borders – to access seasonally available grazing resources and water. Instability, climate change, and increasing pressures from unsustainable land use activities pose growing threats to the resilience of the Sudano-Sahel’s iconic wildlife and people.

Transhumant pastoralism in particular, is characterized by regular movement of herders and their livestock between fixed points in order to exploit the seasonal availability of pastures. Transnational transhumance is the same migration process but across national boundaries and primarily involves cattle, which require greater quality and quantity of forage than other livestock species. Transnational transhumance occurs within a landscape of escalating violent conflict that has local to global implications for human and environmental security; yet as a priority issue, it has long been ignored, receiving limited media exposure, international assistance, or policy attention.

Armed conflict has amplified pre-existing vulnerabilities in the region that pertain to natural resource access (e.g., drought/desertification, population growth, poor governance, undefined/unenforced land tenure rights, and unemployment). This has fueled abnormal transhumant migrations, resulting in increased threats to rural communities, wildlife populations, and protected areas. A host of armed groups occupy this frontier landscape and act as an especially potent destabilizing force.

Further complicating the issue, transhumant pastoralists are not only increasingly armed but also driving larger herds, some of which are escorted by professional security sector elements. This has intensified conflict with agriculturalists and other pastoralists. For example, Fulani pastoralists in CAR have witnessed heavily protected and extremely large cattle herds from Chad and Sudan functioning outside of traditional pastoral codes. This includes violating arrangements made between other pastoralists and local farmers, intimidating and bullying drivers of small herds, and even engaging in cattle raiding and banditry. These “neo-pastoralists”, which in many cases have herds guarded by the Chadian National Army and comprised of raided cattle from Fulani pastoralists, internally displaced persons and refugees, have further exacerbated existing bottlenecks of cattle herds in southern Chad and northern CAR and worsened competition for dwindling natural resources.

Although commercialized and absentee herding is not new to Africa - in West Africa and the Sahel, there is a long history of urban elite investment in cattle during economic or political upheaval that is based on a system of entrustment and reciprocity with professional herders (i.e., Fulani) - the “militarization” of commercial transhumance is a more recent activity, with an increasing number of urban elite cattle owners (including military and civil administration officials) bypassing entrustment contracts and reciprocity arrangements with local pastoralists and simply hiring a driver and armed protection to move cattle into frontier areas with limited prior social contact. These activities can intensify overgrazing and contribute to the idea of a pastoral “invasion”; all of which continues to undermine regional stabilization efforts.

Despite military victories, chances of eradicating the conflict are remote, unless the Europeans and Africans offer more holistic, long-term solutions. Overall, the United Nations estimated in mid-2020 that terrorist attacks against civilian and military targets in three of the most vulnerable Sahel countries — Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger — had increased fivefold since 2016. Extremist attacks in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger had increased 40 percent in the first quarter of 2020 alone.

Extremist groups are also spreading southward, deeper into sub-Saharan Africa — profiting from north-south ethnic and religious divides within countries, and more recently, analysts say, the coronavirus pandemic. Against this backdrop, there is no unified international military response.



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