Two Grim Attacks in Burkina Faso and Niger

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Four Reasons Why Mali in 2020 Is Not Burkina Faso in 2014

There was a lively commentary posted yesterday (August 4) at the Malian news aggregator site Maliweb, by Diagne Fodé Roland. I’ll translate the title as “Mali in 2020 Is on the Path of Burkina in 2014.” The twin reference is to the anti-incumbent protests that have been unfolding in Mali since June of this year, and to the 2014 popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Burkina Faso’s longtime ruler Blaise Compaoré in 2014.

The Malian protests are led by a coalition of groups known as the June 5 Movement – Rally of Patriotic Forces (French acronym M5-RFP). Their main demand (now perhaps not shared by all parts of the movement) has been the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK).

I was not previously familiar with the writing of Diagne (I believe this to be his surname), but given how widely he has been published in the Senegalese press, he may be Senegalese rather than Malian. He quotes heavily from another thinker, Issa N’Diaye, whose work is also new to me – Diagne quotes from N’Diaye’s provocatively titled book Silence, on démocratise !démocratie et fractures sociales au Mali (Silence, We’re Democratizing! Democracy and Social Fractures in Mali). The argument Diagne picks up on from Ndiaye is that after the popular uprising (and military coup) that overthrew Mali’s longtime military dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991, the new system of multiparty democracy was in reality a neocolonial “festival of bandits” where members of the old ruling party (UDPM) took over the new ruling party (ADEMA) and marginalized the original movers in the revolution. In this view, part of the Malian left was disempowered and the remainder was incorporated into a “neocolonial bourgeoisie in vassalage to the liberal plans of structural adjustment dictated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.” In Diagne’s view, that history of what he sees as kleptocracy for elites and immiseration for ordinary Malians sets the stage for the current crisis.

Diagne’s points here are worth taking seriously, and his analysis is shared by not a few Malians. At the very least, the phrase “political class” has recurred throughout the crisis, and there is a palpable sense of fatigue and disgust with that class. The next part of Diagne’s historical narrative pertains to the northern rebellion of 2012 and the French intervention, which Diagne sees as a neo-imperialist maneuver. Diagne describes the insecurity in the country in highly conspiratorial terms, an analysis I do not share but which many Malians do seem to share. But to pursue that discussion would take us off track – I want to get back to the headline of Diagne’s piece.

Diagne does not develop, at all, the comparison between Mali and Burkina Faso – in fact, I wonder whether an editor slapped that headline on the piece. But the comparison is worth exploring, for at least two reasons:

  1. Burkina Faso’s transition is the most recent instance of a popular revolution in the Sahel, and
  2. The involvement of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in attempting to mediate Mali’s crisis invites a regional reading of the Malian situation. I have even seen the argument (I wish I had saved the link/post) that the real audience for ECOWAS’ missions to Mali is the domestic constituencies of those same ECOWAS heads of state, and that ECOWAS leaders are above all concerned that anti-incumbent protests not spread to their own countries. That’s a discussion worth pursuing in another post, I think.

I also won’t discuss the revolution in Burkina Faso exhaustively here – for that, I recommend Ernest Harsch’s Burkina Faso: A History of Power, Protest and Revolution. Instead, I want to highlight four reasons why I think Mali 2020 and Burkina Faso 2014 are quite different from one another.

1. IBK is not Compaoré

Simply by virtue of math, I think one has to say that IBK in 2020 and Compaoré in 2014 belong to different categories. IBK is an embattled leader, a career member of the Malian “political class,” and now the symbol of that class, especially in the eyes of his opponents – yet he is also a term-limited incumbent in his second term, who came to power by the ballot box, and who has been in power for well under a decade (he took office in 2013). The elections IBK won in 2013 and 2018 were flawed (low turnout, and almost certainly some rigging), but they were not, in my view, the stage-managed elections of a “competitive authoritarian” dictatorship. All of this is a far cry from the career of Compaoré, who came to power in a bloody 1987 coup, was elected and re-elected president in grossly undemocratic elections in 1991 and 1998, skirted term limits on a technicality in 2005, and was preparing to flout term limits again in the lead-up to the 2015 election. IBK has not been president long enough to instill the kind of resentment that developed under Compaoré – no one protesting in the streets now in Bamako was born while IBK was president (I assume/hope), but plenty of protesters in Burkina Faso in 2014 had lived all their lives under Compaoré’s rule.

2. There are no Malian equivalents to the symbolism/martyrdom of Thomas Sankara or Norbert Zongo (yet)

The Burkinabè revolution was multi-causal and complex, but it’s worth mentioning two key figures who became symbols for the protesters there, and whom the protesters (and much of the wider society, it seems to me) consider martyrs of the Compaoré regime. The first is Compaoré’s immediate predecessor, the revolutionary dictator Thomas Sankara (in power 1983-1987), who is widely admired not just in Burkina Faso but across Africa and around the world (including by me, for what it’s worth) for his efforts to transform Burkina Faso’s society and economy and to make the country egalitarian and truly independent. Sankara’s murder during Compaoré’s 1987 coup is, for many Burkinabè citizens, a wound that refuses to heal, and during and after the protests there has been a powerful call for the country to reckon with that tragic history. The second figure is Norbert Zongo, a journalist murdered in 1998, likely at the hands of Compaoré’s regime and in connection with his investigation into the murder of a driver employed by Compaoré’s brother François, a story with wider implications for understanding corruption and impunity within the regime. These figures are not the only victims of the Compaoré regime, but their memories loomed large in the 2014 uprising.

I do not see any Malian equivalents to those figures, not at the same level of symbolism and resonance. This is not to say that there are not Malians dying in tragic and preventable ways; the insecurity in the center and the north of the country claims victims on a daily basis. There have even been deaths associated with the Malian security forces’ response to the M5-RFP’s protests. But I do not see a parallel to Sankara and Zongo in Mali in the sense of prominent, widely respected and even beloved figures whose deaths can be laid directly at the incumbent’s doorstep in some deeply personal way. Deep as the anger toward IBK may be among the M5-RFP’s supporters, I am not sure it matches the depth of the Burkinabè protesters’ anger and disgust toward Compaoré in 2014.

The most dangerous moment so far in the Malian government’s response to the M5-RFP, I would say, came over the weekend of July 10-12 when the security forces were detaining M5-RFP leaders and cracking down on protesters with excessive force. If the security forces inadvertently produce martyrs amid this crisis, the dynamic could shift substantially.

Another, related point is that there were dress rehearsals, of sorts, for the Burkinabè uprising of 2014 – notably, there were waves of protests in 2008 and 2011. One could argue that various episodes in Mali’s history (the 1991 revolution, or perhaps the 2009 protests against a controversial Family Code, or perhaps something else) were precedents for the current moment, but 1991 was a long time ago and previous mobilizations by clerics were issue-specific, or focused on figures below the level of the president. Mali in 2020 does not appear to be at the peak of a long-building wave.

3. The M5-RFP has little visible support outside Bamako

Another crucial difference between Burkina Faso in 2014 and Mali in 2020 is that the Burkinabè revolution had a broader geographical ambit. Certainly the M5-RFP is not completely lacking in support outside the capital, and certainly Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou was the heart of the 2014 revolution there – but numerous commentators have pointed out that the M5-RFP has not mobilized substantial protests in cities other than Bamako. Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso in 2014 (and in the earlier protest waves in 2008 and 2011), there was substantial mobilization in the economic hub Bobo-Dioulasso and elsewhere. If IBK outlasts the M5-RFP, as he is still fairly likely to do, a significant reason will be that the protests are not truly national in scope.

4. The Burkinabè revolution was relatively leaderless, whereas the M5-RFP is elite-led and therefore vulnerable

The whole idea of “leaderless movements” is partly a myth, of course, and there were organized groups that played substantial roles in the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso – the most famous of them being Balai Citoyen (Citizen’s Broom), founded by musicians in 2013. And the ground for the uprising was partly prepared through intra-elite splits, including the departure of several major figures from Compaoré’s camp in 2012 (among them current President Roch Kaboré). Yet amid the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso, it was not so easy as it is in Mali in 2020 to pick out the handful of people who appear to be in charge. The M5-RFP is a formal coalition of three groups, which gives you a relatively small group of key leaders, such as Imam Mahmoud Dicko, his close associate Issa Kaou Djim, and the former ministers Cheick Oumar Sissoko, Mountaga Tall, and Choguel Maïga. It is not that these leaders merely snap their fingers and tens of thousands of people come out – obviously there must be a give-and-take between leaders and protesters as the leaders attempt to read the mood of their supporters. Yet the relatively small, elite character of the leadership leaves them vulnerable to divide-and-rule tactics by IBK’s team, and to infighting and strategic disagreements. With the M5-RFP’s most prominent leader, Dicko, now suggesting that IBK does not need to resign, after all, it appears more likely that the M5-RFP will split than that the M5-RFP will succeed in forcing IBK out of power. In Burkina Faso, in contrast, events moved so quickly in October 2014, and the protesters proved so difficult to placate or divide, that Compaoré was being forced out before he could devise a serious counter-strategy. The increasingly protracted negotiations in Mali have, in a way, favored the M5-RFP so long as they don’t budge; but it has also given IBK time to experiment, lean on his peers and supporters outside Mali, and wait for the M5-RFP to crack.

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:

Remarks:

  • 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.

Heavy Rains and Risks of Flooding in Parts of the Sahel

Flooding is a recurring problem in parts of the Sahel – in 2019, floods in Niger affected over 200,000 people. Water damage to houses displaces people and elevates disease risks. An excerpt from the link:

OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke says the last time the Niger basin reached this level was in 2012.

“At that time, the floods left dozens of dead and affected nearly half-a-million people… Each year, there has been an upward trend in how many people are affected by these seasonal rains.  We have seen a doubling of the number of people affected since 2015, as well as increasing material damage including destruction of crops and loss of livestock,” Laerke said.

This year, above average rains are expected for much of the Sahel. That pattern may accelerate various grim domino effects:

Given the overall wet situation expected for the 2020 rainy season and the ongoing locust crisis in Eastern Africa and the Horn of Africa, it is very likely that there will be an incursion of desert locust swarms due to the early onset of the rainy season in the Sahelian band.

Combined with the situation related to the COVID19 pandemic, this risk of desert locust invasion could increase the risk of food insecurity for millions of people in the Sahel and West Africa.

Heavy rains are already taking a toll in Niger – the Ministry of the Interior recently stated that from the beginning of the rainy season through July 20, nine people had died, seventeen had been wounded, and 20,000 had been affected. Earlier in July, the government had warned that 300,000 people across Niger face flood risks this year.

In Mali, flooding is also beginning to take a toll. The below tweet shows the situation in Douentza, Mopti Region, where 2,200 people have already been affected. Some 110,000 people face flood risks in Mali:

Here is a Red Cross report on the response to flooding last August in multiple regions of Mali.

In Chad, over 170,000 people were affected by floods last year. Heavy rains have hit N’Djamena, with residents of some quarters disputing with each other over how to deal with the water.

Heavy rains can also cause other problems, less serious than loss of life and mass displacement but still tremendously disruptive. In Mauritania, rains this year have made some roads impassable, damaged bridges, dams, and wells, knocked out electricity in some areas, etc.

Finally, writing in Le Faso, Felix Alexandre Sanfo makes some important points that apply not just to Burkina Faso but also to the wider region. He commends the Burkinabè government for its June 30 directive to regional and municipal authorities to begin preparing in case of floods – but he points out that such instructions could come earlier, given the predictability of the cycle. He goes on to argue for unifying the partly overlapping roles of the two main emergency services in the country, as well as for creating more robust early warning and reaction mechanisms.

To close with a nod to the big picture, the flooding raises questions about the links between climate change, disasters, food insecurity, and conflict. Crisis Group put it well, in a report back in April:

Climate change has certainly contributed to transforming the region’s agro-pastoral systems. But the direct relationship sometimes posited between global warming and dwindling resources, on one hand, and growing violence, on the other, does not help policymakers formulate appropriate responses…It is essential to consider the impact of climate change in the Sahel. But the climate component must be linked to a broader set of causalities, notably the political choices – including those made by states – governing access to resources.

In any case, amid the region’s many other crises, flooding appears likely to affect tens if not hundreds of thousands of people across the region in the coming months.

Snapshots of Sahelian Pastoralism Under Strain

Across the Sahel, pastoralists face threats and disruptions due to jihadists, cattle rustling, COVID-19, and other forces. Here are several key pieces that have appeared in recent months:

Loïc Bisson, in a paper for the Clngendal Institute (10 July), analyzes how all these problems intersect with long-term vulnerabilities in the sector. Here is the abstract:

In the Sahel, market closures, border closures and movement restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the structurally weak pastoral sector, already made vulnerable by conflict. There are several signs of the negative impacts of COVID-19, such as difficulties in moving food and people, poor access to markets, rising food prices and loss of livelihoods. In Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad, the pandemic adds to ongoing problems of conflict and political instability. The threat to pastoralists is to lose their herds through overgrazing, zoo-sanitary diseases or lack of income to feed the animals. If pastoralists go bankrupt, they could be forced to sell their livestock at devastatingly low prices to large landholders or wealthy neo-pastoralists. This scenario would aggravate an already-growing trend in the region – escalating economic inequality and the consolidation of wealth among an elite. This risks fuelling inequality and deepening existing fault lines. The priority for Sahelian governments should be clear: keep food coming and people moving, and develop a post-COVID-19 strategy to tackle the vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic.

Le Monde (French, 31 May), in an article titled “Livestock Thefts, a Collateral Effect of Terrorism, Destabilize Central Mali,” discusses how such thefts sometimes run to hundreds of cattle or sheep in a single incident. The article notes how livestock theft helps to fuel a grim cycle – jihadists and bandits steal animals and sell them at reduced prices in unofficial markets, financing crime; the losses of animals spell economic difficulty or doom for many families; tensions between communities rise; and displacement increases. One thing I learned from the article is that livestock is Mali’s third most important export after gold and cotton.

Financial Afrik (French, 6 July) discusses rising prices for animals in Burkina Faso.

The International Organization for Migration comments on COVID-19 and the transhumance corridors between Mauritania and Mali (14 July):

As a result of border closures decreed by Governments across West and Central Africa to limit the spread of COVID-19, herders and cattle who took to the corridor between Mauritania and Mali during the lean season now are stranded in border areas without resources to feed their livestock.

“Herders can no longer travel to Mali. They are stranded at the border and feel deprived. A large concentration of herders and their herds has been reported in the commune of Adel Bagrou, on the border with Mali,” explained Aliou Hamadi Kane, coordinator of the Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a Mauritanian herders association.

To monitor the situation and better address the needs of stranded herders, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducted a flow monitoring survey between May and June 2020. IOM learned a sizeable minority of herders – 16 per cent – were unaware of preventive measures to ward off the disease.

An article in The Guardian (10 July), based on satellite imagery collected by the World Food Program, focuses on how insecurity is affecting farmers in central Mali, but also has a few comments on the situation of pastoralists.

Finally, you’d be crazy not to follow Alex Orenstein on Twitter for regular, as he calls them, #cowfacts.

Burkina Faso Roundup: Stories on Insecurity, Campaigning, Security Force Abuses, Displacement, and Mining

AFP has a good article focusing on insecurity and the early stages of the campaigning for November’s presidential elections. I’ve never really paid attention before, but the English and French versions of the article are slightly different; the French version, for example, discusses President Roch Kaboré’s recent, campaign-esque visit to the besieged northern city of Djibo, whereas the English version leaves that bit out.

Ivoirian authorities say that soldiers arrested a Burkinabè national accused of plotting the June 10 attack at Kafolo, Cote d’Ivoire, near the border with Burkina Faso.,

The New York Times published a major article on security force abuses in Burkina Faso, amplifying a theme that has been receiving a lot of coverage recently. One excerpt:

One mostly Mossi vigilante network called the Koglweogo is notorious for a massacre of Fulanis in Yirgou in January 2019, in which the Collective Against Impunity said more than 200 people were killed. There are vigilante units and spies all over the country.

They do not always try to hide their killing.

One such vigilante leader, Moise Kinda unapologetically described how soldiers around Kongoussi, his sleepy hometown, kill people, dumping their bodies at roadsides. He was incredulous at the suggestion that people suspected of collaborating with terrorists should be arrested and prosecuted, rather than summarily killed.

“If they were in prison, we’d have to feed them and give them water, and their friends might come and attack the prison,” he said, reading glasses tucked into his shirt.

In his office in the capital, Simon Compaoré, the president of the ruling party, a former secretary of state and mayor of Ouagadougou, said, “I don’t want to hear these people telling me human rights, human rights.”

He denied that the military and allied vigilantes were targeting the Fulani, and carrying out what activists have called “political extermination.”

Recent displacement figures are available through the International Organization of Migration’s latest (June 23) update for the Central Sahel and Liptako Gourma. Burkina Faso alone is on track to have a million internally displaced people before long.

Finally, at Africa Is A Country, Diana Ayah asks what “local” really means in Burkina Faso’s mining sector:

Direct employment at mine sites…often implies a restricted access for residents of the locality where operations take place. A constant concern and argument of the industry spanning the national headquarters to sites of extraction is that residents of mining-impacted communities would lack the needed capacities and skills to participate in the global working assignments and supply chains of the sector. As a response, mining companies establish different scalar categories of workforce, (“expatriate,” “national,” “local,” and “local-local”) that are—intentionally or not—usually connected to different job categories (“skilled,” “semi-skilled,” and “unskilled”). The different job categories ranging from “skilled expatriate” to “unskilled local” differ significantly in nature, quality, hiring practices and most importantly, wages. While “skilled expatriate” workers are for instance hired through Globe 24-7, a “professional Human resource consulting in the mining industry,” “unskilled labor” is usually recruited though local intermediaries in charge of assuring the “localness” of a candidate.

For analyses of how jihadists have tapped into tensions around mining in Burkina Faso and in the Sahel more broadly, see here and here.

Snapshots of Life Amid Conflict in Northern and Eastern Burkina Faso

Here are a few recent pieces giving insight into dynamics operating in Burkina Faso’s core conflict zones in the east and the north.

First, here are some of the most recent displacement figures:

Médecins Sans Frontières discusses the intersection of violence, vulnerability, and disease in the east:

In the past two months, a new wave of attacks against remote villages in Burkina Faso’s eastern region has uprooted thousands of families, who have fled to the towns of Gayeri and Fada. Our team has heard harrowing testimonies from survivors who suffered or witnessed extreme violence, had to walk for days to reach a safe haven, and left behind everything they owned. Many had loved ones who lost their lives in the attacks. For some, the psychological scars are deep. From January to May, our teams treated more than 5,300 patients suffering from mental health issues.

The lack of adequate shelter is worrisome, with many displaced families living in tents made of straw or plastic sheeting. Even more alarming is that many people, including the host communities, have too little clean water and food.

Here is a map showing Gayeri and Fada (Gayeri is the town further to the north):

Sahelien (French) discusses the situation in the northern province of Soum. They note the grim humanitarian and security situation in Djibo and Arbinda: the two towns host, respectively, 150,000 and 60,000 internally displaced persons. The article further notes the jihadist blockade of Djibo, the insecurity along the Namssiguiya-Djibo road (see also here), the way that civilians in the zone are caught between jihadists and security forces, the heavy toll on the Djibo livestock market, and other impacts of the situation.

Here is a map showing Djibo (the town further to the west) and Arbinda:

The Institute for Security Studies has a new report (.pdf) out on the Liptako-Gourma region, discussing dynamics in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Here I’ll highlight one section particularly relevant to eastern Burkina Faso, dealing with poaching in national parks and reserves (pp. 17-18):

These illegal activities are carried out by people living in the villages that border the parks and forests in the East. The animals are primarily hunted for their hides (this can be buffalo, cheetahs, elephants, leopards or lions) or for ivory. The animals are also hunted as trophies, to sell to Westerners. Beninese and Nigerian nationals buy these products and take them back to their respective countries. Togo is also cited as a destination. The involvement of Chinese nationals is also cited in the illegal trafficking of ivory.

Extremist groups became involved in these illegal activities when they settled in this area. The area offers them many advantages. First, the region is exceptionally woody, offering natural protection that allows them to set up base camps for living, logistics and training that are hard to detect. Second, the abundant animal life makes it easy to procure food and third, this border area makes it easy to move between countries.

The extremist groups’ strategy to establish themselves in this region consists of earning the sympathy of communities and ensuring their support, whether active or passive. This objective is obvious in their rhetoric that aims to take advantage of the tensions between locals and the government. They present their actions as a way to repair the wrongs and injustices that communities feel the government has inflicted on them.

And finally, Amnesty has published a major new report (.pdf) on security force abuses in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, a topic that has been receiving a great deal of (much needed) attention recently. Here is one excerpt on Burkina Faso (p. 14):

According to information received by Amnesty International, on 29 March 2020, Issouf Barry, local councillor in Sollé, Hamidou Barry, the village chief of Sollé, and Oumarou Barry, a member of the princely family of Banh were abducted in their homes in Ouahigouya (Yatenga province, Nord region). According to a relative of one of the victims, the three individuals were arrested by individuals presenting themselves as the gendarmerie and wearing the uniforms of gendarmes. All three of them were IDPs who had relocated to Ouahigouya, the regional capital, from their original settlements, due to the insecurity. Two relatives of two of the victims told Amnesty International that the families inquired about their arrests at the gendarmerie in Ouahigouya, which denied knowledge of their whereabouts. Three days following their arrests, the corpses of Issouf Barry, Hamidou Barry and Oumarou Barry were found on 2 April by villagers at the outskirts of the city, on the road leading to Oula. Amnesty International received photos showing the dead bodies of Issiaka Barry and Oumarou Barry. The forensic analysis on the pictures done by Amnesty International shows that the victims died less than a day before their bodies were discovered on the road by villagers. Amnesty International considers these deaths to be extrajudicial executions and call on the Burkinabè authorities, to investigate these incidents and bring all the perpetrators to justice. According to an informant, Issiaka Barry, a relative of Oumarou Barry was allegedly forcibly disappeared in Ouahigouya by individuals presenting themselves as gendarmes in December 2019. His body was found on the outskirts of Ouahigouya a few days later. Both Oumarou Barry and Issiaka Barry were allegedly active in denouncing impunity in Burkina Faso and in advocating for justice, relative to the allegations of extrajudicial executions committed by the Burkinabè security forces in Kainh, Bomboro and Banh in February 2019.

One takeaway is that state security force abuses are, allegedly, directed not just against particular civilian communities (i.e., the Peul/Fulani) as a form of collective punishment, but are also sometimes targeted at prominent individuals as a specific form of political retaliation and intimidation.

On the Reported Death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Emir Abdelmalek Droukdel

On June 5, France’s Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced, “On June 3, French forces, with the support of their partners, neutralized the Emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelmalek Droukdal and many of his close collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali.” I would regard this claim as about 90-95% reliable. The French government infamously waxed too confident in late 2018 when claiming to have killed the Malian jihadist leader Amadou Kouffa, who turned up alive in early 2019. However, United States Africa Command or AFRICOM has announced that it has “confirmed Droukdal’s death in an independent assessment.” The journalist Wassim Nasr also reports that an AQIM source confirmed Droukdel’s death. No official eulogy has yet appeared, but again, it seems highly likely that France’s claims are accurate in this instance.

Droukdel (transliterated spellings vary), also known as Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, had been the top leader or emir of AQIM since 2004, when the group was still called the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). Biographies of Droukdel can be found in various places and they should all be treated with a bit of caution. One detailed biography comes from Jeune Afrique (French). According to this and various other sources, Droukdel was born in 1970 in Meftah, Algeria (map). Embracing jihadism around 1994, Droukdel fought in Algeria’s civil war and ultimately landed in the GSPC. He was a longtime associate of one of the GSPC’s architects, Hasan Hattab, who served as the group’s emir from 1998-2003 before being dethroned in an internal coup; Droukdel was also a protege of Nabil al-Sahrawi/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim, whose death at the hands of Algerian security forces led to Droukdel’s succession. Droukdel played a key role in bringing the GSPC into al-Qaida’s formal orbit, especially between 2003 and 2007, the year the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.

In terms of Droukdel’s public pronouncements, Aaron Zelin has painstakingly compiled many of Droukdel’s statements here, covering the period 2005-2020. For an English-language exposition of the jihadist leader’s views, see Droukdel’s 2008 interview with the New York Times. A 2005, Arabic-language interview he did with the jihadist platform Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad also offers substantial insight into his thinking.

Some key events that occurred during Droukdel’s tenure as AQIM emir include the following:

  • The December 2007 suicide bombings targeting the Constitutional Court and two United Nations buildings in Algiers, Algeria;
  • The rise of a kidnapping economy in the Sahara, especially between 2008 and 2013;
  • The circa October 2011 defection of a breakaway jihadist group whose name is usually translated as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA);
  • The 2011 Arab Spring, which saw efforts by AQIM to insert itself more fully into Tunisia and Libya, although with what I would call only modest and fleeting successes;
  • The approximately June 2012-January 2013 jihadist emirate in northern Mali, in which AQIM was a key player; that project and its attempt at southward expansion triggered France’s ongoing military intervention in Mali;
  • The December 2012 breakaway of key Saharan AQIM field commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, after years of tension with Droukdel and with another Saharan field commander, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, who died in 2013 during the initial French intervention;
  • The 2014-2015 rise of the Islamic State, which brought a fairly unsuccessful breakaway group from AQIM in northern Algeria called Jund al-Khilafa, and a much longer-lived breakaway group from Belmokhtar’s forces (hence a breakaway from a breakaway of AQIM) that defied Belmokhtar, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and came to be known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara or ISGS;
  • The late 2015 reintegration of Belmokhtar and some of the former MUJWA elements, who by then had formed a joint jihadist unit called al-Murabitun;
  • The 2015-2016 expansion of jihadism into Burkina Faso, with some attacks claimed by AQIM, including the January 2016 attack on the Splendid Hotel in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou;
  • The March 2017 formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) as a coalition of AQIM’s Saharan units, al-Murabitun, and multiple units of the Mali-centric jihadist outfit Ansar al-Din (defenders of the faith).

Specifying the precise role that Droukdel as an individual played in these events, however, is difficult. First of all, common sense would seem to indicate that the higher one rises in a jihadist hierarchy, the more one becomes a target for precisely the kind of manhunt that killed Droukdel; the more of a target one becomes, the more precautions a leader is likely to take; and the more precautions that are taken, the more likely it is that decision-making will  be delegated downward as much as possible. Second, the far-flung geographical nature of AQIM’s project, and even of JNIM’s project, also worked against centralized control on Droukdel’s part. Note that the center of gravity for AQIM shifted to Mali and the Sahara-Sahel by 2012 at the latest and probably by the late 2000s, intermittent high-profile attacks in northern Algeria notwithstanding. Third, Droukdel’s control over what happened in the Sahara appears to have been challenged by his subordinates virtually from the beginning of his tenure. Most prominently, missives sent by Droukdel or on Droukdel’s behalf to his Saharan field commanders during the Malian emirate-building project in 2012 have become famous after the Associated Press recovered them in 2013; to me, the letters indicate that Droukdel could not discipline the perennially independent-minded Belmokhtar, or even the ostensibly more loyal Abu Zayd.

Following the French intervention in Mali in 2013, meanwhile, it seems to me that Ansar al-Din’s founder and JNIM’s current leader, Iyad ag Ghali, has been more important than Droukdel in setting the agenda for jihadist activity in Mali and Burkina Faso, theaters that have become much more important than Algeria for the trajectory of jihadism in northwest Africa. I am far from alone in my assessment of ag Ghali’s importance. If the symbolism of who comes to whom is any indication of relative importance, Droukdel was reportedly in Mali to meet ag Ghali. The analysis here has a few errors (for example, Droukdel succeeded al-Sahrawi as GSPC emir, as noted above, and not Hattab), but nevertheless makes some good points, including the following:

Having lost the battle for northern Algeria, without the support of the population and short on logistical means for pursuing his criminal activities, the terrorist leader resolved, with absolute discretion, to go reach a region acquired by and/or under domination of terrorist groups, the only lair more or less safe for him.

This analysis is, at the very least, plausible – although of course northern Mali did not turn out to be safe for Droukdel. The same piece goes on to say that “an inhabitant of the region, a collaborator of the French forces,” tipped the French off to Droukdel’s presence. Droukdel became vulnerable in part because his own inability to dictate events from afar forced him into the (relative) open. According to this article (French), which also relays the claim that Droukdel was on his way to a meeting, Droukdel was killed eighty kilometers east of Tessalit (map), just outside a village named Talhandak, inside Malian territory but roughly twenty kilometers from the border with Algeria. As Luca Raineri notes in a Twitter thread starting here, meanwhile, the accounts that have come out so far about Droukdel’s death leave a lot of questions – how long was he in Mali? How did he cross the Mali-Algeria border? How did he allow himself to be targeted, apparently unawares, in the deep desert?

Now, who succeeds Droukdel? Some analysts have argued that AQIM will begin to, or continue to, fade: one Algerian paper calls Droukdel “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” and describes AQIM as a “hollow shell.” That might be premature, although there are strong arguments that JNIM is now more important than its parent organization, and that with the death of Algerian national and AQIM commander Yahya Abu al-Hammam in February 2019, AQIM’s role even within JNIM has been diminishing. Some analysts have even suggested that AQIM might pledge allegiance to ISIS – I don’t think so, although no one has a crystal ball. More plausibly to me, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami made the case, in a Twitter thread starting here, that top AQIM cleric Yusuf al-Annabi is a likely successor to Droukdel, given his prominence in AQIM messaging over the past few years. My reservation about that line of analysis is that at least in the past, the top GSPC/AQIM leaders came from the ranks of field commanders and people with military/operational roles, rather than from among the group’s clerics. Then again, that pattern is not necessarily relevant now – after all, it has been roughly 16 years since AQIM faced a transition at the top.

France24, meanwhile, notes that the three most prominent jihadists in the Sahel – and, I would say, in northwest Africa as a whole – are now three non-Algerians: ag Ghali (a Malian national), JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa (also a Malian national), and ISGS’ Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi (from Western Sahara/Morocco). Their prominence does not mean that any of them is going to succeed Droukdel as head of AQIM, but it does suggest that Droukdel’s passing symbolizes the reality already mentioned above, namely that the jihadist project inside Algeria has been weak for years now.

In the Sahel, how relevant was Droukdel to events on the ground? The analyst Mathieu Pellerin put it starkly, and well: “You can kill all the jihadist leaders you want, that won’t prevent the children of the hundreds of civilians executed over a year from one day taking up arms to get revenge – be they jihadists, rebels, or others.” The same day that Parly announced Droukdel’s death, there was a massacre in Binédama, Koro District, in the Mopti Region of Mali – and the Malian armed forces stand accused of committing the killings. The incident is a grim reminder that there are drivers in the conflicts in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and elsewhere that go very far beyond the dictates of Droukdel, or any leader for that matter.

Now, if I wake up tomorrow and see that ag Ghali or Kouffa has been killed, I will say it’s a huge deal; and I’m not saying that Droukdel’s death has no relevance (here I am writing nearly 2,000 words about it). But in the absence of clear evidence that Droukdel was micromanaging the conflicts in the Sahel, I see other actors as more important.

For the sake of self-promotion, I should say that I cover these different phases of the GSPC/AQIM’s career, and of Droukdel’s career, in my forthcoming book. The book covers events through 2019 – and now it’s increasingly looking like I’ll need to write an informal epilogue of sorts, covering all that’s happened (and will continue to happen) in 2020. One part of the book deals with debates among Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel about jihadist strategy – and part of the argument I make is that the jihadist project is ultimately futile (if the aim is to build a long-lasting jihadist state), and that jihadists’ debates with each other often dance around that point. Belmokhtar, Abu Zayd, and Droukdel had very different ideas about how to approach the jihadist project – but now they all appear to be dead, providing a graphic illustration of how futile it all was and is for AQIM, however much the group waxes or wanes at any given moment. Droukdel’s main “accomplishment,” ultimately, was longevity – all other “accomplishments” proved fleeting.

Finally, Droukdel’s killing was not Florence Parly’s only announcement last week. MENASTREAM provides details about France’s announcement that it captured an ISGS commander on May 19 [Update – I’ve removed the post from MENASTREAM at his request, as he received new information. I’m replacing with a post from Parly.]

Roundup of Analyses on the JNIM-ISGS Conflict

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (The Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are the two most prominent jihadist groups in the Sahel. JNIM, created in 2017 out of pre-existing jihadist organizations, is formally part of al-Qaida’s hierarchy. ISGS, created in 2015, is of course part of the Islamic State, which considers ISGS part of their “West Africa Province.” Analytically, I still don’t think it’s worth conflating ISGS with the West Africa Province, though, given that in common usage Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) refers to the Boko Haram offshoot whose theater of operations is the Lake Chad Basin. Your mileage on that discussion may vary.

Recently, there has been a wave of analyses about what appears to be a fundamentally new stage in the relationship between JNIM and ISGS. For context, JNIM is a coalition that formed in 2017, and ISGS, which formed in 2015, is an offshoot of one of JNIM’s components. Through late 2019, it appeared that JNIM and ISGS had some kind of non-aggression pact and it sometimes appeared that they were cooperating. The two groups are now in open conflict, including in the media arena – one driver for the recent coverage has been not just physical clashes but the publication of an anti-JNIM writeup in the Islamic State’s al-Naba’ 233 (May 7) which can be found here.

Here are three interventions on the JNIM-ISGS conflict that stood out to me:

1. Wassim Nasr, “ISIS in Africa: The End of the ‘Sahel Exception’,” Center for Global Policy, June 2. Two excerpts – here is the first:

The recent statements from [the important JNIM leader Amadou] Kufa suggest that the fear of defections from JNIM to join ISIS was real and justified a fight. His statements also suggest that recruits are receiving ideological teachings focused on building committed and dogmatic fighters. In the same line of efforts, an official audio of Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud), head of AQIM, was issued on March 16. Among many things, he stressed the “duty to avoid harming ordinary Muslims and not to attack civilians among them,” in contradiction to the still dominant local popular perception of ISIS’s extremist attitude toward al-Aama, or “the common Muslim,” though he avoided naming the group.

And the second:

The effect of JNIM’s acceptance of negotiations [with the Malian government] emboldened ISIS as many recruits joined its ranks from the Fulani community in Mali and Niger – a community that had provided JNIM with recruits before. Kufa was forced to seek help from other ethnic JNIM components in fighting in central Mali. This could put ISIS in the Sahel  in a situation similar to the one ISIS faced in Syria in 2013, when the group was uprooted from many areas before it regrouped and seized most of the east and the north. The Fulani ISIS commander in the Sahel, Abdel-Hakim al-Sahrawi, reached out to Kufa with a message, which the author has seen. In the message, he asked for a truce and the respect of rules of engagement and warned Kufa against infighting among the Fulani.

2. Yvan Guichaoua had a thoughtful thread on Twitter, in French, on June 5, responding to some of Nasr’s analysis and discussing how to weight local and global dynamics that affect jihadist movements. The thread starts here:

I’ll translate the sixth and seventh posts in the series:

The two pitfalls to avoid are clearly: i) to bring everything back to the local, ii) to see, in events, only the projection on the terrain of grand scripts written elsewhere. In my eyes, the only way to avoid these pitfalls is to do meticulous, punctilious history, that is to say reconstructing the chains of events and the immediate logics that provoke them.

3. Flore Berger, “Sahel – A New Battlefield between IS and Al-Qaeda?” The Africa Report, June 4. An excerpt:

ISGS has, together with JNIM, been active in the Gourma, on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border, for months. In mid-April, confrontations intensified with the ISGS launching a series of attacks on five consecutive days against JNIM units in the Malian Gourma and then on the Burkinabe side where the group killed 60 JNIM militants and took 40 prisoners.

ISGS thus decided to shift its focus there, but also expanded further north into the Inland Niger Delta. In Dialloubé, for example, they have been travelling to villages announcing their arrival for months, and have started to recruit with the offer of money and motorbikes.

It also promised militants that they could keep the spoils of war — a direct challenge to Kouffa’s centralised system in which he would control the allocation of rewards. Similar unverified reports have been gathered from the other side of the border, for example around Djibo, Burkina Faso. [All emphases are in the original.]

French-language summaries of the conflict can be found in Libération and Médiapart, although both are paywalled.

There is also a bit of background discussion about JNIM and ISGS in Crisis Group’s new report on ISGS in the Tillabéri Region of Niger (see pp. 4-5), but the JNIM-ISGS conflict is not a focus of that report. Note that much of the preceding analysis focuses on clashes in Mali and to a lesser extent Burkina Faso, rather than Niger. Of Tillabéri, Crisis Group writes (p. 5):

[Adnan Abu Walid al-] Sahraoui’s Islamic State chapter thus went from being one of several jihadist groups based in the border zone to virtually dominating the entire space. Tactically, its implantation across the zone has also delivered important advantages on the battlefield. Rather than needing to occupy particular towns or villages, the Islamic State can call upon diffuse forces across the border region to mobilise, such that, when a call is issued, dozens of fighters on motorbikes can suddenly appear out of nowhere to swarm a target and then melt back quickly into the bush once they have executed their attack. Fighting in this manner maximises the impact and surprise of Islamic State operations and makes it virtually impossible for the authorities and their international allies to target Islamic State fighters with airstrikes. Though the Islamic State has developed a reputation elsewhere for mass atrocities against heterodox Muslims and non-Muslims, its Sahel affiliate has generally adhered to an approach that appears designed to win the trust and cooperation of northern Tillabery’s Sunni Muslims. The group is known to assassinate those who collaborate with the state, especially local chiefs, but it has for the most part eschewed large-scale targeting of civilians in northern Tillabery.

This snapshot reinforces Guichaoua’s caution about not projecting “grand scripts” onto events on the ground. ISGS is not necessarily always and everywhere harsh and uncompromising.

On a separate note, I’m planning to address the reported death of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s Abdelmalek Droukdel in a post tomorrow.

Snapshots of the Food Security Situation in Northern Burkina Faso

The central Sahel – Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso – is experiencing a complex crisis involving insecurity, displacement, and food insecurity, with COVID-19 adding another layer of crisis. In humanitarian terms, northern Burkina Faso is by several measures the hardest hit zone. Here I want to focus on food insecurity.

First, here is a useful map of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso from the World Food Program from April 2020, showing multiple facets of the humanitarian situation.

Second, the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Regional Response Plan for April 2020-April 2021 can be found here in French. The report notes that for the period March-May 2020, Burkina Faso had 2.1 million people facing levels of food insecurity at 3 or higher (on a 5-point scale), compared with 2 million in Niger and 1.3 million Mali (p. 4).

Here is another excerpt from that report (p. 6), giving some vital context:

In the Liptako-Gourma, agricultural and pastoral activities are conducted in the same spaces and were complementary for many centuries. These past 10 years, the presence of an important number of livestock in the regions of Timbuktu and Mopti in Mali, Sahel in Burkina Faso, and Tillabéri in Niger have not stopped growing, representing 30 per cent of the livestock in the entirety of the three countries. Indeed, pastoralist activities in the region are essential are take different forms: sedentary, agro-pastoral, and migratory. However, pastoralism is confronted by numerous difficulties, notably the increasing scarcity of water and fodder, and the reduction of pasture areas, which is linked to the growth of agricultural lands and to the frequent attacks by non-state armed groups. Additionally, the frameworks for cross-border cooperation, the early warnings mechanisms, as well as pastoralist infrastructures and arrangements (watering places, equipped resting areas, vaccination centers, and veterinary services) remain very insufficient in relation to the growth of the numbers of livestock in the region. Insecurity and violent conflicts at the level of cross-border spaces are detrimental to migratory pastoralism because of the inaccessibility of the corridors for official transhumance, due to the illegal traffic and proliferation of weapons of war. These factors create an environment conducive to theft of livestock and the development of organized criminality by non-state armed groups, which exacerbates conflict between pastoralists and farmers.

Here is an excerpt from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network’s report for May 2020, addressing the situation for livestock and crop prices and supply:

In rural areas of the Sahel region [meaning the Sahel Region of Burkina Faso, not the Sahel as a whole] in particular, the temporary closure of the main markets has negatively affected the sale of animals, which is the main source of household income. Despite the recovery, these markets remain unfrequented by non-local buyers. As a result, prices for small ruminants have fallen by about 16 percent in Djibo, Soum province, and Dori, Séno province.  Compared to the five-year average, the drop in prices is 29 percent in Dori and 20 percent in Djibo. The Djibo market remains particularly difficult to access due to the occupation of access roads by terrorist groups. The supply of animals has fallen by one-third and stocks of millet, a staple food, are low.

Here is an excerpt from the World Food Program’s Central Sahel report, May 15 (.pdf, p. 2), with some more information about food consumption:

In Burkina Faso, WFP is finalising the first 2020 round of Food Security Monitoring System (FSMS). Preliminary results outline good performance in the food consumption score – particularly in the Sahel and the CentreNord. In addition, WFP conducted and completed the second Market bulletin price monitoring report for 2020. Results outline that: (i) the situation on the agricultural markets remains dominated by a stable supply compared to the month of March. Demand fell sharply compared to the previous month due to the drop in exports of agricultural products and the weakness of monetary income and purchasing power of households; (ii) Prices are slightly lower thus strengthening economic accessibility to food; (iii) Due to the closure of certain markets and borders in the context of the fight against COVID 19, the livestock markets experienced a general decline this month due to a decrease in the presence of livestock exporters and a decrease in the sales volume for all the animal species monitored. This situation has led to a depreciation of the market value of the animals and thereby a deterioration in the terms of trade in animals for sorghum; and (iv) availability of non-food products (soap, hand-washing kettles, etc.) for the COVID-19 response is good but prices are gradually increasing.

Finally, this is noteworthy, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2:

Increasing insecurity in Burkina Faso is making humanitarian access more difficult, particularly in the Sahel, North, Centre-North and East regions…The humanitarian community needs US$371 million for the humanitarian and COVID-19 response in Burkina Faso. So far, only 21 per cent of the funds have been received.