Northern Mali Conflict and the Deteriorating Situation in Sahel
Among the 25 poorest countries in the world, Mali is a Western African nation that boasts a population of 19 million people. It has been a victim of a series of armed conflicts since the Jihadist insurgency in 2012 when Tuaregs, an ethnic minority, rebelled and commenced a violent campaign against the Government of Mali for independence or greater autonomy for northern Mali.
The separatist and Islamic factions succeeded in capturing the North and declared an independent state, which they referred to as Azawad. Its consequences were far-reaching as it resulted in a drastically increased presence of Islamist extremist groups, a worsened humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region and significant security issues overall.
The French military has been a constant actor as it intervened and contributed to peace deals made in 2012 and 2015, however they remained largely ineffective.
The ongoing conflict has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians since it started. There is increasing insecurity in the nation, mounting dissatisfaction with the administration and piling reports of atrocities being committed by the national armed forces. Previously this year, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali stated that it had documented 101 extrajudicial killings committed by the army in the span between January and March alone.
The latest attack on the Binedama village in central Mali’s volatile Mopti region, on June 5, killed 26 civilians, according to UNHCR.
‘’The continuing attacks on civilians in the Sahel which have crippled life in the border towns and areas are unfathomable, incomprehensible. People are being displaced multiple times and are in desperate need of our help. We are doing the best we can to bring in assistance in spite of the challenging times’’ said Millicent Mutuli, UNHCR’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, in reference to the COVID-19 outbreak.
The nation is now known as one of the deadliest peacekeeping operations in the world. Since the last four years, an estimated 162 peacekeepers have been killed and 513 wounded, mostly at the hands of Jihadist groups. A report by European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations has stated, “In Central and North Mali, humanitarian actors continue to be victims of security incidents mostly carried out by criminal gangs.” They added, “Since April, direct attacks have restarted, exposing humanitarian actors to extreme violence on a daily basis.”
The desperate situation has pushed the people in Mali into protests. This month the streets were teeming with tens of thousands of people who were demanding that the current President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita resign. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was sworn in for a second term in September 2018 when he was accused of causing insecurity, allegations of irregularities, and some rights violations such as banned demonstrations and the closure of a local radio station, during the elections.
A report published by the Amnesty International this month outlined: “Amnesty International has documented several cases of extrajudicial executions, unlawful killings and enforced disappearances in Mali between February and March 2020…They were committed by the security forces as the military scaled up their operations in the wake of attacks by armed groups active in the region.” It added that these killings and attacks “may constitute war crimes”.
The report by the renowned international organisation has been published in the context of the worsening situation in the Sahel, a region that constitutes parts of Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Sudan to Eritrea on the Red Sea coast.
It discussed the “serious human rights violations committed by the security forces of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in their respective territories during military operations between February 2020 and April 2020.” It outlined that the violations included at least 57 cases of extrajudicial executions or unlawful killings and at least 142 cases of enforced disappearances.
“They were committed in a context where the three countries have scaled up their military operations to fight armed groups responsible for multiple attacks against security forces, and for serious human rights abuses against the population,” it elaborated.
The Sahel has been plagued by constant conflict, food insecurity, and more than 7.5 million people require humanitarian intervention, with the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbating the situation.
Militant activities spilt over from Mali in 2012 to Niger, Burkina Faso and the neighbouring region. Western powers such as the United States and France have been forced to get involved and aid local authorities in their fight against the militants. A recent victory was the killing of the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel by the French troops with the help of American intelligence. However, many regard it as just a symbolic success that will not alleviate terror in the Sahel.
Experts in the Middle East believe that the situation, as well as the behaviour of al-Qaeda and ISIS militants in the Sahel, mirrors at least partially some episodes of the two groups’ bloody relations in Syria and in Yemen. The two militant groups first engaged in their battle against each other in the wake of the incident where ISIS fighters crossed into al-Qaeda territory in central Mali from Burkina Faso.
Ramesh Rajasingham, Acting Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), has described the current situation in the Sahel region “in every sense of the word a crisis”. He noted that 5.5 million out of 12 million people in the larger Sahel are “just a step away” from “emergency levels of food insecurity”.
Achim Steiner, Administrator of UNDP and Vice-Chair of UNSD Group said: “Before the onset of COVID-19, the central Sahel region was trapped by protracted conflict, violent extremism, competition over accessible lands and water and the [dangers of] climate change with temperatures rising at one and a half times faster than the global average.”
UNHCR believes that it is one of the fastest-growing displacement crises in the world, as millions have fled indiscriminate attacks by armed groups against civilians such as summary executions, the widespread use of rape against women, and attacks against state institutions, including schools and health facilities.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team