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Liptako-Gourma: epicentre of the Sahel crisis?

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The heads of state of the G5 Sahel, together with French President Emmanuel Macron, are meeting in Bamako on Sunday 2 July 2017. The summit follows the United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) resolution on 21 June that welcomed the deployment of a joint force by the G5 Sahel. The United States and Britain were not entirely behind the project, so the text adopted by the UNSC is unclear about the financing of the force.

The adoption of the resolution is the most recent – but certainly not the last – step in a process that started in Ndjamena in 2015, when the G5 Sahel leaders announced the plan to create a joint force. Its mandate is to fight terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking in the region. The Peace and Security Council authorised the deployment of the force at its meeting on 13 April 2017.

While the entire region of the G5 Sahel (Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Mauritania) is confronted with serious security concerns, Liptako-Gourma, the border region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, is the area of particular focus.

The emergence of armed groups

The reason for this focus on Liptako-Gourma is the recent emergence of non-state armed groups, notably violent extremist groups. The most well known of these is the Katiba Macina of Hamadoun Kouffa, which became an ally of Ansar Dine in March 2017 within the Groupe pour le soutien à l’islam et aux musulmans (Group for the Support of Islam and Moslems) and operates mostly in the centre of Mali.

Then there are the Ansarul Islam of Malam Ibrahim Dicko, active mostly in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, and the Etat Islamique dans le Grand Sahara (Islamic State in the Greater Sahara [EIGS]), led by Adnan Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui and responsible for attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger.

Some commentators tend to describe the insecurity in this frontier region as merely an extension of the Malian crisis. One often hears people in Ouagadougou or the Sahel region in Burkina Faso complain about ‘enemies from Mali’. They accuse Mali of failing to control its borders, and claim that Malian refugees in Burkina Faso are complicit in the attacks.

However, it is important to note that the insecurity in this area is spreading because the terrorist groups are growing their ranks – they recruit members by exploiting local conflicts. This is in turn linked to the inability of the national governments to integrate these border regions into national political systems, and the absence or weak levels of investment in these areas.

Terrorist groups exploit local conflicts

The deteriorating security situation on the Mali–Niger border perfectly illustrates how terrorist groups use a local conflict to boost their numbers. In the early 1970s, when a serious drought hit the Sahel, tensions erupted in the border region, notably between the Fulani (Tollèbè) of Niger and the Touareg (Daoussahaq) of Mali. The conflict was mainly over scarce natural resources and accusations of cattle raiding.

Following the armed rebellions of the 1990s, notably by the Touareg on both sides of the border, violence in this area became ‘professionalised’. This led to bloody confrontations and the creation of a Fulani self-defence militia in March 1997. The inability of the security forces in the border region to quell these uprisings dealt a serious blow to both governments’ standing among the people of the border region.

Many Fulani blame ‘méharist’ units for the deepening of the conflict with the Touareg, notably the Daoussahaq. These nomadic brigades, deployed by Mali at the end of the 1990s, were charged with the security of the most far-flung areas of the country. Their fighters, often recruited from the ranks of former rebels integrated into the army following the peace accords, have been accused of either ignoring the criminal activities plaguing the region, including cattle theft, or colluding with the criminals.

These resentments and tensions were instrumentalised by the Mouvement pour l’unicité et le jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (Movement for Unity and the Jihad in West Africa [MUJAO]), and currently they are exploited by the EIGS and Ansar Dine to recruit within the Fulani community along the Niger–Mali border.

Locals take sides

In a context marked by a challenge to social hierarchies, the emancipatory role played by groups such as Katiba Macina or Ansarul Islam also help them to recruit young people, who see joining armed groups as a way out. At the same time, locals tend to take sides and position themselves vis-à-vis these groups with the aim of settling old scores, often linked to the lack of proper judicial systems and competition over natural resources.

It is thus vital that the various states concerned ensure equitable access to natural resources, and greater access to the country’s judicial system.

The G5 Sahel states’ inability to integrate these border regions into their national policies has led to the rejection of state authority, with locals viewing it as a foreign entity. In the northern Sahel region of Burkina Faso, for example, successive operations by security forces, often carried out with undue force against locals accused of complicity with the armed groups, have increased tensions between locals and the central government. Here, as elsewhere in the border region, inhabitants feel abandoned by the state due to a lack of service delivery and infrastructure that does not address their actual needs.

At the same time, civil servants do not have the capacity to carry out their duties. The challenge is thus for states to ensure the buy-in of people living in the border regions where the central government has been absent for so long, keeping in mind that the aim is not to control these spaces but to improve governance.

The need for a long-term vision

The various initiatives currently being undertaken in Liptako-Gourma, such as Burkina Faso’s emergency programme for the Sahel and Mali’s plan to secure central Mali, are steps in the right direction. However, if they are to have any political impact, these programmes and plans have to be based on a long-term vision for the border region. They cannot be a mere stopgap to address the current situation.

Furthermore, it is crucial that states invest in proper agricultural and cattle farming programmes. Merely launching schemes to fight organised crime is not enough. These areas, so far away from the capitals, are used as thoroughfares for trafficking and the locals are compelled to adapt to this state of affairs.

In order to stop the insecurity in the Sahel, particularly in Liptako-Gourma, it is necessary to redefine the state’s presence there. This can only be done through a new social contract between communities and the state that restores the state’s relevance through its providing basic services adapted to the diversity of this region, populated by both nomads and pastoralists.

It is only through a real political project for these territories that the mobilisation, at various levels, which has been noted lately, will have meaning and produce results.