No Time for Complacency: The Covid-19 Pandemic in West Africa’s Sahel Region

When Burkina Faso recorded the Sahel’s first coronavirus case on March 9, 2020, many feared the worst. Long before the virus arrived, the region was facing a toxic cocktail of challenges. Armed groups, some allied to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, are wreaking havoc across swathes of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, and Niger. The violence has created one of the fastest-growing humanitarian crises on earth. In 2019 alone, more than 4,000 Sahelians were killed, and about 1 million people were forced to flee their homes. Many now live in unsanitary, cramp refugee camps with limited access to water. 

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the Sahel are still extremely low by international standards. As of July 8, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger have recorded a total of 5,318 confirmed cases and more than 300 deaths. 

However, the Sahelian states cannot afford to be complacent. The real number of cases is almost certainly higher than the official data. Governments have administered just around 30,000 tests across the four countries, which have a combined population of about 75 million. For comparison, South Africa has conducted 63 times more tests for a population of 59 million. 

Q1: How are the Sahelian countries responding to the Covid-19 outbreak?

A1: The Sahelian governments’ response has been severely hamstrung by ongoing security and humanitarian crises in the region. Governments face long-standing issues such as the effects of climate change, high rates of malnutrition and infectious diseases, and small governmental budgets overburdened with defense commitments. Many Sahelians live hand to mouth, meaning governments cannot implement sweeping lockdowns seen in richer parts of the world. The situation is made worse by decades of underinvestment in the region’s health sector by elites who prefer to be treated abroad in private European clinics.

Sahelian governments recognized these limitations early on. They built off West Africa’s experience with the Ebola outbreak from 2014 to 2016 and swiftly implemented health measures to slow the spread of the virus. 

As early as February, airport staff in Mali were checking temperatures of arriving passengers and handing out hand sanitizer, measures that took months to be implemented in some richer countries like the United Kingdom.

By mid-March, with only a handful of cases in the Sahel, regional governments had halted almost all international air travel, effectively sealing their countries off from new imported cases. By the end of March, some form of lockdown was implemented in parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. Chad followed suit in early May. 

These lockdowns have been accompanied by a variety of smart government measures and initiatives to help their citizens. Chad sent 80 traditional singers and storytellers into remote provinces to raise awareness about Covid-19 while the Burkinabe government slashed water and electricity prices for citizens by 50 percent. 

Many Sahelian citizens have also been at the forefront of innovative community action. Take Mali. In Bamako, the capital, engineering students are working on low-cost solutions to the problems the virus poses, universities are spearheading virtual courses to cope with closures, and fashion designers have started to produce masks en masse. 

But while quick actions bought Sahelian government’s precious time, all the countries now have community transmission outside their capitals in far-flung regions. Official figures for infections should be read with caution. Almost all Sahelian medical laboratories are in the capital cities, so it is likely that cases in towns and rural areas are going untested. At the beginning of the crisis, for example, there were four testing facilities in Mali, all of them in Bamako. Since then, at least two mobile testing facilities have been dispatched to smaller cities and towns. While this is good news, testing coverage is still extremely limited. 

The Malian government chose to hold long-delayed legislative elections in late March and early April. Many would-be voters stayed away from the polls due to violence, the virus, and apathy. Just before the elections, extremists kidnapped opposition leader Soumaila Cisse while he campaigned in the north of the country. The ruling government did relatively well in the elections, but in recent weeks, tens of thousands of protestors have taken to the streets calling for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s resignation amid corruption and lack of response to Cisse’s capture.

Q2: What challenges do the Sahel region still face?

A2: Sahelian nations have one major advantage on their side: their young populations. The median age of all four Sahelian countries is approximately 16.4 years, three years below Africa’s average and about 30 years below Italy’s average.

These young populations are likely to limit direct deaths from the virus in the region. One senior international medical worker told me that, so far, neither Mali nor Niger have seen hospitals overwhelmed with patients with respiratory problems. 

However, the fallout from international lockdown measures, border closures, and the global economic crisis are already proving disastrous. The economic fallout has wreaked havoc on fragile food supply chains and cross-border trading networks. Hunger is already spreading. As the months roll on, growing poverty, hunger, and anger are forcing governments to relax lockdowns as cases continue to rise.

The number of food-insecure people in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger has risen by 1 million to 4.8 million since the start of the outbreak. Experts say this figure could double or even triple as the virus continues to spread and lockdown measures hit the most vulnerable. 

Poorer residents of Sahelian capitals told me that times are tough, that they are struggling to make ends meet or buy enough food to feed their families. One man who fled to Bamako to escape the violence in Mali’s central region said that displaced children were going to sleep hungry almost every night and that the people who used to come and help them were coming less and less. 

The economic damage has already been catastrophic. Take Niger, one of the poorest nations on earth. On June 8, Finance Minister Mamadou Diop said the government had already lost 199 billion CFA francs ($339 million)—far more than the country’s annual defense budget—in tax, customs, and non-tax revenue. 

Worse is probably in store for many ordinary Nigeriens. One well-off trader in Niger’s capital, Niamey, who imports manufactured goods from Ghana, told me that she fears complete bankruptcy if the lockdown and border measures continue for a few more weeks. Many of her fellow businessmen and women were in similar positions. 

Another major challenge for the Sahel is acquiring enough health supplies and personal protective equipment. The marketplace is crammed with powerful players like the United States and the European Union buying up as much as they can get. In the midst of this, poorer states like Chad—already impoverished by the global fall in oil prices—are struggling to acquire enough to equip their hospitals. 

At the same time, anecdotal evidence suggests that fake news and misconceptions about coronavirus are a serious problem in the region. One Burkinabe journalist told me that many people he spoke to thought that the virus didn’t affect Africans. A health worker in Zinder, in southern Niger, said that despite an initial public adherence to social distancing measures, many people have started to believe the disease does not exist. 

In this respect, the Chadian government is not helping. The government recently bought 20,000 doses of the “Covid-organics” tonic—a cocktail of anti-malarial drugs and herbs from Madagascar. Such moves are premature and damaging to the overall health strategy. Madagascar’s own national medical association has distanced itself from the president’s miracle “cure,” which was reportedly only tested on 20 people for one week before it was forced on Malagasy school children. 

As the ongoing protests in Mali have shown, elections and governance will be another critical challenge. There are general elections later this year in both Burkina Faso (November 22) and Niger (December 27). The elections were going to be tense before the virus arrived. Now the pandemic-linked economic and hunger crises will bring an extra layer of anxiety and unpredictability around the polls. 

Burkina Faso’s election is particularly concerning. The government has proposed to delay the November poll until 2021 due to widespread militant attacks and ethnic violence in the country. The security situation looks worse every day, and hundreds of local self-defense militias known as the Koglweogo have formed in rural parts of the country. Many of these militiamen are ethnic Mossi, Burkina Faso’s largest ethnic group. Despite committing well-documented atrocities, the government has not cracked down on the militias. In fact, early this year, to the horror of many observers, the Burkinabe parliament enacted legislation approving state backing for militiamen fighting armed groups. Analysts and humanitarians working in the country have told me they suspect the government will try to use the bands of Koglweogo as a pro-government force around the upcoming elections, whenever they are held. 

Q3: Are jihadist groups taking advantage of the pandemic? 

A3: One of the central questions analysts have been asking since the coronavirus spread to the Sahel is what does this mean for the fastest-spreading jihadist insurgency on earth? 

In May, UN General Secretary António Guterres waded into the debate, warning that terrorist groups were “taking advantage” of the pandemic to “intensify their attacks and challenge state authority” in the Sahel.

Attacks have indeed continued at an alarming rate throughout the pandemic. Jihadists have killed dozens of local soldiers in both Mali and Burkina Faso. In one attack in March, Boko Haram overran a Chadian military base, killing about 100 soldiers. Worse still, jihadists allied to al-Qaeda showed just how far they had spread, killing about a dozen soldiers in northern Cote d’Ivoire, near the border with Burkina Faso in June.

That month, France announced it had killed Abdelmalek Droukdal, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. His death will hit al-Qaeda hard. Over the last 15 years, fighters under Droukdal’s command have launched strikes, bombings, and kidnappings from Burkina Faso and Benin to Tunisia and Cote d’Ivoire. 

At this point, there is not enough evidence to say that the jihadists are taking advantage of the pandemic in any coordinated way. Regional terrorist groups like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin have carried out a number of high-profile attacks since March, but Sahelian violence was on a grim trajectory long before the virus came along. That being said, only a few months have passed since the beginning of the pandemic. Key factors including the ability of extremists to maintain supply lines, government decisions to maintain or reduce counterinsurgency operations, and the health status of extremists will influence the course of violence in the region. In addition, as the inevitable global economic crisis sets in later this year and in 2021, increased hardship and a lack of government funds for social services may help drive recruitment for Sahelian jihadist groups. 

Q4: What additional steps can Sahelian states and their partners take to strengthen their response? 

A4: In order to counter Covid-19 and its consequences, Sahelian governments and international partners will need to accelerate debt relief, commit to bi- and multilateral engagements and clamp down on extrajudicial killings by local forces. 

In mid-April, the International Monetary Fund approved major debt relief measures and emergency funds of more than half a billion dollars to Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Then in mid-May, the Paris Club creditor nations agreed to waive debt and interest payments for Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger until the end of the year. These are welcome steps, but far more is needed. The economic damage wrought by the virus will linger for years, and the Sahelian states need more financial and economic headroom to maneuver and cope with the multilayered crises facing their populations. 

Second, those involved in counterterrorism, humanitarian aid, or reconciliation efforts should not waver in their commitment to the region. With both Mali and Burkina Faso buckling under the pressure from armed groups, any significant international disengagement could prove disastrous.

Third, the Sahelian states and their international partners should put pressure on military commanders to crack down on extrajudicial killings by local forces. Killings and forced disappearances have risen sharply since the beginning of the year. In the first six months of 2020, government forces in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger killed 585 civilians, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. This is more than government forces killed in all of 2019. These killings only work in the jihadist’s favor and turn even more people against the state, adding fuel to the anarchy slowly burning its way across the region.

Will Brown is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Will Brown
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Africa Program