Zoë Gorman is a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Sahel / West Africa Programme.
Despite an expanding cast of security actors responding to conflicts in Mali, insecurity is escalating and spreading across porous borders throughout the Sahel region. The attack on 23 March 2019, the deadliest in the region since 2013, by a Dozo hunting militia killing at least 160 Fulani villagers in central Mali near the border with Burkina Faso, indicates an increasingly volatile security environment with entrenched, intercommunal grievances. Clan groups in the Sahel countries of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger elide borders, and the historic Sahara-Sahel trade routes and majority Muslim populations further connect the region. But the Sahel nations also share many underlying destabilizing factors—both predating and resulting from the evolving crisis in Mali.
Sahel countries face natural hazards (e.g. droughts, desert locust outbreaks), food insecurity, extreme poverty (80 per cent live on less than €2 per day), a lack of educational opportunities (with 70 per cent illiteracy) and high unemployment among those under 25-years old—a demographic that makes up 65 per cent of these countries’ populations. These development concerns add to the region’s already precarious stability and, at times, compete with state-level security and economic issues. Struggling to meet their populations’ basic needs, Sahel states are further constrained by the divergent interests of different ethnic groups, high rates of transborder crime and terrorist activity, debt reaching 77 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and an influx of 136 000 Malian refugees.
To confront these challenges, Sahel countries are seeking new ways to cooperate in the name of joint security and critical infrastructure—for example, through the creation in 2014 of the Group of Five (G5) Sahel joint security force and collective development framework. However, efforts to stabilize the region often rely on weak, corrupt or absent state institutions, whose derelictions incite a marketplace of alternative actors attempting to provide the missing links for populations, further delegitimizing central governments. Competing agendas among the G5 states and international stakeholders can slow or stagnate progress, and militarization often accrues unwanted byproducts. These refuel root causes of the conflict that prompted a breakdown in stability at the region’s epicentre in Mali.
Crisis at the heart of the Sahel: The case of Mali
In 2012 a mixture of northern rebels, jihadists and fighters returning from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi took over two thirds of Mali’s territory. At the same time, a military coup in the south of the country ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré, causing political chaos. An unprecedented national and international mobilization resulted in a democratic transition to the presidency of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in 2013 as well as joint military and security-sector reform operations, ceasefires and negotiations between the Malian Government and armed groups, and a peace agreement in 2015. However, the agreement’s successful implementation has fallen short—in part because it maintains a political status quo and does not adapt to evolving grievances and actors. Regular violence persists in the country’s north and has spread to the central region of Mopti.
Considered by many to be a poster child of democracy since 1991, Mali’s disintegration astonished the international community. Mali had been an important partner for the United States in the fight against terrorism after the 11 September terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, and for France in helping it secure strategic uranium interests in neighbouring Niger. These military relationships eclipsed any warning signs of a building crisis in Mali: four separate uprisings from the northern Tuareg and Arab ethnic groups, the Malian Government’s reliance on ethnic-based proxy vigilante groups to counter the rebellions, the first hostage incidents in 2002 by the jihadist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (which became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb from 2007) and the public revelation that Mali was an international drug-transiting hub—all might have foreshadowed instability. Yet for various reasons, such as inadequate means or lack of effective prioritization, existing security mechanisms—including the Economic Community of West African States’ Early Warning and Response Network, the African Union’s Continental Early Warning System and the Regional Command for Joint Counter Terrorism Operations—failed to respond decisively to early indicators of crisis.