Africa Sahel Europe Battle field for Supremacy- Intercommunal Conflict in Mali has spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger

 The Sahel, a region south of the Sahara desert stretching from the Atlantic coast to Sudan, is experiencing its worst escalation in violence in ten years. The Sahel includes the five states of the ‘G5 Sahel’, a regional security grouping: Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Chad (see Map 1). When the instability began in 2012-13, the conflict was primarily in northern Mali, caused by an uprising of the Tuareg and jihadist groups. However, since 2015 there has been a rapid increase of intercommunal violence between ethnic groups in central Mali. This violence has spread in recent years to Burkina Faso and Niger, with jihadist groups taking advantage of inter-ethnic tensions to recruit new members.

The Sahel is a strategic priority for Europe for three reasons. First, its location just below Algeria and Libya makes it relevant to the EU, which is seeking to limit migration flows from Africa. Many Europe-bound migrants travel through Niger and then towards the Mediterranean. Networks of smugglers have used the region’s porous borders to traffic migrants through Libya to cross the sea in boats.

Second, the presence of jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaida and IS in the region is of great concern to Europe. France, in particular, is worried that these organisations could sponsor terrorism in Europe or attack French-owned uranium mines in Niger, which are crucial to France’s nuclear power programme. The French army has been heavily involved in counter-terrorism in Mali since the Tuareg and jihadist uprising in 2012, when it launched Opération Sérval. Sérval drove back the armed Islamist groups which had been gaining control over swathes of territory in Mali’s north and centre. In 2014, France launched Opération Barkhane, with a longer-term mandate to counter jihadist groups. French forces help troops from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad – which make up the G5 Sahel’s Joint Force – to carry out counter-terrorism operations. The Joint Force, founded in 2014, brings together soldiers from the G5 states to deal with cross-border terrorist threats.

Third, the region is of wider importance to European security. The Sahel conflict is a rare example of Europe deploying not only significant resources but also political capital. The EU has been involved in development projects in the region for decades, but it had to re-direct this funding when fighting broke out in 2012. The EU now plays a role as a crisis manager in the region, with three Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions in Mali and Niger. The European Commission has adapted and boosted development funding so that it can be used for security-related purposes, and the EU has appointed a Special Representative to the Sahel, Ángel Losada, who co-ordinates diplomatic engagement with the region. As a result, Mali has been referred to as a “laboratory of experimentation” for the EU as a security actor.1 By investing so much energy and so many resources in the Sahel, the EU has given itself an opportunity to demonstrate its competence as a crisis manager to the rest of the world, and to prove it can manage instability in its own neighbourhood. 

Europe is at a critical juncture in its engagement in the Sahel. Violence is at its worst since 2012, with nearly 6,500 people killed in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in 2020 alone (see Chart 1). As a result of rising intercommunal and Islamist violence, the number of internally displaced people has increased from less than 100,000 in 2018 to 1.5 million in 2020.2 At the same time, the region has undergone significant political upheaval. In August 2020, Mali’s government was overthrown by a military coup in the wake of mass protests against corruption and the government’s inability to stop violence in the centre of the country. Discontent with governing elites in outlying regions of northern Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger is growing, as intercommunal violence worsens in these countries. The head of the French external intelligence service, the General Directorate for External Security (DGSE), recently voiced concerns that jihadist activity could spread further south to the Gulf of Guinea.

Europe can choose to continue its current approach – spending hundreds of millions of euros annually on security and development assistance, largely without tackling the root causes of the violence – or put a greater focus on longer-term commitments to good governance, public accountability and civil society. This policy brief will outline why Europe should de-prioritise costly military interventions and take the latter approach. As the EU reviews its Sahel strategy in 2021, Brussels has a particularly crucial role in facilitating a shift in strategy.


Violence in the Sahel is entering its ninth year. In 2012, the Malian state collapsed in the face of a military coup and a rebellion by Tuareg ethnic groups who formed a separatist breakaway state, Azawad, in the north of Mali. The Tuareg have long desired their own independent state, and Tuareg uprisings had previously occurred in 1962, 1990 and 2007. Heavily armed Tuareg militants who had worked as mercenaries in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya returned to Mali in 2012, triggering the rebellion. Jihadist groups formed a loose alliance with the Tuaregs and by late 2012 the armed Islamist group Ansar Dine and its allies had captured the cities of Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. 

Intercommunal conflict in central Mali has spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger.

With the Malian government in crisis and unable to push the armed groups back, then French President François Hollande launched Opération Sérval in January 2013, a deployment of 4,000 French troops supported by US and European air cover. By the end of 2013 they had largely succeeded in recapturing all the lost territory. In 2015, the warring parties signed the Algiers accords, under the auspices of the EU, the UN, the US, France and Algeria. A main aim of the accords was to decentralise powers to the north and boost investment in the northern regions that had previously been neglected by the Malian government in Bamako. The hope was that these measures would help address the root causes of the 2012 uprising and prevent it from happening again. 

The ink was barely dry on the north’s peace agreement when a new conflict in Mali’s central regions erupted in 2015-16. This time the violence primarily came from attacks by jihadists, but was rooted in frictions between ethnic communities, especially between the Dogon and the Fulani (or Peul in French) peoples. Central Mali and jihadist groups were not covered by the Algiers accords, which focused on the Tuaregs and northern Mali.

As arable land grows increasingly scarce due to the desertification of the Sahel, which is being aggravated by climate change, non-nomadic groups such as the Dogon compete with the nomadic Fulani for access to resources, providing a backdrop to tensions. In central Malian provinces such as Mopti, jihadist armed groups attacked leaders from the Dogon ethnic group (who are mostly sedentary farmers) whom they accused of supporting the Malian state. The Dogon in turn formed militias to defend themselves. But the Dogon militias frequently targeted civilians, most often from the Fulani – nomadic herders whom the Dogon accused of collaborating with the jihadists. The violence escalated over three years and reached a new height in March 2019 when a Dogon militia massacred over 160 Fulani, including women and children. Lacking protection from the state against such massacres, the Fulani then looked to Islamist armed groups for defence against Dogon attacks. Some Fulani joined the jihadists, who were happy to exploit the tensions to recruit new members. Public grievances over the Malian government’s inability to stop the violence, and rising civilian fatalities, were a driving force behind the protests in July 2020 in the lead-up to the August coup.

Intercommunal conflict in central Mali has spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and southwestern Niger. Intercommunal violence and tensions over land in Mali are replicated in clashes between the Fulani and Mossi in Burkina Faso, and between Fulani, Tuareg and Daoussahak groups in western Niger. On January 2nd 2021, Islamist militants killed over 100 civilians in Tillabéri, Niger, near the border with Mali and Burkina Faso.


France is the most important international player in the region. As the former colonial power, France sees the Sahel as its backyard. Since the 1960s France has pursued an approach of Françafrique: fostering close political, economic and military links between French and francophone African elites, and long-term defence agreements with all the Sahelian countries. This engagement included frequent interventions during the Cold War. France took military action in francophone Africa 19 times to support governments between 1962 and 1995.3 No French president has managed to pull France’s forces out of Africa, despite its citizens’ growing disenchantment with military engagement in the region. President Hollande tried, and failed: he ended up launching Opération Barkhane, which currently stands at 5,100 personnel.

The UN is also heavily involved in the Sahel. With over 14,000 uniformed personnel currently deployed, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) is the UN’s second-largest peace-keeping mission after UNMISS in South Sudan. MINUSMA’s mandate is to support the peace process in Mali, including the implementation of the 2015 Algiers accord in the north; to promote national dialogue and reconciliation; to protect civilians and reinstate government authority in central Mali; and (most recently) to support the political transition following the August 2020 coup.

Urged on by France, other European countries and the EU have started to play a more active role in the region. Seventeen EU member-states now contribute soldiers or police to MINUSMA.4 Following the 2015 refugee crisis, Germany has taken an increased interest in the area and has stepped up its troop commitments. Germany now sends 1,500 troops to the EU’s military CSDP mission in Mali and MINUSMA, and Berlin recently gifted 15 armoured vehicles to the Nigerien armed forces. Meanwhile Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, the UK and the Czech Republic contribute to Opération Barkhane. Five more EU member-states plus the UK have also agreed to support the new French-led international counter-terrorism Task Force Takuba.5 The Task Force will enable European special forces to accompany Malian and Nigerien forces on counter-terrorism assignments in cross-border regions from 2021.

Better co-ordination between donors has not brought Europe much success in de-escalating the violence.

The EU currently has two overseas missions in Mali as part of the EU’s CSDP – a military training mission for the Malian armed forces (EUTM Mali) and a civilian and law enforcement capacity building mission (EUCAP Sahel Mali). The EU has a similar capacity building mission in Niger to help the authorities there counter migration flows (EUCAP Sahel Niger).6 Europe also plays a prominent role in managing the conflict through its international development aid. EU development funds are now allocated to security-related projects such as stabilising local administrations and carrying out border surveillance missions. The Sahel Alliance, founded in 2017 at the initiative of France, Germany and the EU, has been the primary mechanism for co-ordinating development and security activities.7 The Alliance structures projects around shared priorities and acts as a point of contact on development for the G5 Sahel countries, funding 880 projects worth €11.6 billion.

Since 2011 there has been a plethora of strategies and action plans from France and the EU. While they differ in their exact focus, they all prioritise shorter-term interests in curbing migration and counter-terrorism. The EU Strategy for the Sahel 8 and the Sahel Regional Action Plan 2015-20 9 set out the EU’s interests in the region since instability began in 2012. Migration took on increased prominence in the Sahel Regional Action Plan in light of the 2015 refugee crisis. By contrast, good governance is given a low priority, and the documents do not elaborate much on what the phrase means, beyond improving the provision of public services. The EU is currently reviewing its Sahel strategy in 2021. 

Despite the approaches set out in the EU’s Sahel strategy, and the increased resources dedicated to development in the region, violence has continued to worsen in central Mali in the last four years. In 2019 French President Emmanuel Macron announced the Partnership for Security and Stability in the Sahel jointly with Germany. This aimed to provide a greater focus on law and order and governance, and less on traditional security goals. But the Partnership was never implemented because less than a year later in January 2020 another structure – the Coalition for the Sahel – was launched by France. The Coalition is supposed to concentrate all European action around four pillars: counter-terrorism; building regional military capacity; supporting the return of state authority; and development.10 Yet better co-ordination between donors has not brought Europe much success in de-escalating the violence. While European strategies have increasingly mentioned the importance of good governance as a long-term solution to the conflict, in practice the status quo largely prevails. Europe’s focus remains on supporting states with development assistance, combined with short-term efforts to neutralise terrorist groups.

The UK has also bolstered its presence in the region. Having opened an embassy in Mali after the 2012 coup, Britain expanded its presence in Bamako and opened embassies in Niger and Chad in 2018. Despite the major cuts proposed for its aid budget, the UK government is so far maintaining its commitment to the Sahel Alliance and reaffirmed the region’s importance in the 2021 UK Integrated Review.11 As well as dedicating Chinook helicopters to Opération Barkhane, in December 2020 the British government sent 300 troops to MINUSMA. France and the UK have similar strategic cultures: an expeditionary impulse and a willingness to undertake overseas military engagements, which makes Franco-British military co-operation in the Sahel effective. 

The US also plays an important role in supporting Barkhane, particularly with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and air-to-air refuelling capabilities. The US operates a drone airbase in Niger, with around 800 troops currently in the country. While there were fears that Trump would follow his withdrawal of US support to Somalia by a similar move in the Sahel, ultimately he did not. But the Sahel is not a priority for the Biden administration, so an increase in US military engagement is still unlikely. Meanwhile China has been quietly stepping up its commitments to MINUSMA, and sits just behind Germany as a troop contributor, with 413 Chinese soldiers in the mission. This mirrors China’s increased pledges to UN peace-keeping and its security commitments in Africa, which now range from South Sudan to its military base in Djibouti. China has equally been investing in Mali’s infrastructure and services, including the rehabilitation of a colonial-era railway line between Bamako and Dakar, Senegal.


European support to Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso prioritises assistance to the defence and security sector to help it deal with threats from Islamist armed groups. Attacks from jihadist groups are mostly concentrated in the ‘tri-border region’ between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, so France has rightly encouraged transnational security co-Opération through the G5 Sahel Joint Force.

Opération Barkhane, the EU’s training and capacity building missions and MINUSMA have done reasonably well at achieving their shorter-term objectives, providing much needed technical support and training to Sahelian armed forces. Barkhane in particular has been effective at killing the leaders of armed Islamist groups, and has achieved numerous tactical victories. In November 2020 for instance, French forces killed the military leader of JNIM, Bah Ag Moussa, during a clash in southeastern Mali. Having built close partnerships with Sahelian security forces, Europe’s strategy is to build up the capacity of their partners to carry out such raids autonomously. 

In support of Barkhane, EUTM Mali has now trained over 15,000 soldiers to deploy in small tactical units and to hold their positions under enemy fire. EU civilian capacity building missions in Mali and Niger have become important partners to internal security forces in combatting cross-border crime. The EU is also helping Malian armed forces to establish a presence in isolated areas of central Mali that are plagued by jihadist violence, such as the Pole Sécurisé de Développement et de Gouvernance (PSDG) in Konna, central Mali.16 MINUSMA has managed to maintain a fragile peace with Tuareg groups in the north.

Mistreatment by security forces and state institutions is one of the most powerful drivers of jihadist recruitment.

Europe’s security-focused approach, which prioritises training the militaries and internal security forces of Sahelian countries, would seem at first glance to be sensible. It is a primary function of the state to protect its citizens against violence from militias and armed insurgent groups, and Sahelian armed forces are best placed to deal with these challenges in the long term. Terrorism is the greatest security threat to Europe in the region, so Europe’s focus on it is understandable. In the post-Afghanistan era, when European publics are weary of open-ended military engagements, intervening countries need to provide clear benchmarks for withdrawal. For France, this means that once certain targets in terms of training and the capacity of Sahelian armies to fight terrorist groups have been met, they will leave.17 

The problem with this approach, however, is that frequently the states which receive millions of euros of security assistance every year are the same ones whose national armies carry out illegal killings, torture and other human rights abuses against their own populations. For many communities in the Sahel, not only do state security forces fail to protect them from violence, but they actively pose a threat to their safety. The same Malian army that received training in human rights from EUTM Mali was implicated both in Mali’s August 2020 coup and human rights violations in the centre of the country. The more the state is perceived as a perpetrator rather than a mediator of inter-ethnic disputes over land or a provider of security, the more civilians will seek protection from Islamist armed groups or ethnic militias, and the cycle of violence will continue.

While in 2019 the majority of the civilian fatalities in the region were caused by attacks from Islamist armed groups or intercommunal violence, there is a worrying trend toward state-perpetrated violence, as shown by Chart 2. MINUSMA’s human rights division recently found that in the third quarter of 2020 Mali’s security forces carried out more human rights abuses than any other actor.18 The West Africa director at Human Rights Watch has argued that these illegal killings constitute war crimes.19 These abuses, especially indiscriminate attacks on the Fulani by state security forces, are driving people to turn to jihadist groups for protection, and the Islamists are all too happy to exploit intercommunal tensions opportunistically to swell their own ranks. Studies have repeatedly found that the experience of mistreatment by security forces and state institutions is one of the most powerful drivers of jihadist recruitment in the region.

Europe should also be more concerned about Malian, Nigerien and Burkinabe state affiliations with ethnic militias as proxies. These militias have carried out massacres against the Fulani, worsening inter-ethnic tensions. In January 2020, Burkina Faso passed the ‘Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland Act’, which allowed the state to arm civilians to fight jihadists. Yet in the nine months after the legislation, more than half of the 19 attacks launched by volunteers were against civilian members of the Fulani community, who were accused of collaborating with the jihadists.21 In the past the Malian state has similarly been accused of collaborating with hunting groups called Dozo to fight jihadists, and Dozo have also targeted Fulani civilians.22 Nigerien authorities have meanwhile failed to prevent Tuareg militias from targeting Fulani communities in the western Tillabéri province. 

Europeans have become more vocally critical of abuse by security forces in the Sahel. French Defence Minister Florence Parly said human rights abuses by state security forces “could threaten international support.”23 EU High Representative Josep Borrell has denounced the conduct of G5 forces.24 Yet there has been no talk of withdrawing funding from, or sanctioning, those who have perpetrated human rights abuses. Nor were questions raised about the effects of the EUTM’s training programmes in human rights on the behaviour of Mali’s armed forces. When Human Rights Watch presented evidence of a mass execution of 180 Fulani civilians by Burkina Faso’s army in June 2020, the EU’s response was only to demand that the Burkinabe authorities shed light on these allegations, reiterating European support for the army’s counter-terrorism campaign.25 

Europe needs to prioritise tackling abuses by Sahelian armed forces for two reasons. First, without sanctions for misconduct and greater pressure to prevent these incidents, G5 militaries will have little incentive to change their ways. Europe’s efforts to achieve stability by supporting state security forces will become increasingly counter-productive. The only real path to solving the intercommunal violence in central Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger is if state authorities in these countries can act as a mediator in disputes (often over land) between communities – which jihadist groups would be happy to do in their absence. The state cannot carry out this function if it is feared and mistrusted by certain communities, such as the Fulani. It is in Europe’s interest that governments in the Sahel rebuild trust with all communities and cease to be seen as partisan in inter-ethnic conflicts they are supposed to be resolving. 

Second, if European-funded armies in the Sahel have played a part in worsening and prolonging the conflict, the basis of Europe’s ‘capacity building’ strategy could be called into question. European parliaments and citizens have the right to question if the millions of euros being spent by their governments on security assistance are further destabilising the region. Paris and Brussels may fear that threatening sanctions will lead the G5 to reject European aid or make less effort to counter illegal migration. But given the importance of foreign military aid to state security sectors in the Sahel, this argument underestimates Europe’s bargaining power. 

Source: Centre for European Reforms

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