Politics at the Heart of the Crisis in the Sahel
December 6, 2019
- The governments of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are ill-equipped to confront the worsening security crisis in the region. Their approach to these challenges has been insufficient at best and counterproductive at worst.
- In contrast to its counterparts in Burkina Faso and Niger, Mali’s political class is doing the bare minimum to respond to the conflict. Though the government faces some domestic pressure to address insecurity, it may believe there is an unacceptable political cost to doing more.
- The international community should work to reshape Mali’s domestic political calculus to promote a more robust response. It should continue its security partnerships, especially with Burkina Faso and Niger, to address capacity shortfalls and reduce incidents of human rights violations.
UNRESPONSIVE AND RECKLESS POLICIES
- Malian officials, who face the ire of the opposition and soldiers’ wives following military casualties, have backed the formation of ethnic militias in its conflict zones. This measure has been especially deadly in the central region, fueling tit-for-tat violence between the nomadic Fulani cattle herders and the sedentary Dogon farmers and hunters.9 In March 2019, a Dogon self- defense force, known as Dan Nan Ambassagou, killed more than 160 Fulani herders in the town of Ogossagou. The government subsequently claimed it disbanded the militia, but it has failed to enforce this edict because it lacks the intention and capacity to do so.
- Burkina Faso has had to turn to the less capable police and gendarmes to respond to the mounting extremist threat, having disbanded the elite Presidential Security Regiment (RSP) in 2015, which represented some 10 percent of the total military. These security forces have allegedly conducted summary executions and en masse detentions. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the vast majority of victims of security force abuses in the cases documented were ethnic Fulani. This abuse, the report continued, is encouraging members of the Fulani community to join extremist groups.10 The government has also backed the community militias, known as koglweogos, which appear to have targeted Fulanis out of an assumption that all Fulanis support terrorist groups.
MALIAN INACTION SHAPED BY POLITICS AND PROFIT
- Malian opposition leader Soumaila Cisse and populist youth activist Mohammed Youssouf Bathily (known as Ras Bath) have criticized what they view as inadequate support to the military. During his campaign for the 2018 presidential election, Cisse called for political dialogue and anti-poverty activities in the north as well as efforts to counter interethnic massacres.15 And in November 2019, Cisse argued that the government had betrayed the army, while Ras Bath pointed to government corruption as the root of recent military defeats.16 But thus far, Malian opposition and civil society have been inconsistently engaged, failing to apply sufficient pressure to influence change in the government’s agenda.
- Prominent imam Mahmoud Dicko, who recently launched his own political movement,17 has also been vocal about Mali’s escalating violence.18,19 However, this pressure comes in episodic surges, such as protests in response to specific events. Most recently, soldiers’ wives have demonstrated in the streets, accusing the government and high-level officers of not supporting the military—a troubling echo of events that precipitated the military coup in 2012.20,21
Several panelists at CSIS’s Sahel Summit in September 2019 stressed that a war economy is in full bloom in Bamako.
DOMESTIC PRESSURE IN BURKINA FASO AND NIGER
SETTING THE STAGE FOR FURTHER EXTREMIST GAINS
- JNIM has rapidly expanded its reach by provoking feuds between rival communal groups and then offering to protect the victims, a service that several of the governments have been unwilling or unable to provide.35 At the same time, the extremists have established themselves in communities across the region—not just ethnic Fulani villages, but within the Dozo, Mossi, and Bambara areas—providing amenities, cracking down on corruption, and adjudicating cases that languished in the Malian courts for decades. At the CSIS Sahel Summit in September, HRW’s West Africa Director Corinne Dufka said the extremists are filling a vacuum, presenting themselves as providers of “key governance services.”
- JNIM has benefited from the region’s heavy-handed and often abusive security responses, recruiting civilians who say they are “hostages to both sides.” In Burkina Faso, Dufka says the government’s counterinsurgency tactics, which have included summary execution of suspects, is “shoring up the ranks” of the extremists.36
UNDERCUTTING THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY’S RESPONSE
A SMARTER INTERNATIONAL ARCHITECTURE
POLITICS ARE AT THE HEART OF THE SOLUTION
- Disrupt the war economy. The Malian elite has little appetite for advancing the peace process, in part because the government and rebels may benefit from international-sponsored travel and financial support as well as a thriving illicit economy. At the CSIS Sahel Summit, Lebovich noted that “there is interest in participating in the negotiations, but not always in completing the process.” The international community should review how its engagement is enriching key individuals, employing its policy toolkit—such as the Global Magnitsky Act—to deter corruption and sever bloated business contracts. The United Nations has sanctioned only one Malian official for blocking the peace process, while the rest of the sanctioned individuals have been northern rebels or extremist leaders.52 The United Nations should expand its target set for sanctions, focusing on Malian elites involved in corruption and the misuse of peace process allocations.
- Engage the political class. The government of Mali has failed to prioritize the crisis in part because it has not been hard-pressed by domestic political pressure to do so. There is a need to inject more urgency into the political arena. The Malian media and foreign diplomats should reinforce key opposition and civil society figures when they speak out about the country’s security woes and propose constructive solutions to tackle the economic and political roots of the problem. Moreover, the 19 national legislators from the northern regions and 17 from Mopti should step up and demand more engagement to address the violence and displacement affecting their constituents. Unless domestic leaders stress the need to take action, there is unlikely to be a real imperative to do so.
- Elevate other stakeholders. Mali’s political elite tend to downplay the role of youth and other citizens in its decision-making process. There is value in broadening the conversation around insecurity to ratchet up pressure on the government to implement the peace agreement and address underlying grievances. CSIS panelists Doussouba Konate, Wing, and Lebovich identified young Malians, civil servants, and religious leaders as critical interlocutors. Several speakers also raised former High Islamic Council president Mahmoud Dicko as an influential figure. Dicko, who many speculate will run in a future presidential election, led a rally in April 2019 to protest intercommunal violence that drew the largest crowds seen on the city’s streets since the end of the dictatorship in 1991.53,54 The international community should affirm efforts by these individuals and groups to hold their elected leaders to account and provide a platform, when appropriate, to activists and community representatives who call for political and economic engagement.
- Leverage regional voices. While many of Mali’s leaders seem nonplussed by the conflict, Sahelian and West African neighbors are seized by the threats posed by Malian insecurity. West African heads of state, including Ivoirian president Alassane Ouattara and Togolese president Faure Gnassingbe, have called for international assistance but have failed to pressure President Keita to do more internally.55,56 The region has a strong track record, including most recently in Guinea- Bissau, of compelling counterparts to retract or adjust counterproductive political decisions.57 The international community should coordinate public and private messaging with key regional actors and organizations to insist that Mali’s leaders start addressing the underlying drivers of the violence in their country.
- Niger’s partners could encourage the government to replicate its innovative and inclusive approach toward its ethnic Tuareg population, applying best practices to vulnerable Fulani populations in Tillabery and Tahoua. Niger almost certainly would welcome more assistance with managing its security challenges, increasing its agility to respond to imminent threats across its border, and honing its political and development engagement to undercut extremist recruitment.
- Burkina Faso’s friends could leverage the government’s requests for more external assistance to promote more balanced counterterrorism tactics, defend political speech, and direct economic and development resources to its northern region. In addition, there is utility in rebuilding Burkina Faso’s weakened and demoralized military to relieve pressure on the police and gendarmes.
CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.
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