Security Fragmentation Hinders Humanitarian Response in the Sahel

The humanitarian emergency in the Sahel is causing unprecedented suffering. Approximately 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance across Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—the hardest hit countries in the region. The number of people facing acute hunger has tripled over the past year to reach 7.4 million, and the number of children requiring aid has jumped by two-thirds. A lethal combination of climate change, ethnic violence, and governance failures—exacerbated by jihadist attacks and bungled international responses—has caused a record number of people to flee their homes. The region has more than 1.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), a twentyfold increase over the past two years. These individuals are in dire need of humanitarian assistance including nutrition and food, health services, water and sanitation, shelter, education, protection, and support to survivors of gender-based violence.

These acute conditions are common across several complex global emergencies, but the Sahel’s uniquely fragmented security environment distinguishes it from other humanitarian disasters. The proliferation of armed state and non-state actors exacerbates some of the predictable obstacles that restrict humanitarian access in other warzones. These include but are not limited to security and logistical barriers, decreased capacity of humanitarian actors, and the escalating challenge for aid organizations to navigate partnerships with regional and international stakeholders.

Lives are at stake in the scramble to provide effective humanitarian support. The Sahel’s exceedingly disjointed security environment underpins each challenge faced by those in need of humanitarian aid—and those trying to deliver it.

Source: The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Data Export Tool, (2017-2020), distributed by The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED),

Obstacles to an Effective Humanitarian Response

Humanitarian actors must navigate the Sahel’s fragmented security environment in addition to many more familiar challenges to deliver life-saving assistance. The common challenges to delivering aid in conflict zones are well-known and compound the difficulty of humanitarian operations in the Sahel.

  • Communal and Extremist Violence. Violence poses the most direct security and logistical barriers to humanitarian actors in the Sahel. By mid-2020, reported fatalities in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger approached or exceeded the total for each of those countries in 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The rising death toll can be primarily attributed to violence waged by extremist groups. In addition to direct attacks on and kidnappings of aid workers, non-state actors have diverted aid and demanded bribes for passing through areas under their control.

  • Funding Challenges. Humanitarian organizations lack adequate funding and staff capacity to effectively respond to the growing crisis. In 2019, the region’s humanitarian response was only 59 percent funded on average, which dropped to an 18 percent average by May 2020. This was partly remedied in October, when 24 governments and institutional donors announced more than $1.7 billion to address humanitarian needs in the region. The addition of the Covid-19 pandemic has also created new obstacles and costs to delivering assistance.
  • Reputational Hazards. Humanitarian actors are faced with the challenge of navigating and cooperating with the myriad security forces present in the region. Aid workers in the Sahel are often required to travel with military escorts, which undercuts their neutrality and makes it harder to build trust with local communities. They also have to engage with security actors to understand ongoing conflict dynamics and identify extremist group operating areas and even those of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). But coordination requirements are often duplicative and inconsistent, resulting in overlapping efforts and gaps in security. Coordination has only become harder as new regional and international security groupings are established without a broader synchronization strategy.

These familiar obstacles are made even more difficult by severe security fragmentation in the Central Sahel. The key components of these region-specific challenges are: (1) the number of military actors; (2) the proliferation of self-defense groups; and (3) the direct attacks and geographic spread of extremist groups. While these sources of fragmentation impede aid delivery in all three countries, there is merit in examining one element in each country to illustrate its impact.

Mali at a Glance

  • Total population (2020): 20.3 million
  • IDP population: 266,831 as of August 31, 2020
  • Refugee population: 42,780 as of August 31, 2020
  • Food insecure population: March 2020 estimate that food insecurity would affect five million people during lean season of June–August 2020, annual average of 3.6 million people since the 2012 crisis
  • Security forces:
    • French Operation Barkhane: 5,100 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • G5 Sahel Joint Force: 5,000 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • Malian Armed Forces: ~18,000 troops
    • MINUSMA: ~11,402 troops
    • U.S. Military: ~22 troops
    • EU Training Mission: ~700 troops
    • Takuba Task Force: ~500 troops (split between Mali and Niger)
  • Active violent jihadist groups:
    • Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)
    • Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)
      • JNIM is an alliance between Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Mourabitoun, Ansar al-Din, and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF)

Above data is drawn from multiple online sources including UN and government websites.

Mali: Multiple Military Interventions Hampering Humanitarian Responses

The overwhelming number of regional and international security forces has complicated humanitarian coordination in Mali, slowing emergency responses and jeopardizing humanitarian projects near active conflict zones. Since French and United Nations (UN) troops first intervened in 2013, the number of combat forces and operational coordination mechanisms in Mali has grown to include the G5-Sahel force and the Takuba Task Force with a future contingent pledged from the African Union. In addition to these units, a host of international training missions, such as the European Union Training Mission (EUTM) have emerged in Mali.

Coordination was difficult enough with only Malian, French, and UN forces. Additional troops and chains of command have created unintended fragmentation that results in coexistence, rather than cooperation, between missions. In practice, this means parallel security structures with separate objectives whose interactions more commonly take the form of informal, rather than fulsome, coordination. In some Malian regions, there might be as many as 10 different combatant entities including non-state armed groups. 

Humanitarian actors operating in Mali must navigate complex relationships with conflict parties. Aid organizations face dueling imperatives to preserve their independence from combatants and to deliver relief to communities that are often isolated and under the control of one or more armed actors. At minimum, humanitarians have to navigate highly varied and sometimes cumbersome processes to deconflict their activities with military forces to protect staff and partners from combatant hostilities. More often, they have to do that while building delicate partnerships with combatants to ensure not only access to communities, but also physical protection and logistical support to reach remote areas.

Building community trust is painstaking work, and humanitarians report repeated false starts and setbacks on account of security force behaviors. Their complaints include lack of warning and deconfliction for impending military operations, abuses targeting vulnerable populations and IDPs, little regard by government and international security forces for areas where humanitarians are establishing operations, and insufficient steps by combatants to delineate troops from humanitarians. Military efforts to “blend in” with the community have led aid workers and vehicles to be mistaken for security forces, and military use of humanitarian projects to earn community acceptance has made it harder for humanitarians to be viewed as independent and to operate safely.

Burkina Faso at a Glance

  • Total population (2020): 20.9 million
  • Internally displaced population: 1,013,234 as of August 31, 2020
  • Refugee population: 19,893 as of August 31, 2020
  • Food insecure population: 3.3 million as of August 8, 2020
  • Security forces:
    • French Operation Barkhane: 5,100 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • G5 Sahel Joint Force: 5,000 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • Burkina Faso Armed Forces: ~11,000 troops
    • U.S. military: ~100 troops
  • Active violent jihadist groups:
    • Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)
    • Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM)
    • Ansaroul Islam (likely subsumed into JNIM)

Above data is drawn from multiple online sources including UN and government websites.

Burkina Faso: Self-Defense Groups Worsening Violence and Displacement

Burkina Faso’s security situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse, and local self-defense groups are playing a key role in the violence that is cutting off communities from aid. Since 2016, violent extremist groups including Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have taken advantage of frictions over land, migration patterns, banditry, and changing political patronage relationships to recruit fighters and expand their territorial reach in Burkina Faso. While small-scale local security efforts have long been part of Burkinabe and other Sahelian societies, limited government action to stop violent jihadists, banditry, and intercommunal conflict contributed to rapid expansion of these groups.

These local self-defense groups quickly became part of the problem. The largest of them—the Koglweogo—are notorious for murders and abuses targeting ethnic Fulani communities, and their actions play into jihadist efforts to recruit fighters. In January 2020, the Burkinabe government launched an initiative to train and arm civilian volunteers to provide security in their communities. Months later in March, Koglweogo members raided ethnic Fulani villages, killing dozens and burning homes. Meanwhile, civilians are trapped between jihadists, self-defense forces, and the Burkinabe military—all of whom have committed atrocities that have displaced communities.

The violence waged by these armed groups makes it difficult for aid providers to reach in-need populations that are often moving to escape new attacks. Challenges to humanitarian actors in Burkina Faso also include direct threats from armed group members, the increasing presence of IEDs, government-imposed restrictions on movement and vehicles, and local community fears that jihadists will retaliate if they talk to outsiders.

Mass displacement is especially difficult because it is simultaneously a symptom of the crisis and a driver of the worsening emergency. When civilians are fleeing violence, they often land in communities already on the brink of food insecurity. Their presence can strain limited local resources and attract armed group attacks that spur additional displacement. This serial relocation compounds the difficulty of humanitarian response in a context already burdened by numerous obstacles to access.

Niger at a Glance

  • Total population (2020): 24.2 million
  • Internally displaced population: 265,522 as of August 31, 2020
  • Refugee population: 227,816 as of August 31, 2020
  • Food insecure population: 2.7 million during lean season of June–August 2020
  • Security forces:
    • French Operation Barkhane: 5,100 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • G5 Sahel Joint Force: 5,000 troops (split between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger)
    • Nigerien Armed Forces: ~10,000 troops
    • U.S. military: ~800 troops
    • Multinational Joint Task Force
    • Takuba Task Force
  • Active violent jihadist groups:
    • Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS)
    • Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP)
    • Boko Haram

Above data is drawn from multiple online sources including UN and government websites.

Niger: Extremist Threat Targeting Humanitarian Workers

Jihadist violence in Niger is rising and attacks are expanding to new areas, stretching and endangering a humanitarian community already overtaxed by challenges in Burkina Faso and Mali. Following two years of Nigerien government experimentation with alternating strategies of aggressive proxy warfare followed by community-based engagement, attacks are becoming more frequent and more deadly. ISGS is responsible for the worst of the violence, especially in the group’s stronghold along Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso. Yet Niger also has to contend with attacks by the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) along its southeast border with Nigeria. 

In 2019, more aid workers were targeted in conflict zones than in any previous year on record, and the Sahel is one of the regions that saw the largest spike. Recent episodes include a spate of kidnappings in Niger and Mali, the June execution of five aid workers in northeastern Nigeria, and the killing of two Nigeriens and six French aid workers in an area near the capital Niamey, previously unaffected by extremist violence. In addition to the human toll, extremist attacks on aid workers have the effect of expanding travel restrictions, increased security measures, and sometimes forcing sacrifices in independence from security forces in exchange for increased security. These attacks can also cause domestic political backlash and drive changes in military objectives for local and intervening forces.

Niger faces jihadist threats in its far western and eastern regions which are as different as one would expect for places more than 1,000 kilometers apart and adjoining different countries. Robust humanitarian response activities are ongoing in both places. The numbers of IDPs and refugees are rising in the west while the numbers in the east are projected to decline, but they are starting from much higher levels. Spikes in violence in Nigeria, just across Niger’s southeast border, could quickly reverse the trend and cause instantaneous refugee flows into Niger that quickly outstrip humanitarian capacity in the region. These geographically dispersed jihadist threats, especially when they flare-up in new or previously pacified areas, can spark confusion and disruption that leads to retreat and setbacks in aid delivery. They also stretch the limited capacity and resources of security services and require more complex and vulnerable logistic operations.

Fostering Dialogue and Tailored Responses to the Sahel’s Highly Fragmented Security Environment

The outlook is bleak for civilians in the Sahel on effectively every measure despite nearly a decade of military and political intervention in the region. It is impossible to say how the situation would be without these efforts, but it is clear that they are falling far short of protecting the vulnerable.

Addressing the causes of instability and displacement in the Sahel will require major changes in the political, security, and economic approaches to the crisis. But even an ambitious new approach could take years to deliver results, and communities in need will not survive that wait. The regional and international community must put humanitarian relief and civilian protection at the top of the priority list. At minimum, this will help arrest the spiraling human toll of ongoing violence. But ideally, it will also help create the space to craft a strategy aimed at building more responsive government, expanding economic opportunity, reversing security fragmentation, and ending the violent consequences of these failures.

The following recommendations can facilitate improved humanitarian outcomes in the Central Sahel’s uniquely varied security environment:

  • Permit dialogue between humanitarians and armed groups to improve access. Humanitarian organizations have reported difficulties gaining access to vulnerable populations because of donor policies and laws that forbid communication with violent groups as part of a larger effort to prevent “support” to terrorist groups. There is little chance of meeting emergent humanitarian needs, let alone resolving the political and security issues plaguing the Central Sahel, without talking directly to armed groups. Sometimes this will include violent jihadists, and international donors must find ways to ensure well-meaning laws and policies do not prevent these critical conversations and the life-saving aid they make possible.
  • Support situation-specific coordination between humanitarians and security services. Aid providers and security actors should create flexible, localized arrangements to balance the sometimes-competing imperatives to maintain humanitarian independence and protect relief workers from violence. Because some actors are unable to recognize—or refuse to accept—the distinction between aid organizations and conflict parties, these agreements and procedures become even more urgent. Sahelian governments and security forces must approach these conversations aiming to listen to humanitarians’ needs and reach accommodations that will get aid to as many as possible. They should also refrain from military-driven aid projects that are not coordinated with the humanitarian community and can undermine the separation between relief operations and military missions. The UN functions across these domains and should consider options to further distinguish its humanitarian and military functions. This could include separating the humanitarian coordinator role from MINUSMA leadership in favor of a separate UN regional humanitarian coordinator and considering options to provide humanitarian transport and logistical support without UN branding.
  • Improve relationships between national and local governments. Scaling community-specific solutions and integrating them into the regional humanitarian response requires strong partnership between national leaders and their counterparts in local government and other influential positions. This has traditionally been a relative strength for Niger and a particular weakness in Mali, but years of violence have frayed these relationships throughout the region and demonstrated how critical they are to stability. Building community-level ties could prove especially useful in communicating with local self-defense groups, altering their behaviors, and ultimately demobilizing them as the state increases its capacity to provide security.
  • Engage, elevate, and defend media coverage on the crisis. There is far too little coverage of the humanitarian emergency in the Sahel. Poorly understood dynamics, the lack of data, and an increasingly repressive media environment narrows opportunities for nuanced government policies and reduces potential for humanitarian actors to explain their actions. The international community, including humanitarian outfits and security forces, should expand its support for local radio programming, such as the UN’s backing of Mikado FM and Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Groupe Klédu Group (Mali)’s funding of the com. Foreign diplomats should condemn incidents when regional governments detain journalists, as the six-month detention of Moudi Moussa, Halidou Mounkaila, and Maikoul Zodi for participating in peaceful protests calling for an investigation into allegations of the misuse of funds by the Ministry of Defense in Niger. Finally, humanitarian agencies should invest in media outreach teams to communicate more effectively with local communities and the government.

Kyle Murphy is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Special thanks to Jake Kurtzer, John Goodrick, Grace Gonzales, Judd Devermont, Topaz Mukulu, Marielle Harris, and James Rogers, and multiple humanitarian actors consulted in private CSIS workshops.

This report is 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).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Kyle Murphy