The Sahel region of Africa is a vast area that stretches across the continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It includes parts of more than a dozen countries, including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Sudan. State fragility in the Sahel region has brought about a plethora of challenges for businesses and policymakers in the domestic and international domains. The intersection of conflict, climate change, terrorism, socio-economic challenges and political instability at a time of shifting geopolitical tectonic plates add to the complexity of the security environment. Two interlinked trends in the region include the expansion of Islamist militant group activity and a rise in coups.
Castor Vali is currently monitoring three important trends.
Decrease in fighting between militant groups: an indication of consolidation
In early September, reports circulated on social media of a ceasefire between Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State (IS) Sahel, two Islamist militant groups, in the Menaka Cercle of Gao Region, in northern Mali. Weeks earlier, reports had emerged of a new JNIM splinter group calling for an end to the conflict between JNIM and IS-Sahel. Although it is unclear if such an agreement is in place between the two organisations, a drop in fighting between the two groups has been observed since the 26July 2023 coup in Niger, indicating that consolidation is at least a short-term objective for both groups.
Signs of consolidation in Niger
In Niger’s Tillaberi Region, an increase in IS-Sahel activity was observed in Anzourou and Tera departments in August and early September. Although a similar trend was observed in March, in a late August issue of IS’ Al Naba newsletter, the group’s fighters featured in an issue showcasing their militants imposing corporal punishment in Niger in late August, representative of an intent to govern.
Expansion in Mali
Additionally, the group also claimed the expansion of the Diwan al-Hisbah’s (public morality enforcement body) activity to new areas of Mali, where the group has consolidated its presence over the last 12 to 18 months. In the Menaka Cercle of the Gao Region, located near the Niger and Burkina Faso border, this year the group expanded its activity in the Tidermene and Inekar districts, closer to the border with the Kidal Region, which neighbours Algeria, compared to 2022. Furthermore, the group has been increasingly active around Gao city and south of Gossi in the southern Tombouctou Region, and also in northern Mali, over the same period.
Worsening security situation in central Mali
While the deterioration in the security environment in the Menaka Cercle, and the wider Gao Region, could in part be explained by a security vacuum and the drop in counter-terrorism operations following the withdrawal of French Barkhane forces in 2022, the security situation has worsened elsewhere in Mali with JNIM being the primary threat actor. Attacks by the group against the Malian army (FAMa) are projected to surpass 2022’s figure (106), and the group has also carried out several attacks against police, gendarmerie, forest guards and customs positions located near the capital Bamako. In the central Mopti Region in July 2023, local organisations representing the Dogon ethnic group voiced their concerns about a resurgence in insecurity in the Bandiagara Cercle. The leader of Dan Na Ambassagou, a Dogon self-defence group, has consistently warned about the deterioration in the security situation in central Mali on multiple occasions since the start of 2023.
Attacks being carried out closer to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso
Despite regular claims of success against militants, the security situation has failed to improve in Burkina Faso. In 2022, two notable trends identified are an increase in militancy in western regions of the country, such as the Boucle du Mouhoun Region, and attacks carried out closer to the capital Ouagadougou. Since the start of 2023, both trends remain pertinent. However, an increase in attacks has been observed in the Centre-Ouest and Centre-Sud regions, located west and south of Ouagadougou. Furthermore, attacks by militants in the Centre-Est and Hauts-Bassins regions are now forecast to exceed attacks in 2022. Lastly, there has been a noticeable increase in attacks in areas of the Nord and Centre-Nord regions.
Increased jihadist group activity along the Benin-Niger-Nigeria border area
Although the security situation remained stable in Niger throughout 2022 and in 2023 before the coup, considerable security challenges persist. There are growing concerns related to Islamist militant group activity in the northern Tahoua and southern Dosso regions, where Islamist militant groups have shown intent to expand their area of operations. In the Dosso Region, near the Benin and Nigeria border, most Islamist militant group activity has been recorded in the Dogondoutchi department (bordering Nigeria’s Sokoto State) where zakat taxes have been collected from residents in over a dozen villages in 2022. Although there has been a drop in Islamist militant group activity in the region in 2023, in contrast to 2022, there have been two noticeable changes in group activity this year; first, presumed IS militants have been increasingly active in the Loga department (which borders Dogondoutchi department), most recently in early September; and second, militants have carried out three attacks against security forces, a possible indication of a change of posture.
Since 2019, militants presumed to be part of JNIM, have conducted several attacks in northern Benin, often falling back into Niger in W National Park when pursued by security forces in Benin. According to the Beninese army, three groups are behind attacks on Beninese soil: JNIM, Ansaru and IS. Ansaru, known to operate in central Nigeria, reaffirmed their allegiance to Al Qaeda in early 2022 and expressed a desire to expand their area of operation to the Niger-Benin-Nigeria tri-border zone. The decision by Niger’s junta to end a military cooperation deal with Benin will likely result in a lack of joined-up thinking and coordination which will allow jihadist groups to act with more freedom in the tri-border area.
Increased likelihood of further coups in Niger, Burkina Faso and/or Mali
Past coups in Burkina Faso and Mali were driven by worsening insecurity. With the security situation highly likely to continue to worsen or remain unchanged at best, pressure will grow on the authorities in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. A decrease in the intensity and efficacy of counterinsurgency operations is likely in the short to medium term due to internal reorganisation of security forces, changes in strategic priorities, both domestically and regionally, and capacity gaps.
In Niger, where security has rapidly deteriorated since the 26 July 2023 coup, living conditions have also worsened largely due to the imposition of sanctions and other penalties. There are concerns about the payment of salaries owing to the lack of liquidity and food shortages. Additionally, although domestic operations against militant groups continue, they will suffer if ongoing tensions with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc continue.
In Burkina Faso, high-casualty attacks against security forces have taken place in recent months. However, while the country’s military leaders retain support, such assaults will hurt the image of the country’s military junta. Although the number of attacks on security forces, including the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP), is trending downwards in 2023, the number of high-casualty attacks (where security forces and the VDP have been targeted) is trending upwards. On 08 September, the country’s military prosecutor said three soldiers were arrested and charged with plotting against the country’s military leaders. More recently, on 20 September, protests are reported to have taken place at several military bases, including the Sangoulé Lamizana camp in Ouagadougou, after the death of a respected special forces second lieutenant during a recent operation in the Bobo-Dioulasso Region.
In Mali, the resurgence of attacks by jihadist groups coupled with prolonged fighting between the Malian army and Tuareg ex-separatists will further stretch the capacity of the Malian army, which has suffered major military losses since fighting broke out with the latter. Security is expected to worsen as the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) continues its disengagement. Movement restrictions imposed around the Soundiata military base in the town of Kati, north of Bamako, in early September may well be a preventative measure to lessen the risk of a JNIM attack on the base; however, the base is also where recent coups started.
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