Since it started nine years ago, the Sahel security crisis has claimed tens of thousands of lives, forcibly displaced millions, and triggered record levels of food shortages. Last year alone it claimed nearly 6 500 lives in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.
Widespread violence and insecurity have sparked a severe humanitarian crisis, with an estimated 13.4 million people needing immediate assistance by October 2020 - 20% of the region's population.
The situation is particularly alarming in the Liptako-Gourma region, where Mali, Niger and Burkina share porous borders. Attacks by violent extremist groups and other armed actors combine with illicit activities, local conflicts and communal violence to further weaken a region that's long suffered from governance deficiencies.
Despite the efforts of governments and their international partners to contain the threat posed by armed and terror groups, attacks against security forces and civilians continue. Most recently, at least 100 villagers died in assaults on two villages in Niger's Tillabéry region. Mass atrocities against civilians occurred in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso in 2019, but this is the first time Niger has experienced a massacre of civilians of this magnitude since the crisis began.
States have invested considerably in addressing the crisis and its consequences, including through coordination, both bilaterally and under the G5 Sahel Joint Force. While the French counter-terrorist Operation Barkhane covers the entire region, Mali also receives support from the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali and the military European Union (EU) Training Mission. The EU has also deployed a mission to build capacity among Mali and Niger's interior security forces.
Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger have tried to implement more comprehensive approaches to security
But these efforts haven't delivered safety and security for local populations. Recent Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research examines some of the strategies used by states in Liptako-Gourma, and draws lessons from their experiences.
It finds that the preference for military-driven responses generally overlooks the links between security, governance and development. All three dimensions must be dealt with through a comprehensive approach and proper sequencing.
The need for such holistic strategies is not a new recommendation. Both Mali and Burkina Faso have tried to implement this, with programmes such as Mali's Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions and Burkina Faso's Emergency Plan for the Sahel.
While these plans show states' commitment to curb insecurity, ISS research found that their design was rushed and didn't rely on sufficient context analysis. The plans reflected a limited understanding of the nature and dynamics of the phenomena that fuel insecurity. As a result, not all the problems were targeted, and in some cases the situation deteriorated. For example, approaching insecurity in central Mali mainly through a counter-terrorism lens led to field strategies that aggravated local conflicts.
The judiciary should react promptly to serious human rights violations such as the civilian massacres
In Burkina Faso, the second iteration of the emergency plan for the Sahel offered an improved model, after a 2018 programme review revealed the need for greater adaptability to local contexts. This shows that states are willing to learn and improve their approaches - a positive development that needs to extend to programme implementers.
Unlike Mali and Burkina Faso, which had to develop ad hoc programmes quickly amid spiralling insecurity, Niger relied on existing institutions, such as the High Authority for Peace Consolidation, to drive strategic thinking on insecurity. This allowed the country to benefit from readily available institutional infrastructure and capacity, confirming the advantages of long-term national peacebuilding investment.
Other institutions, such as Niger's National Centre for Strategic and Security Studies, also helped analyse the security situation. However, these initiatives remained largely state-owned and could have benefited from more meaningful involvement of civil society and the frontline perspective of local communities, including women and youth.
Another research finding points to the need for the judiciary to react promptly to incidents of serious human rights violations, such as the civilian massacres occurring in villages across Liptako-Gourma since 2019. This is critical to stop the cycle of intercommunity violence and retaliation that thrives on feelings of injustice, stigmatisation and abandonment by the state.
2021 is a year of power transfers in the Sahel and the perfect time to rethink security strategies
The need for justice also applies to allegations of human rights abuses by defence and security forces. Whether actual or perceived, the lack of accountability for security sector misconduct undermines civilians' relationships with soldiers and police. It reinforces popular perceptions of the state as a predatory actor, echoing terror groups' propaganda.
Governments need to prioritise the fight against impunity as a core component of a stronger commitment to protect civilians and uphold the rule of law. Most importantly, protecting civilians must become a strategic priority underpinning the action of all national and international defence and security forces on the ground.
The effectiveness of their work should no longer be assessed exclusively through the number of 'terrorists neutralised' or 'battalions/personnel trained', but also the number of villages rescued timeously and civilian lives saved.
This shift will require moving from what has been an all too reactive mode of operation to one that invests more in anticipation and prevention. Prevention needs to be both operational (avoiding immediate or imminent tragedies) and structural (addressing the root causes of violence). These causal factors include frustrations over issues like land administration, access to natural resources, and inclusion in local decision making.
2021 will be a year of power transfers and political transitions in the Sahel. Burkina Faso's recent elections renewed the government and national assembly. The 21 February run-off to Niger's elections will give the country a new president. And Mali will continue to navigate the political transition that started with last August's coup.
This is the perfect time for new leaders to rethink their countries' strategies for addressing insecurity in Liptako-Gourma and beyond. This means learning lessons from recent experience.
Nadia Adam, Research Officer and Ornella Moderan, Head, Sahel Programme, ISS Bamako
This article was produced with the support of the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands. It draws on research funded by the Human Security Division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and is supported by the ENACT project funded by the European Union and implemented by the ISS and INTERPOL, in association with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.