Dealing with conflict in the Sahel

Khaled Okasha
Wednesday 16 Aug 2023

The deteriorating security situation in the African Sahel region underscores the need to re-evaluate the military and security strategies of its countries


Niger has entered the list of countries susceptible to escalating conflicts in the African Sahel region. This densely populated region is fraught with ethnic and racial problems, along with the spectre of armed terrorism. 

Since the fall of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq, the Sahel region has become one of the world’s most perilous areas in terms of its growing influence. Moreover, Niger in particular faces a web of interconnected security challenges. 

In its Western reaches, conflict has been raging for three years between the Islamic State in the Sahel group aligned with IS and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusrat Al-Islam wal-Muslimeen. At the same time, its southeastern Diwa region has been grappling with a rebellion of no less severity. Threats from the Boko Haram terrorist group persist.

Niger and its environs are an ideal environment for transnational organized crime networks to extend their reach across at least five neighbouring countries in the Sahel region. Such threats figure prominently in the central regions of Tahoua and Maradi along Niger’s southern border with Nigeria, where well-organised gangs operating along roadways hold sway.

A similar scenario has unfolded in the gold-rich Agadez area of Niger, giving rise to smuggling routes that cross the country’s borders with Libya, Algeria, and Chad. These routes have drawn a significant number of armed groups of both separatist and terrorist orientations.

However, despite these manifold challenges, Niger’s performance in recent years has outpaced its neighbours in terms of dealing with the violence and the ramifications of the conflicts. The assertion by the Military Council that took power in Niger in the recent coup that it did so because of the “ongoing deterioration of the security situation” in the country does not entirely convince as the main rationale behind the takeover. 

2019 and 2020, under the rule of Niger’s former president Mahamadou Issoufou, were marked by greater devastation, when the country suffered substantial damage due to a succession of attacks carried out by IS. Niger’s performance was also more favourable when compared to neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, countries that had higher levels of violence than Niger.

According to statistics from the NGO the African Centre for Strategic Studies, violence stemming from terrorist militias in the Sahel region is intensifying at a faster rate than in any other region in Africa. Following nearly a decade of various conflicts, violent incidents are surging across the Sahel region, particularly in Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger. They have surged by 140 per cent since 2020 and show no signs of abating. 

Terrorism-driven violence against civilians in the Sahel accounts for 60 per cent of Africa’s overall violence and is projected to increase by at least 40 per cent in future years. It has so far led to the displacement of over 2.5 million individuals from the region’s countries, causing them to move within their countries to safer areas or to ethnically affiliated areas of neighbouring countries, as observed in the cases of the Tuareg and Toubou peoples.

Meanwhile, the mobility and advanced intelligence capabilities of the region’s armed groups have enabled them to infiltrate the military establishments of the three countries of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of soldiers and security personnel who have only limited resources and armaments to combat them.  

Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara has recently announced a possible military intervention in Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to reinstate ousted President Mohamed Bazoum. This has sparked apprehension, and it would be unlike previous interventions. Its possible contours remain undefined, raising questions about the reception of any such move by the majority of the Nigerien population.

It is evident that conflicts in the Sahel region are intricate and cannot be attributed to any single factor. As a result, the deteriorating security situation in the region underscores the need to reevaluate and recalibrate the military and security strategies adopted by the Sahel countries in the face of escalating threats. This entails recognising that Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger are confronted with both local insurgent movements and wider terrorist threats. Therefore, the rehabilitation and restructuring of their security forces is of paramount importance in stabilising the entire Sahel region. 

But in order for this to take place, substantial changes in military capacities, military doctrines, the composition of military forces, and their repositioning within a broader framework of justice and law-enforcement will be required. This will necessitate supplementing military actions with measures to enhance living conditions, ensure justice, and enforce the law.

It will also require fostering interactions with local communities and forging positive relationships with them, things that have remained largely absent up to now, notwithstanding the years of challenges endured and losses sustained by both the authorities and the citizens of the region.

While opinion today is leaning towards the diminishing likelihood of a military intervention in Niger, the fluidity of the situation means that it is still too early to make any definitive prediction. Given the ongoing indirect struggle for influence among the major powers in Africa in the wake of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the situation demands primarily national solutions.

* The writer is director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS) in Cairo.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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