Over the weekend, two serious episodes of violence occurred in the Sahel – one in eastern Burkina Faso on Friday (August 7), and one in southwestern Niger on Sunday (August 9). These attacks, and particularly the latter, are being discussed intensely by journalists and analysts, so I will make this post relatively brief.
The August 7 attack targeted a livestock market in Namoungou, a small town in Burkina Faso’s Est (East) Region. The town is approximately 30 kilometers east of Fada N’Gourma, capital of the Est Region. See one map of the approximate location here, and see Héni Nsaibia’s map here. Around 30 gunmen arrived on motorbikes and started firing at civilians, killing some 20 people – all in broad daylight. Strikingly, according to RFI, Namoungou hosted the last functioning livestock market in this part of the Est Region, other than the one in Fada N’Gourma itself. The incident has clear parallels with attacks on livestock markets elsewhere in the east, including at Kompienbiga in May of this year.
The August 9 attack in Niger, meanwhile, killed eight people, including six French aid workers, their Nigerien guide, and their Nigerien driver. At least some, and perhaps all of the French victims worked for the charity ACTED. The attack occurred in or near the Kouré Giraffe Reserve (map), which is some 65 kilometers east-southeast of Niamey, Niger’s capital. Kouré is in the Tillabéri region, which is a hotspot for violence, but Kouré is well away from the main zones of violence within Tillabéri, which are to the northwest of Niamey rather than to the capital’s east and south.
A few thoughts:
- Neither attack was immediately claimed, and murkiness surrounding perpetrators and motives is a core feature of the conflict(s) in the Sahel. As Nsaibia noted, survivors from the Namoungou attack pointed fingers not at jihadists but at the country’s volunteer fighters (formally the Volunteers for the Defence of the Fatherland, French acronym VDP). See some background on the VDP here. Regarding the Niger attack, meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) rushed to disavow responsibility. That leaves the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) as the primary suspect, and ISGS does not always claim its attacks immediately. Some attacks never get claimed at all. The point is that in the immediate aftermath of major incidents of violence, there is a lot of confusion, including on the ground. Meanwhile, Sahelien heads of state and senior officials routinely point not just to jihadists when decrying violence but also to “bandits” and “criminals” – see Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s condolence message to Niger and France, where he laments not only “violent extremism” but also the “criminal economy” in the region. Going even further, one might add that the uncertainty over “who kills whom” (to borrow a phrase from Jacob Mundy’s brilliant book on Algeria in the 1990s) is one key factor that generates rumors, conspiracy theories, and fear.
- Another feature of the violence in the Sahel is the progressive erosion of a sense of safety in different parts of the region. The Namoungou attack made me think of this excellent piece of reporting by Alassane Neya from March 2019, which vividly portrayed the sense of looming insecurity in eastern Burkina Faso, even in Fada N’Gourma itself. Now, it’s worth stressing that some parts of the Sahel have become much safer in comparison with the not-too-distant past. France24’s Kalidou Sy, reflecting on the Niger killings, evoked the 2007 murder of four French tourists at Aleg, Mauritania – and much of Mauritania is now safer for Westerners than it was in the late 2000s, I’d say (let’s come back to Aleg below, because there is another point to draw out there). And as I discussed here, parts of northern Mali, especially the Kidal Region, are registering remarkably few fatalities, even though the image of Kidal as the conflict’s epicenter persists in some quarters (that may be true in some political sense, but not in the sense of day-to-day violence). With all that said, the eruption of violence into new localities, and the progressive encroachment of insecurity on zones previously at the edges of endemically violent zones, has manifold effects – one of them being the sense of disorientation that such violence inflicts on local and national authorities, and even on foreign governments. That kind of disorientation can in turn reinforce bunker mentalities for governments, militaries, and humanitarians. I’ve been thumbing through Ruben Andersson’s No-Go World, and unfortunately haven’t had time to read it in full yet, but the points he makes – about how a sense of pervasive insecurity leads to all kinds of efforts at remote management of conflict zones, efforts that in turn carry serious liabilities – are highly pertinent to thinking about these two episodes of violence.
- What happened in Burkina Faso and in Niger may be part of various actors’ master plans – or it may not. Sy’s reference to Aleg reminded me that much still remains unclear about that attack, including whether it was a well-planned incident or whether it was undertaken by aspiring al-Qaida members eager to prove their bonafides (or even to dispel rumors among more seasoned members that these youths were informants).* Killing a group of aid workers makes a dramatic statement – but was it the intended one? Was it a kidnapping gone wrong? Who gave the orders, and why? According to a source cited by RFI, “The attackers came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the group’s arrival” – but more details are needed to understand what level of planning and strategy was involved. Similarly, at Namoungou, what dynamics of greed or revenge, strategy or improvisation, came into play? Is it part of a brilliant plan to cripple commerce, free movement, and normal life in the Est Region, or is it the resulting of cascading contingencies and reckless gambits?
- The targeting of aid workers is a trend, and a terrible one. Whether it was carefully planned or not, the attack in Niger fits into that trend. Many aid agencies take pains to stress their neutrality – the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso was making that point last week – but they are not always perceived as neutral, and are certainly not perceived as inviolable, by many armed actors in the Sahel and beyond.