Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

The analyst José Luengo-Cabrera periodically posts graphics capturing different trends in violence and displacement in the Sahel; these graphics are indispensable for thinking about conflict in the region, and I really respect his work. He recently posted graphics for the first half of 2020. I want to briefly comment on some of the trends here.

Let’s start with the regional picture:

In addition to the points Luengo-Cabrera makes, here are a few other basic observations:

  • It’s worth repeating often that even though the current wave of crisis in the Sahel began with the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, most of the intervening years and particularly the last three and a half have been more violent than 2012. Mali is not in a “post-conflict” phase, despite the signing of a peace agreement called the Algiers Accord in 2015.
  • It also bears repeating that northern Mali has, for some time now, not been the most violent zone in the conflict. Kidal, the heartland of the 2012 rebellion, is not even mentioned in Luengo-Cabrera’s breakdown of violent regions. The most violent areas of the current conflict are central Mali (note that Mopti is the most violent region on his list, and that adjacent Ségou is eighth on the list – more violent than Timbuktu) and northern Burkina Faso (note that while eastern Burkina Faso is heavily affected by insecurity and jihadism, it is the north that is substantially more violent).
  • What appears to propel mass violence, in my view, is multi-directional conflict where the key protagonists/decision-makers are not well-known elites. Why is northern Mali less violent than central Mali? Northern Mali has no shortage of militias – but they tend to be led by seasoned politicians and fighters, in some cases by figures who have been political fixtures since the 1990s. In contrast, in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso one finds the violence is often led by people who have emerged as key actors only during the conflict itself, and who were relatively unknown before.
  • The trend lines, particularly for Mali and Burkina Faso, are horrific. In my view much of the increase in violence stems from the compounding effects of previous violence – as I have said before here on the blog, I am skeptical about the idea that COVID-19 on its own triggered major spikes in violence and/or decisively empowered jihadists in the region.

Let’s now turn to country-specific graphics. Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Mali:

A few thoughts:

  • The fine print is important here, namely that the fatalities shown for Gao are actually for both Gao and Ménaka; the latter, still-emergent region is obviously part of the tri-border zone that is now the epicenter of the whole Sahel conflict.
  • Note too that within Mopti, the deadliest region, the east (or non-flooded zone) is substantially more violent than the west. Among the factors here may be that according to some Malian experts I’ve talked to, jihadist control is much more consolidated in the west (in cercles/districts such as Tenenkou and Youwarou) than in the east. I think Stathis Kalyvas’ model about contested control driving violence is too schematic (see Laia Balcells’ Rivalry and Revenge, for example, for a more complex view), but this issue of fragmented control certainly seems to be one element in making the east more violent than the west. Additionally, inter-ethnic tensions have repeatedly boiled over into mass violence in eastern Mopti – it is there that the most infamous massacres of the conflict (Ogassagou March 2019, Sobane-Da June 2019, Ogassagou February 2020, etc.) have occurred.
  • Why was 2017 the real turning point to mass violence? Some analysts may immediately answer “JNIM,” referring to Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, an al-Qaida-sponsored coalition that was announced in March 2017). But the constituent elements of JNIM were all present in the conflict before their formal grouping under that umbrella. Other factors, then, include the spread of the central Malian conflict into eastern Mopti, the emergence of ethnic militias such as Dan Na Ambassagou (which was formed in the final months of 2016), and an escalating cycle of abuses by both the militias and the state security forces (and the jihadists, obviously). This is not an exhaustive list of the forces driving a really complicated conflict, of course. But perhaps in sum one might say that 2017 is the year that various trends really collided to produce an accelerating downward spiral.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Burkina Faso:

My comments:

  • The puzzle we have in explaining why things really deteriorated in Mali in 2017 is, mutatis mutandis, the same puzzle we have for 2019 in Burkina Faso. Again, one could posit the same basic collision of factors: jihadist violence, inter-ethnic tensions, and security force abuses. A symbol for all of 2019 could be the massacre at Yirgou that opened the year; in that event you have all the elements for multi-directional violence – a (presumed) jihadist assassination, a collective reprisal against an ethnic group, impunity for perpetrators of violence, etc.
  • Another puzzle that I’ve meant to work on is why the Nord region is not more violent. Note that the Sahel Region accounts for over 1,000 fatalities but that the Nord Region has little more than 150. Yet the Nord Region is actually closer to eastern Mopti than is the Sahel Region. One lesson here, then, is that Burkina Faso’s conflicts are not merely a spillover of central Mali’s conflicts.

Here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Niger:


  • Luengo-Cabrera notes in a follow-on post that it is 66%, rather than 86%, of the fatalities for the first half of 2020 that occurred in Tillabéri. Still, Niger’s trends are fundamentally different than neighboring countries’ because Niger’s deadliest zone used to be far in the southeast, in other words in the zone affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots. 2015 was a bad year in Diffa, as southeastern Niger experienced a wave of attacks, partially representing Boko Haram’s reprisals against Niger for Niger’s participation in the joint Chadian-Nigerien-Nigerian campaign that broke up Boko Haram’s formal territorial enclave in the first several months of 2015. Diffa was already under a state of emergency by February 2015, and has remained under one ever since. In contrast, it was not until March 2017 that the Nigerien authorities declared a state of emergency in parts of Tillabéri and adjacent Tahoua. Things have only worsened since then, and this year looks to be the rough equivalent for Niger of 2017 for Mali and 2019 for Burkina Faso. Meanwhile Diffa is relatively calm compared to the situation there in 2015, or the situation in Tillabéri now.
  • The best thing I’ve read on Tillabéri recently is this Crisis Group report.

Finally, here is Luengo-Cabrera’s graphic for Chad (Mauritania is relatively calm, so I won’t cover it here):

A brief comment is that the areas affected by Boko Haram and its offshoots are deadlier than whatever rebellion(s) are simmering in the north. Daniel Eizenga’s briefing on Chad and Boko Haram from April of this year remains highly relevant for understanding the situation there.

I don’t have much to offer for a conclusion except that things are quite bad, especially in the tri-border zone. I don’t think counterterrorism operations are really helping that much. And in addition to the violence, you have mass and growing displacement (for which Luengo-Cabrera has also made graphics, but I’ll leave that for another time), food insecurity, and many other factors contributing to a really nightmarish picture for millions of people.

2 thoughts on “Trends in Political Violence in the Sahel for the First Half of 2020: A Few Comments

  1. Pingback: Two Grim Attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger | Sahel Blog

  2. Pingback: Mali: Notes on MINUSMA’s Latest Human Rights Report | Sahel Blog

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