Past lessons crucial to stemming Sahel’s tide of violent extremism

The Sahel was again on the agenda of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) last month. The meeting confirmed the AU’s continued concern about the security crisis linked to the rapid spread of terrorism in the region and the implications for long-term regional stability.

The situation has deteriorated, notwithstanding substantial investments by the AU – evidenced by the AU Mission for Mali and the Sahel since 2013 – to address violence and insecurity in the region. It is compounded by political instability and apparent democratic backsliding occasioned recently by several unconstitutional changes of government, including military coups.

As the AU still contemplates deploying a 3 000-strong force to the Sahel, the organisation should thoroughly review its decade-long military and security strategies. These have not reversed insecurity in the region but can provide lessons to inform new operations. At its 31 October meeting, the PSC reiterated the need for the AU to ‘revisit’ the possible deployment of such troops following a decision of the AU Assembly in February 2020.

These lessons are even more important given the withdrawal of Barkhane and Takuba forces from Mali in June 2022 and Mali’s withdrawal from the Group of Five Sahel (G5 Sahel). The AU had planned to work with G5 on the deployment. A lesson here is the need to ensure good working relationships with host countries. 

Previous strategies have not reversed insecurity but can provide lessons to inform new operations

Deploying additional forces may help improve or free up Sahelian countries’ capacity to degrade armed and terrorist groups, including ‘neutralising’ their leadership, in the short term. However, in some communities in the tri-border Liptako-Gourma region, violent extremists have implanted themselves by offering protection to civilians and their economic activities.

They have also endeared themselves to civilians where state policies have restricted communities from hunting, mining and other sources of livelihoods in ‘protected areas’ without alternatives. Simultaneously, they have dominated communities using brute force. Operations need to focus on civilian protection, not only on targeting the leadership of violent extremist groups. Furthermore, tackling groups’ supply chains of operational and financial resources is key to degrading their operational capacity.

The presence of extremists in coastal states is evidenced particularly by a string of attacks that has led to several fatalities. The first was recorded in Côte d’Ivoire’s Grand Bassam in March 2016, with others in the country’s northern regions and areas of Benin and Togo since 2019. While Ghana has not yet recorded an attack, it has arrested individuals on suspicion of being linked to violent extremist groups in the Sahel.

Illicit funding

These attacks are only the tip of the iceberg, as behind them are groups’ modus operandi of tapping into illicit activities there and in neighbouring Ghana to secure funding and logistics. Already, extremists are benefitting from the sale of stolen livestock from Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. Proceeds are often used to buy arms, fuel, motorbikes and food.

Operations must focus on civilian protection and not only target violent extremist groups

Groups also appear to be exploiting the gold trade, as gold from mining sites under their control in eastern Burkina Faso has often been sold to buyers from Benin and Togo. Beyond the profits, evidence is emerging that they are accessing explosive-making mining materials from sites down south.

For example, an electric cord for making improvised explosive devices was seized in a 2018 counter-terrorism operation in the Rayongo neighbourhood of Ouagadougou and traced to northern Ghana. Also, Institute for Security Studies research shows that informal and illegal gold mining and trade in south-eastern Senegal and western Mali could offer a financial bonanza to extremists in the Sahel. It may also fuel their expansion strategies.

Furthermore, motorbikes are being trafficked from Nigeria to northern Togo and then to Burkina Faso, Niger’s Tillabéri and Burkina Faso’s Boucle de Mouhoun regions. The last-mentioned regions are both epicentres of violent extremism and while no direct evidence exists that groups are involved directly in trafficking, they can easily access motorbikes through a network of dealers. Motorbikes, sometimes also trafficked from Togo to Burkina Faso and subsequently Niger, are particularly valuable for extremists for their light fuel consumption, ease of maintenance, robustness and ability to navigate difficult terrains.

The routes used by violent extremist groups to mobilise resources show that spillover is not necessarily linear in direction (south to north or vice versa). East-west – as with motorbike trafficking – and other multidirectional routes are used too. They reflect leveraging of pre-existing socio-economic ties among communities in the Sahel and coastal states.

Implementing the Nouakchott Process

Significantly, the AU’s attention has always extended beyond G5 countries. This is evidenced by the membership of the Nouakchott Process, which it established in 2013 to improve regional security cooperation and information sharing in counterterrorism and combating transnational organised crime.

Tackling terrorist groups’ operational and financial resources is key to degrading their capacity

Aside from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, the process includes Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Libya, Nigeria, and Senegal. Among these are countries where possible covert networks and activities could constitute a supply chain of resources that fuel terrorism in the region. Despite its challenges, the Nouakchott Process resulted in a culture of exchange and cooperation among security actors in the Sahel.

Implementing the Nouakchott Process and identifying ways to collaborate with the Accra Initiative could be an important AU contribution to peace and security efforts in the Sahel. The Accra Initiative was established by Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in September 2017 to address the terrorism spillover from the Sahel and, as with the Nouakchott Process, combat transnational organised crime. Since then, both Mali and Niger have joined, making it a seven-member country mechanism straddling both the Sahel and coastal West Africa.

In reviving the Nouakchott Process while linking with the Accra Initiative, care should be taken not to disrupt activities ordinarily considered illicit but that are sources of livelihood in communities lacking socio-economic opportunities. Also, arrests and targeting of suspected extremists should be the result of proper investigations.  

An important lesson from the Sahel is the futility of this if not accompanied by investments in preventive efforts addressing deep-seated governance and development challenges that have enabled these groups to fester. Of utmost importance is improving a weak social contract between the state and populations, manifested mainly by the absence of basic services and states’ inability to protect citizens.

Image: Thomas Samson/AFP

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