While COVID-19 has impacted the Sahel, governments and stakeholders in the region must not let it overshadow their responses to resolving the ongoing jihadist insurgency, argues Flore Berger.
COVID-19 has captured everyone’s attention and is likely to remain a top policy priority for most of 2020. Pandemic-focused coverage has eclipsed many other recent developments and continues to dominate the news cycle, and the Sahel is no exception. While COVID-19 hasn’t yet impacted Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso too severely when compared to other regions, the virus has indeed hit West Africa, with a regional total of 202 deaths and just over 8,300 confirmed cases as of 28 April.
Most commentators have focused on the pandemic and its potentially devastating impact on the Sahel, a region already facing a wide array of challenges. However, it is important to remember that the reality – the conflict dynamics at play in the Sahel – continues to exist and unfold outside of the COVID-19 bubble, and independently of it. This is not to say that the virus will not impact the ongoing security situation – it will. But not everything can be understood through the lens of COVID-19.
It is just one of many factors that will influence the insurgency and conduct of hostilities, and is yet another challenge that the Sahelian countries and their partners will have to face. In the next few months, it will be crucial for all stakeholders in the Sahel not to let COVID-19 overshadow the other many drivers of the conflict.
What are the current security developments?
So far, the areas of operations of jihadist groups – central and northern Mali, northern and eastern Burkina Faso and western Niger – have been largely spared from COVID-19, mainly because they are far and disconnected from the epicentre of the epidemic in the countries’ respective capitals.
This has not prevented jihadist groups – such as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and al-Qaeda – from instrumentalising the pandemic in their communications to their regional and local affiliates in the Sahel. Their narrative has revolved around the idea that COVID-19 is a divine punishment targeting the ‘unbelievers’ in the West, which was reinforced by the fact that the first confirmed cases in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso were all ‘imported’ from Europe. ISIS has even instructed its affiliates to take advantage of the situation to step up their attacks. But so far, this rhetoric has not translated into action for the simple reason that their agenda, strategy, objectives and resources have not changed.
Both groups – the al-Qaeda coalition in the Sahel, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (known by its Arabic acronym JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – have continued to carry out attacks in their respective areas of operations against military positions, United Nations peacekeepers and civilian populations. JNIM has been particularly active in central and northern Mali, as well as northern Burkina Faso, where the group has mounted significant attacks, including on 6 April when the group killed 25 Malian soldiers in Bamba, in Mali’s Gao region. The Katiba Macina – a member of the JNIM coalition – also kidnapped various political figures as they campaigned across the country ahead of legislative elections on 19 March. Among the victims were Soumaïla Cissé, the leading Malian opposition leader, who remains in the hands of the Katiba Macina after more than a month of failed negotiations.
Continued clashes in the Liptako-Gourma
Following the Pau G5 Sahel Summit in January, the G5 Sahel Joint Force and French-led Operation Barkhane have focused their efforts and increased their coordination to destabilise and dislodge the ISGS from the tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, known as the Liptako-Gourma. It is too soon to measure the impact of these counter-terrorism operations, but history has shown that the ISGS – like other armed groups in the region – is resilient, adapting its strategy and geographical focus in the face of heavy pressure from the international coalition. It is likely that ISGS attacks will diminish in the tri-border area momentarily, but that does not mean that the group is defeated. Time is on its side, unlike the national armies and their international partners.
Moreover, the two jihadist groups have clashed on multiple occasions. Notably, JNIM lost 50 militants in a fight against ISGS in northern Burkina Faso in April; ISGS captured a further 40. Tensions between the two factions have increased in the past few months, with reports of JNIM militants defecting to the ISGS. This new dynamic has been largely overlooked by Sahel watchers, from researchers to government and defence ministries, despite its potential for increasing havoc and destabilisation.
As these groups continue to wage their insurgencies and exploit vulnerabilities – irrespective of the pandemic – Sahelian countries and their partners must consolidate and build on the efforts and achievements of early 2020, such as the deployment of Malian troops to Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Ménaka – which was called for in the 2015 Peace Agreement – as well as military gains in the Liptako-Gourma. While tackling COVID-19 and mitigating its impact is an additional burden, it is crucial that no one turns away from the security situation and the threat posed by jihadist groups.
About the author
Flore Berger is a Research Analyst for Sub-Saharan Africa within the Conflict, Security and Development programme at IISS. She is responsible for monitoring and analysing security, political and humanitarian developments for conflicts across West Africa for, among other projects, the annual Armed Conflict Survey. She contributes to research and dissemination activities such as conflict briefings on the region.