Sahel Islamist insurgency
A protester holds a Malian flag during a demonstration organised by the pan-Africanst platform Yerewolo to celebrate France’s announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on 19 February 2022.
Many Malians welcomed the coups following months of anti-government protests.
Widespread anger at chronic insecurity in the West African countries of Mali and Burkina Faso paved the way for military men to kick out failing governments over the past two years.
“There’s no more room for mistakes,” said Mali’s coup leader as he seized power in August 2020.
“We have more than what it takes to win this war,” echoed Burkina Faso’s new man in charge earlier this year.
So are citizens now more safe?
The short answer is, no.
In both countries, attacks by Islamist militants on civilians have only increased. The same is true of civilian deaths – more ordinary people are being killed by Islamists, militants and the military.
“The tallies for each year are increasing year by year,” says Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher covering West Africa’s Sahel region for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (Acled).
Data supplied to the BBC by Acled in June compares the 661 days before and after Mali’s coup in August 2020, and the 138 days before and after Burkina Faso’s coup in January 2022.
To gather this data Acled relies on a network of “informants and professionals” as well as media reports, but Mr Nsaibia says tracking violence is particularly hard in the Sahel because of “Russian-driven disinformation, and the states themselves often feed the media with fake reports to make them appear more successful than they really are”.
Russia, which backs Mali’s junta, has consistently denied such allegations in the past. The Mali and Burkina Faso governments have not responded to BBC requests for comment.
One of the deadliest months on record was March 2022. Acled says 790 civilians were killed in Mali.Some of these civilians were killed by militants from the local branch of the Islamic State group in Ménaka, according to Acled, and there were other smaller attacks. But the vast majority were civilians massacred in the town of Moura by the Malian army, rights groups agree.
“According to multiple reports, the Malian army and Russian mercenaries entered Moura looking for what they claimed was a meeting of jihadist leaders. They attacked civilians and the UN claims that they killed towards 500 civilians in a three-day period,” says International Crisis Group (ICG) Sahel project director, Richard Moncrieff.
Malian authorities have denied that any civilians were killed in Moura, saying only Islamist militants died. It has since refused access to the UN for an investigation into the deaths, and launched its own instead.
“This is a classic problem, sometimes referred to as the issue of the ‘missing dead’,” says Mr Nsaibia of Acled. “State-sanctioned violence goes unreported, but sometimes even framed as being perpetrated by someone else.”
He says unreliable media coverage presents a key obstacle, as do the often remote, rural locations of such attacks in countries in the Sahel – plus “there is a prevailing fear among communities about speaking out”.
In some instances the lines between state actor and civilian militia can seem blurred too – Burkina Faso in particular has a tradition of armed community militias, Mr Moncrieff says, for whom the government created an official role in 2020.
Such militias in the Sahel are increasingly being called upon to face down the jihadist threat, but are often outgunned and outnumbered. Some have also been accused of committing violent abuses against civilians.
Malian authorities are fully in control of as little as 15% of the country’s territory, according to a recent UN report. Meanwhile in Burkina Faso only about 60% of the country is under state control, says the West African regional bloc Ecowas.
Islamist militants in Mali and Burkina Faso have a huge amount of firepower, analysts say.
“It’s warfare between an army and a clandestine army” and in large swathes of these countries “the staying power of the state is not there”, argues political scientist Abdourahmane Idrissa, based at the University of Leiden.
In Burkina Faso as well as Mali, Islamists engage in “classic asymmetric warfare,” says ICG’s Mr Moncrieff, “where they don’t take control of any cities. They do increasingly encircle cities and cut them off in order to flex their muscles, and otherwise have become very rural”.
One of the catalysts for January’s coup in Burkina Faso was a brazen raid in which jihadists killed 57 gendarmes at camp in Inata, in the north of the country. The gendarmes had resorted to scavenging for food before the attack, after their requests for rations and more ammunition went unheeded.
“It was a shock – almost a whole unit was wiped out – and they died in conditions everybody thought were deplorable,” former Burkinabè soldier-turned-analyst Mahamoudou Sawadogo tells the BBC.
Since then under the new junta, Mr Sawadogo says, the armed forces have been promised better conditions, more resources plus an anti-terrorism strategy review – “but that hasn’t fixed the problem”.
“Attacks are on the up, there’s more violence against civilians and more territorial control has been lost to armed groups – so the putschists’ strategy isn’t adequate against the threat,” he adds.
Structural changes to unify Burkina Faso’s armed forces under a single command have also failed, says Mr Sawadogo.
‘Exploiting the void’
Neighbouring Mali, with its longer history of insurgency, is not faring any better.
It has been the epicentre of Islamist violence in the Sahel for the past decade, with jihadists enabling ethnic Tuareg rebels to seize control of much of the north in 2012.
French troops were called in to tackle the insurgency the following year, with Malians initially welcoming the intervention by its former coloniser. But after nine years they are leaving Mali after falling out with the junta, and Mali has also decided to quit the multi-national G5 Sahel force that was jointly created to fight the jihadists.
As the French-led Barkhane force has shifted the central hub of its anti-jihadist operation to Niger, militants from Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have “exploited the void left behind” to wage “unprecedented levels of violence” in the regions of Menaka and Gao, according to Mr Nsaibia.
Some analysts say that the Mali junta’s activities since taking power – including hiring troops from Russian security contractor Wagner and buying a large number of arms from Russia – have failed for lack of coherent strategy.
“The army is now more active – the massive corruption that prevented them from being more active has been gotten rid of – but that doesn’t mean that they are now more in control,” argues Mr Idrissa.
Mr Moncrieff agrees that since the start of the year Mali’s army has been taking “a much more front-foot approach and taken the fight to the jihadist groups”, probably because they feel “emboldened by the support of Russian mercenaries and an influx of weapons – much of them from Moscow”.
“The reports indicate that they’ve managed to secure some areas at least for some sustained periods and pushed jihadist groups out,” he adds.
Mali denies the presence of Russian military contractors in the country, yet both parties are accused by rights groups of committing abuses and massacres of civilians, and Acled tells the BBC that violence against civilians has “skyrocketed” since Russian involvement began in December.
In many cases the civilians killed by Malian forces belong to the Fulani ethnic group, who they regard as the main social base from which the Islamists recruit, and sometimes civilians are targeted on simple suspicion of having collaborated with militants, analysts tell the BBC.
Mali, however, has consistently denied this.
IS and al-Qaeda’s JNIM are both active in the Sahel region where they compete for power.
In recent years as their influence has waned in the Middle East, the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda have increasingly focused their efforts on the Sahel.
They have exploited existing tensions in communities, says Mr Moncrieff, with “climate change and declining agricultural resource adding to that very violent mix”.
“It’s a vicious circle,” he adds, with “people being excluded from their fields by insecurity, when that makes them more likely to join groups that are either jihadist in nature or simply criminal gangs who aim to steal cattle and so forth.”
The spread of jihadist violence from northern to central Mali over the past seven years, and its emergence in Burkina Faso in the last two years, has implications elsewhere in West Africa.
“We also see it in the coastal states, especially Benin, and more recently Togo,” says Mr Nsaibia.
“So far it’s only really Ghana that has been untouched, so to speak, even though there are strong indications that militant groups are using Ghanaian territory as a place of rest and recuperation.”
‘A last resort’
Many people in Sahelian countries who are desperate for solutions do believe that military governments can handle insecurity better than democratically elected ones, but analysts warn that this popular support could soon sour.
“We’re living through this now in Burkina Faso and in Mali,” says Mr Sawadogo. “Any involvement of the army in political affairs worsens the nation’s social and security situation… It’s a last resort. Every coup in Burkina Faso has set back the country’s progress.”
“Acclaim fades when people become aware that the army in power have no greater leverage in peripheral areas than civilian governments,” agrees Mr Moncrieff.
It is a view shared by Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum – who withstood a coup attempt days before his official swearing-in – as well as by Ghana’s President and Ecowas leader Nana Akufo-Addo, who told the BBC in April that “the initial evidence doesn’t point to the fact that Mali is doing anything better about the insecurity and the fight against the jihadists than the civilian government”.
So how can Burkina Faso and Mali bring about lasting change?
“Better management and organisation of their security forces, and better management of the electoral processes in their countries,” suggests ICG’s Mr Moncrieff.
“The main lesson is that you need to have a plan – whether you are a military or a civilian power – because the civilian government also didn’t have this,” says political scientist Mr Idrissa.
Shows of military might, such as raids and crackdowns on armed groups, are ultimately not enough to establish the staying power of the state, he adds. For that you need a reformed state, able to keep control of its territory.
For now, the basic safety that military leaders had promised the people of Burkina Faso and Mali seems a long way off.