Volatile Ethnic Conflict in the Sahel

Haroune Sidatt

There is no viable development without peace, and there is no sustainable peace without development. 

In the Sahel, security has long been at the heart of development challenges and includes constantly evolving set of stakeholders and complexities. The G5 Sahel countries – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger –can be classified as “transitional democracies.” They are states with relatively new institutions and democratic processes, as well as major governance and public accountability challenges

Conflict and insecurity are not new phenomena in the Sahel. 

Terrorists and other criminal groups have identified and attempted to exploit these weaknesses in governance. They destabilize countries and rally behind ethnic violence to further erode social cohesion. In the Sahel, ethnic groups are often spread across conventional borders and are at times more loyal to their own ethnic communities than they are patriotic to their home countriesIn the face of growing ethnic conflict and extremist violence, it is crucial that the governments of the G5 Sahel place community voices at the center of the development and implementation of solutions.

Conflict and insecurity are not new phenomena in the Sahel. Intercommunal violence has existed for generations, as sedentary land farmers have historically been in conflict with nomadic groups over land and livestock grazing access. However, the violence has taken on new proportions in recent years with urban populations standing-up with tribal and community groups, putting national and regional unity at risk and spilling across borders. Across the Sahel, ethnic tensions are on the rise; as some communities have increased their promotion of hate speech, others have gone as far as to establish armed groups specifically focused on ethnic protection. 

The Ogossagou massacre of March 2019 in central Mali marked the murder of some 134 civilians targeted for belonging to the Fulani ethnic minority. Several similar intercommunal violent clashes – including the Koulogon massacre have been seen in recent years. Unfortunately, these attacks continue despite the COVID-19 pandemic and have fueled a cycle of retaliations that have spread to Burkina Faso and beyond.

It is understood by local actors that no serious investigation will be conducted for those massacres; the official armies themselves have not been able to control the high-risk areas to avoid any further violence. In fact, national armies have been subject to ethnicbased attacks leading to trust issues between troops of different ethnic backgrounds. 

Communitybased conflict stemming from the marginalization of minorities coupled with a lack of social and economic opportunity is putting the stability of the entire G5 Sahel region at risk.

While the data are not available, many experts claim that violent extremist groups have been successful primarily because of their tactic of recruiting young people from affected ethnic groups, as well as the tactic of infiltrating national armies using aggrieved community members. Attacks in Burkina Faso against the military have led to the killing of non-Muslim Fulani community officerswhich has destabilized internal army organization and has been cited as the possible reason for retaliatory killings of innocent civilians in the Fulanidominated northern region by the army. Several reports, including one by the Human Rights Watch, have accused security forces of arbitrary arrests and alleged extrajudicial killings of Fulani people suspected of complicity with jihadists. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliated groups have vowed revenge for innocent Muslim deaths, which stands to only further complicate social healing. 

Mohamed Ibn Chambasthe United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, and head of the United Nations Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS), described security conditions in the Sahel as “extremely volatile” and implied that many deadly attacks may not have been accurately reported. A UN Security Council report, presented the total number of declared deathand discussed the displacement crisis that has resulted from regional violence

More than 921,000 people have been forced to flee in Burkina Faso alone, with another 240,000 from Mali and 489,000 from Niger. These “regional refugees, approximately 54% of whom are womenare often moving to neighboring countries with the same ethnic divisions, thus perpetuating the continued fear of retaliation. Exacerbated by this forced displacement, social division along ethnic and religious lines have spread far beyond Mali and Burkina Faso.  

Communitybased conflict stemming from the marginalization of minorities coupled with a lack of social and economic opportunity is putting the stability of the entire G5 Sahel region at risk. 

G5 Sahel countries, along with the G5 Sahel Executive Secretariat and all of its development partnersmust act quickly to counter the troubling decline of stability in the region. Effective action will require the mobilization of community leaders, investing in local economies in the highrisk areas through incentives and infrastructure development, doubling down on education and trainingand working to address governance gaps and corruption present across the region  

The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) has been working in the countries of the G5 Sahel region since 2016over the last two years, CIPE facilitated locally lednational research studies on the impact of insecurity on the economyThe studies concluded that to combat the exploitation of the vacuum left by the destruction of local economies at the hands of violent extremists, the G5 Sahel countries must leverage the private sector as a strategic ally. Investors understand better than anyone the opportunity costs of violent conflict and have everything to lose in the event of further regional instability.

The private sector is an integral part of these affected communities and have built relationships and expertise at the local level that can be highly valuable for public action. In order to break the vicious cycle of insecurity and violence, the private sector should be listened to as a strategic development partner in the economic recovery and overall stabilization of the G5 Sahel.

Published Date: November 24, 2020